Kung Fu Panda 3 begins in the spirit realm, with ancient warrior Kai (JK Simmons) having apparently taken the qi of various masters, and using that energy to return to the physical world. The Dragon Warrior Po the Panda (Jack Black) and the Furious Five, as defenders of the realm, are meant to deal with this threat, but in order to do that, Po must learn the ways of qi. It just so happens that his father Li (Bryan Cranston) has come looking for him, and wants to take him back to the hidden village of the panda. Pandas are apparently masters of qi, so Po travels back to a home he has never known with a parent he has just met for the first time, to learn what it is to be a panda.
There’s a lot going on in this plot, and it doesn’t always hold together. Po is dealing with learning that he isn’t the last panda after all. He’s got a father, and a whole village made up of pandas just like him. At the same time, he’s got this internal struggle about his next step in his development as the dragon warrior. The film makes a lot out of his insecurity in having to teach other people. And then there’s the main villain, whose backstory goes back centuries, and introduces big new concepts into this animated film’s world. In between all that, the film also busies itself checking on the characters that we already know.
Individually, these threads are okay, but it’s a lot to take in. The middle section of the movie is pretty loose, the story artificially moving from one beat to the next, the narrative contriving all the paths to progress. There might be too much going on in this film that has a pretty simple message in the end. Like most of Dreamworks’ animated features, this is a movie that offers some variation of the “be yourself,” mantra.
But it isn’t bad, exactly. The film covers a lot of this up with its bouncy tone and fun humor. There’s a whole village of pandas in this movie, and it does get a lot out of just detailing their unique way of life. And then there’s the visual style. Kung Fu Panda has always been one of the better looking kids’ pictures, because it has a distinct aesthetic. Drawing inspiration from Chinese artwork, Japanese anime, and classic kung fu, the movie delivers a world of painterly brush strokes, hyperkinetic action, and bizarre, metaphysical confrontations. It’s just lovely to look at all the way through.
These characters bristle with life. The movie manages to make each character distinct, even when they’re standing among their own kind. The film populates an entire village of pandas, and it’s never too difficult to identify which panda is which. It also helps that the voicework offers so much personality. Jack Black has always been terrific as Po, and he continues to be terrific in this film. Bryan Cranston, James Hong and JK Simmons all offer fun takes on their characters. The supporting cast of the previous two films don’t get a lot to do, but it’s still fun to hear those voices.
Kung Fu Panda 3 is a pretty solid installment of the franchise. It suffers a bit from the usual problems that sequels encounter, coming off like as a mishmash of pitched ideas rather than a complete picture. But it’s still a breezy, fun time that delivers laughs as well as a hint of genuine emotion. And even when the story doesn’t hold up, the film presents a warm, beautiful visual world that stands out in a pack of computer generated cartoons.