Is The The Dragon Warrior Still A ‘Kung Fu Kick’?
When we last saw Po (Jack Black), he had just secured a victory against another antagonist seeking to attack the valley where he was raised by Mr. Ping (James Hong), the owner of a noodle restaurant….and who is also a bird (not a Panda like Po). Po had always wondered what happened to his biological family, while still greatly loving his adoptive father. When Kung Fu Panda 2 ended, we saw a glimpse of Po’s biological father who had a feeling that his son was still alive.
Enter the third installment. Po’s biological father, Li (Bryan Cranston), has shown up at Mr. Ping’s restaurant looking for his son. After a humorous exchange, seen in the trailer of the film, where Po and Li notice all their similarities but never connect the dots that they are related, Po is finally given the chance to address some of the identity issues he has struggled with.
While Po reconnects with Li, and Mr. Ping wonders if he will lose his panda son, a new enemy has emerged. From the spirit world comes an ancient enemy who once fought alongside Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), the great turtle fighter who trained Po’s master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). This enemy is named Kai (J.K. Simmons) and he has found a way to steal the chi (energy and power) of the ancient warriors of the past who are now in this spirit world where he has been banished. His final target that will get him enough energy to re-enter our material world is his old friend turned enemy, Oogway.
Ultimately, we all know that this will result in a Kung Fu fighting showdown between Kai and Po, as well as the supporting cast of warriors we’ve seen before, namely Tigress (Angeline Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogan), Viper (Lucy Lui), and Crane (David Cross). While we wait for this, Kung Fu Panda 3 takes a side trip to the secret city of the Pandas where Li has been hiding that will allow Po and Li to reconnect and fill the hole that each has had all of these years. It will also allow Po to discover if he can be the teacher that Master Shifu believes he can be.
As with the other installments, Kung Fu Panda 3 has incredible roster of voice talent and may feature its finest lineup with the addition of last year’s Best Supporting Actor, J.K. Simmons from Whiplash, along with Bryan Cranston who is nominated this year for Trumbo. Also joining the cast is Kate Hudson, who plays a very forward and humorous Panda named Mei Mei.
The heart that embodied the original entry is still beating strong, and I found that this installment had more heart than Kung Fu Panda 2, as it dealt with some pretty sensitive issues of loss, identity, and what it means to be a family, both biologically, and adoptively. Watching Mr. Ping try to deal with his emotions of loving Po as his own son all of these years, and also realizing that Po needs to reconnect with Li who has been absent, is a very touching character arc that guides much of this story. Also, watching Po’s return to his Panda world not only helps him discover his true identity, but it also allows the community of Panda’s to discover what they have been missing as well.
Where Kung Fu Panda 3 has a major shortcoming is how they have silenced the cast of warriors that fight alongside Po. While all of the cast is back (Tigress, Monkey, Viper, Crane, and Mantis), they are largely missing in the main portion of Kung Fu Panda 3. Some of this is by design to create an emotional narrative that drives the final showdown’s significance, but the way in which it is done takes a lot of the previously established heart of the franchise and neutralizes it a bit. Fortunately the new characters help make up for some of this with the quality of the cast, but it does become a glaring hole in the middle act.
The other shortcoming is the idea of chi in how it is approached in the film. While this is a common term, especially in Kung Fu, it is only partially explained in the film, and only loosely to have a reason for Kai to be a threat, and for Po to be able to oppose him. It isn’t developed as a part of a larger world that has been built in this franchise, and therefore just feels more like a plot device rather than an integral part of this kung fu world Po has been learning.
In the end, Kung Fu Panda is a worthy entry in this animated series, that while aimed at children is really appealing to audience members of every age. Those who have enjoyed the first two films will find that the heart of this franchise is still beating strongly. And in a month of very poor cinematic offerings (save The Revenant and The Hateful Eight), Kung Fu Panda should provide the kick that the box office needs.