A fine conclusion to its trilogy, Kung Fu Panda 3 is as energetic and visually dazzling as you’d hope and expect from one of DreamWorks Animation’s very best franchises. What’s so continually satisfying about this series is its tradition of making what are effectively animated kung fu movies. Sure, they feature anthropomorphic cartoon animals living in a cartoony simulacrum of ancient China. But these are films with interfamily conflict, wizards and warlords, masters and students, training montages, action balanced between clever slapstick and dangerous dance, and heaps of mystical spirituality where inner peace and self-knowledge are the most effective skills and power the most awesome moves. I like imagining that somewhere there’s a kid who gets into vintage Jackie Chan or Shaw Brothers films because they’re so over the moon about this fun string of movies about a panda who learns to be a kung fu master.
These movies are plenty fun on their own terms, too. 3 picks up with Po the panda (Jack Black) and his kung fu teammates (tiger Angelina Jolie, mantis Seth Rogen, viper Lucy Liu, crane David Cross, and monkey Jackie Chan) enjoying down time in the peaceful valley they’ve saved twice over. Having become The Dragon Warrior and coming to peace with his tragic past, what’s left for Po to do? Well, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tells Po he needs to complete his training by finding inner strength. To do so, he must truly know who he is. Luckily enough, his long-lost biological father (Bryan Cranston) shows up in the village, eager to reconnect with the son he had to abandon all those years ago, and teach him the panda way. This gets Po excited, even though his adopted goose father (James Hong) fears his little panda cub will leave him forever. There’s a moving and special adoption story told with care through these silly figures.
But what would a kung fu movie be without external conflict? This one has a growling bull (J.K. Simmons), a villain defeated five centuries ago, escape from the spirit realm with an army of solid jade henchmen in tow. He’s on the rampage, out to capture the souls of all kung fu practitioners who stand in his way, and turn their lifeless bodies into more zombie soldiers to do his bidding. To learn how to defeat them, Po must travel to a secret panda village where maybe, just maybe, he can connect with ancient, long-forgotten panda magic. Screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger neatly – maybe too neatly – tie together his inner struggles with the needs of the action plot, leaving plenty of time to deliver heaping helpings of cute roly-poly panda antics. They’re adorable, and love to eat, hug, roll, dance, and sleep. What’s not to like? And then, when it’s time to get serious about defeating evil, they spring into action with the best of them.
Returning director Jennifer Yuh, who last time around broke the record for highest-grossing feature directed by a woman, works with co-director Alessandro Carloni (a longtime DreamWorks artist) to stage the film in bright, beautiful colors. It’s an extravagant explosion of fast-paced visual delights, swirling primary hues filling out lush exteriors and intricate architecture, snapping into high-contrast action when the adventure gets going. Where plot and character are concerned, this is a repetition, a riff on previous conflicts with character arcs consisting of reworked aspects of the first two films. But in motion, the movie moves and sings with contagious energy, each image colorful and intricately designed, bursting with zippy and clever choreography. Best are a mêlée that finds unexpectedly productive kung fu uses for pandas’ inherently cute lazy habits and bookending vibrant zero-g clashes in the spirit realm smashing swirls of glowing magic light through floating boulders.
The story boils down to the same be-yourself platitudes so many family films do, but at least it has the decency to be woo-woo mysto about it, and use it to hold up exciting, amusing, trippy, and striking imagery. The animators bring an elaborate fantasy look of the kind DreamWorks has been trying out these days (with this series, as well as their How to Train Your Dragons, Rise of the Guardians, and The Croods), even throwing split screens, hand-drawn interludes, and extreme color gradients into the mix of lush and buoyant imagery. As a combination reiteration and finale of the trilogy, it may not have the novelty of the first, or the weight of the second, but it is fun. If this is the last we see of Kung Fu Panda, it is a worthy conclusion and a perfect place to stop: with Po learning to love his two dads and be his best self, and with confetti, transcendence, warm and fuzzy reunions, and an angelic choir singing Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting” in Chinese translation.