It had swiftly turned from an ambitious release by Dreamworks, into one of their finest examples of 3D animation. But this third entry in the family has tougher competition to face, and needs to improve on an already high standard. Can Kung Fu win our hearts once again?
Still following the same characters from the previous entries, Po is taking on more responsibilities as the Dragon Warrior, and a new foe is posing a major new threat. Things take another turn when his (real) father shows up, with the promise that the last group of Pandas are indeed alive, and in hiding. Po sets forth to connect with his dad, but the Chi of the warriors across China is being captured by the new foe, and Poe’s time in his new life will quickly turn into a battle to save everything from destruction.
If that came across as being a bit complicated, the least I can say is that I am not to blame. This is down to the design of the story line which is indeed, very convoluted for a third movie. Consider that in the first fifteen minutes at least five side plots are set to run alongside the main story element. Their introduction doesn’t have the sense of feeling organic or streamlined – they just fall on top of everything like a builder piling tools into his van. This didn’t exactly fill me with excitement for what was to come.
Since I have started with a major issue, I’ll stick with that line of thought. What felt so great about the previous films was that they were love letters to the classic Kung Fu movies of old, entertaining, clever, and had some really nice design elements. One aspect that sticks out in this is how noisy everything is. There’s so little time given to characters sitting down and discussing the situation in a focused manner, instead we get this constant stream of gags, set ups for jokes that don’t hit their mark, and an overall feel of clutter. This was what surprised me the most, this was the style that we saw so often in the other productions by Dreamworks that have aged so badly. (I’m looking at you Shrek). But in here, one of their most praised franchises? It has me wondering that they had a story to finish the Trilogy, but the top-brass wanted the series to continue on to more films. Some of the original elements remain, but the rest just rushes things along in a way that doesn’t mirror how plot aspects were developed previously.
What this all accumulates to is a narrative that has a sense of drive, but the person behind the steering wheel wants to visit every location on the map between the start and end point. So instead of a progression that makes sense, it is a scribble on the side of a bus stop. Doesn’t mean much no matter how long you look at it.
But don’t let me sit here and put you off this film, because there are things to mention that I did like. The opening fight is badass as all hell. The visual style and geography of the location is very different to what we have seen in the series before, and it does have a direct motivation behind what is happening. The set up for “Chi” which becomes almost the McGuffin for the rest of the running time doesn’t get the time required to develop its importance, but I was able to put it aside, at least for the time being. As expected the cast of voice actors is excellent, from Jack Black to Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Bryan Cranston, Seth Rogan, David Cross, Lucy Lu, Jackie Chan, and J.K. Simmons. How could you argue against that? Even when their material isn’t as good as before, they try hard to make it work and do give some genuinely entertaining moments. The variation in fighting styles remains and gives plenty of room for fights to ebb and flow, and the visuals are exceptional. Even if one too many “clearing mist to reveal new location” are used to get an emotion from the audience. Seriously, never use that more than once in your film.
As for the actual story itself and what happens, there are aspects that needed to happen such as Po’s father entering the fray, as well as Po improving his powers in some shape or form. Other things like him trying to become a teacher just drag out the running time unnecessarily, which could have been used for something else or as said before, just for quieter moments of contemplation. The new foe is threatening and has a very cool design (the voice of Simmons adds a lot too), but the way he waits around while the story elsewhere progresses is kind of comical. The threat needed to be more direct, and not separated while the plot went away and did its own thing.
I feel especially…. disappointed in this film because of how highly I regarded the previous two entries in the series. They are fantastic creations – not on the level of “How to Train your Dragon”, but not all that far off either. They had such wonderful creativity to them, the fighting was intense and exciting, and even the story was interesting to follow along. But it seems some of the magic was siphoned out, leaving us with (at least in terms of story design) an above-average Dreamworks release.
But “Kung Fu Panda 3” still has enough in the tank to leave this being good enough for a recommendation. Kids will love it, fans will still go along and find things they’ll like. The studio didn’t drop the ball bad enough to spoil the viewing experience but at times it was a close call. Definitely better to see as a rental compared to the theatre, though maybe not the high-energy fight fest you were expecting. Luke-warm.
Thanks for reading!