Movie Review: ‘KUNG FU PANDA 3’ achieves an effortless balance of fun and heart

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Bill Graham // Film Critic

KUNG FU PANDA | 95 min | PG
Director: Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh
Cast: Jack BlackAngelina JolieDustin HoffmanBryan Cranston and Jackie Chan

KUNG FU PANDA has always been about surprise. Whether it comes in the form of a chubby panda who turns out to be the Dragon Warrior, capable of defeating foes without much effort– or seeing a genocidal peacock with razor talons and wings, the series takes what might be a traditional hero or villain and twists it in interesting ways. With the third entry in the PANDA series it appears they might fail to find something as compelling. But where KUNG FU PANDA 3 starts and ends shows that even while bumpy in the middle it still has charm to spare and a few clever twists up its sleeve.

The key to the series has long been Jack Black’s Po, and thankfully, he turns in yet another great performance. While some of the lessons this time around feel like setup instead of a natural story progression, it’s nice to see that the series continues to attempt to push forward even if it has to retread some things. Po, now the undisputed leader of the Furious Five, has been given the task of teaching the fighters by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). He’s conquered a lot through the series but teaching what has largely been pure discovery on Po’s part seems quite a jump forward and Po feels the crush of that ambition well.

For this film there are three important additions that really propel the film. First, Po’s father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), finally makes an appearance after being hinted at in the second film as a possibility. This isn’t a spoiler as it appears in the first 15 minutes of the film. Po, of course, can’t help but feel like he’s finally figured out how he fits in this world considering pandas are supposedly extinct. Cranston gives a winning performance, and what I enjoyed most is how it lays down the seeds of Shan wanting to protect Po at all costs, even fretting over his place as the Dragon Warrior. The reasons behind that are rather satisfying and a nice character touch.

The second development begins in the spirit realm with the new villain who strikes a menacing silhouette. Kai (J.K. Simmons) is an evil Yak that uses Chi to defeat various masters in the afterlife where he meets Master Oogway as his final hurdle. His goal is to get back to the world of the living and reclaim his title as a grand warrior. Of course, being as old as Oogway, he runs into a catch where once he eventually gets back to the world of the living no one recognizes who he is. It’s a humorous moment that is played up a few times throughout to solid effect.

Li (Bryan Cranston) and Po (Jack Black) bond in KUNG FU PANDA 3. Courtesy of DreamWorksAnimation.

Li (Bryan Cranston) and Po (Jack Black) bond in KUNG FU PANDA 3. Photo courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.

The final development is the panda sanctuary where we meet a slew of new characters who range from forgettable to borderline offensive. It’s here where the film feels off kilter. At times I wondered how much the directors cut out of the middle and how much back and forth occurred. While the looming threat of Kai develops and it becomes clear the pandas hold the secret to defeat him, it also seems like Po is in a different time. He acknowledges the oddity and yet quickly forgets it. There’s no rush to prepare. There’s just learning the panda way of life. While that can be entertaining it feels out of place here.

Thankfully, the payoff is quite satisfying. The lesson of being the best version of yourself is one that is both valuable and endlessly relevant in our own world. The action is also top notch as well as the animation. A few standout moments were the introduction of Master Chicken, who will be remembered despite his single minute of combined screen time, and the way Mr. Ping, who so far has raised Po by himself, continues to involve himself in his adopted son’s life. It’s touching and sweet. There are few moments in animated films that feel like they earn the emotions that this relationship handles so well.

Kai is clearly a step up in terms of villains and the way Po fights him is quite clever. The film has moments where it seems unclear where it is going. But half the fun is in the journey. By the end I was thoroughly impressed at how much they made the entire narrative feel like it all tied in and there were reasons for why you would become frustrated with characters or storylines. Additionally, it is quite impressive how Master Oogway’s storyline ties directly to the first film and puts a nice bow on the entire series. While I doubt this will be the last PANDA feature film, if this is the finale it feels immensely satisfying.

KUNG FU PANDA 3 opens today.

Also, be sure to check out Courtney Howard’s interview with PANDA writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.