I begin today’s review with a confession. Sometimes, I decide to review a film just so I can supplement the expense of entertaining my children. What I mean is that when faced with the choice between a copy of a kid’s film or one that I’m personally excited to check out, I often opt for the former… otherwise I’m likely to be hounded by one or both of my sons until I scrounge up the few bucks to get them the latest Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks picture. Being on a tight budget, as many parents can surely relate to, it’s tough to keep up with the latest films, so taking advantage of the occasional kid’s blockbuster that crosses my path is a great opportunity. Today’s selection is most certainly one of these opportunistic occasions.
The first Kung Fu Panda was fine. Can’t say that I remember paying much attention during the second one. So, my hopes for actually caring about this film were not all that high. Marketing campaigns have been advertising the film as the “best Kung Fu Panda yet, but that’s what they’re supposed to say, right?
Well… this movie is fantastic. In a year when it’ll be very hard to top Zootopia as the children’s/family film of the year, it looks like the #2 slot is on equal lockdown. A compelling story coupled with great voice acting turns the animated tale into something that’s sure to grab anyone willing to give it a try. Jack Black may be an animated panda here, but he’s classic Jack Black in virtually every way.
If you’re new to the Kung Fu Panda saga, let’s get you up to speed. Po (Jack Black) is a giant panda who is raised by Chinese goose Mr. Ping (James Hong aka Lo Pan, himself!). Po is enamored from a with kung fu from young age, especially by the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). These five kung fu champions were trained by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a red panda (also known as the “red bear-cat”) and the mentee of the Grand Master Oogway (Randall Kim), an old tortoise and the most powerful kung fu master ever known. At a kung fu tournament featuring the Furious Five, to everyone’s surprise and the Furious Five’s dismay, Master Oogway proclaims Po to be the Dragon Warrior despite him being a novice at best. And, after training with Oogway with noodles as motivation while being treated like Rudolph trying to play reindeer games by the other masters, Po inevitably saves the day.
The sequel is another story of Po facing hardships and inevitably being victorious in the end. He shows his goodness in trying to bring the villain back to the good side in the end, but ultimately the villain becomes his own undoing. In the end, teamwork becomes an even stronger theme as the Furious Five are even more integral in saving the day and we are introduced to Po’s biological father, whom can sense his son from afar.
In this third installment, we begin with Master Oogway fighting in the spirit realm (oh yeah, he’s dead… I never claimed to be a great recapper) with a powerful spirit named Kai (J.K. Simmons). Back home, Master Shifu retires as the teacher and passes his mantle onto Po. After initially failing, he goes on a journey to find himself, which leads him to his biological family and a journey to master his Chi.
Po’s journey is the focal point of this story and the ultimate showdown with the spirit Kai looms throughout the story. Kai’s power is immense, so the question of how Po and the gang can overcome continues to present itself. Po’s biological family, especially his father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), is certain from the get go to play a vital role in Po’s journey and the impending battle with Kai.
There’s a lot about the film to like. If you replaced the animated anthropomorphic animal cast with real life kung fu fighters, this could be a classic Shaw brothers film. The elements of a good kung fu film are all there. Throw in Jack Black’s comedic timing, which even in animated form is on point, and there are plenty of laughs. There are emotional connections built from the start that make you care about the characters and the story is compelling from start to finish. Also, it probably goes without saying, Dreamworks nails the animation, which looks great.
If I had to pick something to improve, I’m not sure what I’d pick. I’m hoping to go back to the first two films so I can revisit this with a stronger understanding of the backstory, but that’s certainly not a knock on this film at all. Some of the masters could be utilized a bit better, as a few don’t really matter in the plot as it stands. Otherwise, there aren’t any notes that I could give the filmmakers. Having this little to say here speaks volumes about the strength of this film.
Coming back around to my confession at the start, this is one of those times where my favoritism towards my kids over myself pays off. It was inevitable that the boys would enjoy this film (they love some good movies, but spend nearly as much time watching all kinds of children’s dreck), but I would have lost serious money had I wagered on where I expected to fall on this film, personally.
Kung Fu Panda 3 is one of the top family films of 2016 and looks to remain so. If I can name 5 family films better than this one at the end of the year, I’d be very, very surprised.