The latest offering from DreamWorks Animation, “Kung Fu Panda 3,” takes the familiar and meshes it with fresh material to create an action-packed and thought-provoking 95-minute ride through the geese-, bunny- and pig-populated land of ancient China.
This film follows the blueprint of the first two movies – bad guy from the past comes to wreak havoc and the title character Po, a panda, has to stop him. But this villain is more powerful and more ruthless than the ones before him. Kai (played by J.K. Simmons) is a water buffalo who has escaped the spirit realm and is now traveling across China, turning all of the kung fu masters into jade statues and stealing their “chi,” and he won’t stop until he has defeated every warrior.
As this is happening, Po (Jack Black), the Dragon Warrior, struggles to transition from student to teacher. After Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) announces he is stepping down from teaching kung fu, he appoints Po to follow in his footsteps.
Then Po the panda is hit with a bombshell when he meets his birth father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston). Li brings Po to a secret village in the mountains of China where the Dragon Warrior meets pandas just like him. Li teaches Po how to live the panda way – eating with hands instead of chopsticks, rolling instead of walking (“We’re pandas! We don’t do stairs!” Li tells his son), and sleeping past noon every day.
Meanwhile, Kai has gotten word that the Dragon Warrior is in this secret panda village, so the water buffalo decides to pay them a little visit. Now all that stands between Kai and world domination is Po and a bunch of pandas, whom Po must train to prepare for the final showdown.
The film boasts an impressive cast, with Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen and David Cross voicing the Furious Five. One of the biggest weaknesses from the first two films was its failure to give the Five enough lines, and this continues in the third film, although not to as great of an extent. But for the most part, these talented voice actors take a back seat to the main characters.
After a particularly bad day of teaching, Po is ready to quit. Shifu tells him, “If you only do what you can do, you’ll never be more than what you are.” The panda responds with, “But I like who I am,” to which Shifu says, “You don’t even know who you are!” Throughout the rest of the film, Po goes on a journey of self-exploration. Is he a student, a teacher, a panda, the Dragon Warrior?
But this movie isn’t just about Po. Once Po’s real father arrives, Mr. Ping, Po’s adopted father, struggles through an identity crisis. He’s raised Po for over two decades, and now this old panda is going to come and take him away? One of the more interesting subplots in the film is how Mr. Ping and Li learn how to love their son together.
The animation is beautiful, as the film jumps from two-dimensional flashbacks to three-dimensional present day. The pacing of the film is great, as well. It never rushes the viewer, but it doesn’t plod along, either. There are plenty of the action-packed kung fu fighting scenes that have become a staple of the series, but they’re countered by slower-paced conversations.
The soundtrack does a good job of assisting the movie’s pace. Composer Hans Zimmer adds energy and emotion with the violins and flutes that were prevalent in the first two films. The score even includes an alteration of an Imagine Dragons song for Kai’s theme. It doesn’t stand out as one of Zimmer’s best, but it doesn’t have to be in order to succeed in this film.
This movie is also very funny. Few jokes fall flat. Most of them soar, flowing naturally with the plot as opposed to being forced into the story to draw a laugh. There are a few instances of childish bathroom humor that DreamWorks popularized with the “Shrek” franchise, but for the most part, the gags don’t rely on this formula.
The decision by the directors to include the spirit world, after having never addressed its existence in the previous films, felt strange. And the Chinese philosophical concept of “chi” did not seem developed enough to have as big a part in the movie as it did.
“Kung Fu Panda 3” packs more weight than your average animated film. This is most evident in Po’s development. Po may be fat, but in no way can you call him flat. True, he shows no change in his outward appearance, especially in his waist area. He’s still the big, fat panda that defeated Tai Lung back in 2008. But in the third film, he undergoes an internal transformation. He is no longer the selfish, lazy panda that he once was.
Po’s not focused on eating as many dumplings as he can (although he won’t turn them down if given the chance). He no longer quits when faced with a difficult task. Instead, he is truly the Dragon Warrior, a hero who puts the lives of others before his own, who stands up to the challenge and faces it with fists raised.
Jon Gallardo is a senior journalism major and sports editor for Cedars. He loves writing, listening to music, and playing basketball, and his favorite literary character is Gollum.