Kung Fu Panda 3 marks the third entry in a continuously solid franchise. Few animated franchises have the honor of reaching this milestone without a sharp decline in quality. The only other franchise I can think of to achieve this three-peat would have to be Toy Story. Like Toy Story, Kung Fu Panda 3 remains relevant because it evolves with its audience, introducing deeper themes and messages.
This family film franchise has also continued to be successful because they keep the film’s production in the family. Returning writers, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger continue to weave a sincere story about the true meaning of family and individual identity. The fighting goes beyond just the physical battles and goes into the story as they challenge the idea that biology makes a family, and how having two fathers is perfectly normal. This film also tackles the idea of identity, which is perfect for people of all ages, but especially the now teenage demographic that have been watching the franchise since the beginning. In a beautiful way, it subverts the idea of living up to other people’s roles/expectations (like gender roles) and praises the search for identity with some good, old-fashioned self-reflection. A valuable lesson for anyone trying to figure out their place in the world, and presented simply enough for it to work for different people on a variety of different levels.
Kung Fu Panda 3‘s philosophical teachings are one of the aspects that elevate this franchise. It is easy to completely bastardize and insult a belief system when you try to incorporate it into your comedic product, but this film franchise excels at remaining respectful to its Taoist and Buddhist roots. Of course, everything is watered down to make it more palatable for the younger demographic, but it stays true to the views and practices at their center.
The visual style continues to be the most consistent and appealing aspects of the film. That is in large part thanks to directors Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh’s past experience as part of the art department for not only the previous films, but also for other Dreamworks’ animated films. They understand the necessary structural flow this type of animated film needs to remain engaging and enthralling. The action sequences are fluid and kinetic, perfectly capturing the various different styles and fighting techniques. The other world experiences are just that: otherworldly. They remain ethereal and celestial, creating another world that still fits perfectly in the already established universe. Even the animation style is multidimensional, switching between 3D and 2D depending on which style is the most effective at getting the film’s message across. That alone is a huge risk that pays off thanks to the great amount of forethought and immaculate planning/timing.
At a run time of a little over 90 minutes (like its predecessors), my biggest complaint with Kung Fu Panda 3 is that it was too short. The interactions between the original ensemble cast consisting of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Lui, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, James Hong, Seth Rogen and David Cross have been one of the consistently diverting parts of the films, but this time, everything felt rushed. With an entire panda village of new characters and a new enemy (played by J.K. Simmons) to introduce, there wasn’t enough time to fully flesh out the new characters or give the due amount of screen time to the original crew. With another half an hour, we would have been able to incorporate more of our favorite heroes and fully develop the emotional and spiritual themes that we only get to briefly explore. That includes potentially exploring a possible romantic relationship with new panda Mei Mei, voiced by the talented Kate Hudson. The film’s brevity aside, Black sustains his position as the film’s infallibly fallible lead, but is joined by impressive performances by Bryan Cranston as his biological father, and a deviously delightful performance by Simmons as the film’s villain.
January has proven to be a historically bad month for films, but Kung Fu Panda 3 proves that it has more than enough fighting power to take on the challenge. With a spiritually engaging story and consistently spectacular visual style, they kick butt, take names and are home in time for dumplings. Saying that the film felt too short is not only my biggest criticism, but also a completely intentional compliment. Few children’s franchises are entertaining to both the child and the adult that has to take them to the theater, and in that way Kung Fu Panda 3 transcends mere mortal limitations.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★ (8/10 stars)