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Non-Review Review: Kung-Fu Panda III

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.

Kung-Fu Panda III retains the energy and style that distinguished the prior instalments of the series, even if the emotional beats feel further and further removed from what made the original such a beloved animated classic.

The original Kung-Fu Panda offered a compelling genre mash-up, slotting anthropomorphised animals into a kung-fu action adventure. However, despite the pulpier elements of the plot, Kung-Fu Panda carried a surprising emotional weight. Featuring one of Jack Black’s strongest performances and mining the incongruity of a Panda martial artist for all its worth, Kung-Fu Panda fleshed out and developed its world and its characters with a surprising amount of depth.

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However, that emotional depth faded over the course of the sequels. Kung-Fu Panda II touched on issues related to identity and adoption amid a more generic action adventure, fleshing out Po’s backstory and exploring how he came to be raised by a mongoose. Picking up on the cliffhanger teased in the closing scene of Kung-Fu Panda II, Kung-Fu Panda III finds Po reconnecting with his long-lost father and trying to make sense of his place in the world. However, a lot of its emotional beats feel overly familiar and routine.

Still, Kung-Fu Panda III retains the energy and dynamism of the prior two installments, with a kinetic visual style and a number of visually impressive set pieces. It just feels a bit more hollow than the previous films in the series.

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The biggest problem with Kung-Fu Panda III is that a lot of the ground has been covered (more thoroughly) in the previous films. While Kung-Fu Panda III introduces the Po’s biological father, it struggles to figure out how best to map the emotional arc. Kung-Fu Panda II already explored Po’s crisis of identity, and his adoptive father’s insecurity about his place in Po’s life following the revelation; there is little more for Kung-Fu Panda III to do but retread those familiar emotional beats.

Indeed, even the villain of the piece feels overly familiar. This time around, Po and his friends find themselves facing off against the evil Kai. Kai is primarily distinguished from the antagonists the earlier films through visual cues and fighting methodology. Kai is granted the ability to steel the chi of his defeated opponents and render them as “jade zombies” (or “jombies”) who can attack his opponents; in hand-to-hand combat, Kai uses two jade daggers tied to a swinging chain. These do lead to some impressive set pieces and sequences.

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However, there is little to distinguish Kai as a character from the antagonists of the the earlier films. As with both Shen and Tai Lung, Kai is presented as an old evil returning to menace the peaceful valley. Like both prior antagonists, Kai is driven by his own need for validation and affirmation. Much like Tai Lung in the original film, Kai is a villain with a strong emotional connection to one of Po’s mentors; although Kai is tied to Master Oogway rather than Master Shifu, and was an equal rather than a student.

There are points at which Kung-Fu Panda III seems to nod towards the almost routine nature of the plotting. While conducting the obligatory research into their new foe, Master Shifu is frustrating to discover that the scroll is blank. “Not again,” he complains, as if acknowledging that the series might be leaning just a little bit too heavily on familiar tropes. To be fair, that sequence winds up as as something of a wry subversion; however, it also feels like an acknowledgement of some of the film’s bigger issues.

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While Kung-Fu Panda III assembles a fantastic cast – adding Bryan Cranston and J.K. Simmons to the series’ already impressive line-up – the script struggles to find a meaningful emotional hook. The core of the story finds Po reuniting with his long-lost father, but there is very little new or exciting to be found here. Retreating to a secret mountain village to learn the skills necessary to defeat Kai, Po is taught that he cannot master chi until he embrace himself. However, Po has already spent the last two films learning variations on the same lesson.

To be fair to Kung-Fu Panda III, the script seems to acknowledge this. After all, if Po has not learned to be himself at this point, he seems unlikely to ever pick it up. Kung-Fu Panda III side-steps this issue by refusing to put too much emphasis on that aspect of Po’s training. Lip service is paid to the idea, and it is repeated a few times over the course of the film, but it is never the focus in the way that it was in either of the first two films. However, this has the result of making the whole subplot involving Po’s reunion with his father seem rather hollow.

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That said, Kung-Fu Panda III does look great. The animation is fantastic, particularly when the film alternates between CGI and more conventional approaches. The fight choreography is impressive and energetic. As much as Kai feels like a generic antagonist, the film makes great use of his gimmicks; in particular, the action sequences set in the spiritual dimension are kinetic and exciting, skilfully taking the cartoon physics of the martial arts genre to their logical conclusions.

It helps that the cast (and their characters) remain largely likable. There is a pleasantness and charm to the Kung-Fu Panda films that is hard to express in words, a sense of goofy light-hearted playfulness that is never dull and never mean-spirited. While the films don’t always succeed at adding emotional depth or complexity to their characters, the script is charming enough that this lightness feels more like a feature than a bug. Kung-Fu Panda III never quite drags, even as stretches of it feel overly familiar.

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Kung-Fu Panda III has enough momentum and charm to gloss over its light plotting and somewhat shallow characterisation. Still, there is a sense that some of the series’ heart has been lost along the way.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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4 Responses

  1. Are you going to review Zootopia?

  2. Kung Fu Panda 3 is better than 1 & 2.

    • Doctors differ and patients die.

      Personally, I think the first is my favourite Dreamworks film and I quite like the second. Third is good, not great.

      But, what do you like about the third more than the other two?

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