Movie Review: “Kung Fu Panda 3”

Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Bryan Cranston, J.K. Simmons, Kate Hudson, Dustin Hoffman, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Jackie Chan
Alessandro Carloni & Jennifer Yu

It would be fitting if this turned out to be the final installment in the “Kung Fu Panda” series, because the moral of “Kung Fu Panda 3” is “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Those were the last words of the last song on Abbey Road, the last album the Beatles made together. (Yes, there is a snippet of a song after it called “Her Majesty,” but that was the engineer’s doing, and was never supposed to be on the final master tape.) It’s an excellent piece of advice, and makes for a very touching finale, but there is a sameness to these films that cannot be denied. Po is the animated, martial arts equivalent of Dr. Gregory House, the one who continues to get it wrong before finally getting it right.

There is a great disturbance in the spirit realm, as the ox Kai (J.K. Simmons), a onetime friend of the recently deceased Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), is vanquishing all departed kung fu masters in order to steal their chi (think of it as channeling the energy of the universe) and use it to cross over to the mortal realm and continue his reign of terror. Oogway chose Po (Jack Black) to be the Dragon Warrior knowing that this was coming, though no one in the mortal realm has much faith that Po will succeed.

Po also receives a visit from his biological father Li (Bryan Cranston), much to the consternation of his adoptive father Ping (James Hong). Li lives with a group of pandas in a hidden location, and he brings Po (and Ping, reluctantly) back with him to learn the art of chi, as well as how to be a proper panda. Po doesn’t have much time, though; soon after crossing over to the mortal realm, Kai makes short work of the Furious Five, save Tigress (Angelina Jolie), and is coming for Po.

Kung Fu Panda 2” deserved a better successor than this. That film still stands as DreamWorks Animation’s finest hour, a dark but highly entertaining movie that raises the stakes of the 2008 original tenfold. “Kung Fu Panda 3” is more in line with the first film in terms of tone, which makes sense; even George Lucas knew that it would be foolish to follow “The Empire Strikes Back” with an even darker movie, hence ewoks. The tone is not the problem, though. The problem is that the story splits the cast in half, rendering the Furious Five characters largely MIA. It’s likely that Seth Rogen, David Cross, Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan did all of their voice work in a day. Chan may have only needed 20 minutes, he’s so underutilized. One of Rogen’s few lines, meanwhile, is the best in the movie, which only makes their extended absences worse.

The bad guy plot is…not good. When stealing someone’s chi, Kai somehow sucks people up into his hands using some mystical tractor beam, which converts them into green trinkets that he notches on his belt. Sometimes, he sends his conquests out to do his bidding for him, though they are automaton versions of themselves, and show no trace of personality. Everything about this plot device suggests that it was the last element worked into the script, the kind of thing that wasn’t agreed upon, but rather was settled on. They had set up the father/son reunion at the end of “Kung Fu Panda 2,” so that storyline already had a multi-year head start in terms of development, and it shows. As great as it is to hear J.K. Simmons in an animated movie, Kai is the least interesting villain in the series.

The bits in Pandaland, on the other hand, are adorable (though for being a secret location, it’s awfully easy to find). Kate Hudson has a brief but amusing bit as the flirtatious ribbon-twirler Mei Mei, and casting Cranston as the man-child father of Po was a stroke of genius. The story also handles the subject of multiple father figures very well, even acknowledging that it is often the adults who have a bigger problem adjusting to it than the children. Also, the movie is visually stunning, though there is no reason to see it in 3D. The ‘put on your 3D glasses’ clip that preceded the movie had more 3D in it than the entire film that followed.

As cute and fun as the “Kung Fu Panda” movies have been, this seems like a good time to walk away. “Kung Fu Panda 3” has its share of laughs, but it’s easily the slightest of the bunch, and unless the filmmakers are willing to make a “Panda” film where Po is large and in charge – there is no excuse for him to be a bumbling fool any longer – then there is nothing left to say. Personally, I would welcome a “Dark Panda,” or at the very least a “Self-Aware Panda.” At this point, Po has learned too much to continue to play the fool.