Movie Review: Kung Fu Panda 3

By Ben Gruchow

February 9, 2016

THE big fat panda.

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One looks at Kung Fu Panda 3 partly with an experimental eye; it’s been a long time since an installment of a franchise this relevant and well-heeled has debuted so far outside of its seasonal comfort zone. That goes even further for family films, and further still for animated films. You could persuasively argue that the late-May/early-June timeframe this year was too saturated with competition (which downplays Indiana Jones 4, the Hulk, Pirates 4, and the X-Men rebootquel to an inappropriate degree), but I’m a hard sell on the idea that this wouldn’t have found success in early April, or even as counter-programming against Dawn of Literally Everyone We Could Possibly Throw at the Screen on March 25th. Then again, the movie is doing great business in China, and it was likely a smarter business decision to let them lead the way on this and do a day-and-date release rather than platform it so much earlier overseas.

All of which renders the actual movie itself a little incidental; after all, if DreamWorks were looking to wow us with a qualitatively bar-setting chapter of the Kung Fu Panda franchise, they would’ve rolled the dice on one of those other release dates, yes? Yet, the movie is not a failure, or even a near-miss; it’s certifiably pleasant and reasonably clear-minded about its premise. As a bonus, it’s positively gorgeous to look at. And, having experienced the carnival of souls that was Norm of the North just a few weeks ago, there is no universe in which I am not cognizant of the merits of basic competency and respectability in an animated film.


I hasten to mention that the movie, which again stars Jack Black as the titular panda and a cavalcade of supporting cast members with varying degrees of recognizability, is not without some sizable problems - chiefly that it’s repeating an undemanding storytelling template with very little to mark it as particularly fresh or called-for, but the movie also suffers from an indistinct antagonist and a surprising amount of attenuation to both its cast and its subplots. Between this and the original film (I have not seen the second), it comes off the lesser.

Po (Black) has reached a plateau of his development as a martial artist. He is now tasked with becoming the instructor of the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie); Crane (David Cross); Mantis (Seth Rogen); Viper (Lucy Liu); and Monkey (Jackie Chan), and his lack of confidence exhibits a tendency to bleed over and actually become a limiter. This comes at a bad time, because the immortal Kai (J.K. Simmons), a warrior trapped in a spirit dimension, has finally collected enough stolen chi - a type of metaphysical, innate energy - to escape back to the mortal realm. The specifics of what he plans to do once there are a little fuzzy, but I don’t think we need to pretend that endgame logic is much of a priority here. At any rate, Kai starts whatever endgame he has by stealing the chi of all mortal Kung Fu masters.

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