Alibi V.25 No.4 • Jan 28-Feb 3, 2016 

Film Review

Kung Fu Panda 3

Family feud grounds martial arts fantasy in unexpected emotional reality

Kung Fu Panda 3 ()

Directed by Alesandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh

Cast: Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, J.K. Simmons, Bryan Cranston

Like father, like son
Like father, like son

There’s a surprising amount of life and laughter left in the lovable Kung Fu Panda series. Showing few signs of wear, Kung Fu Panda 3 arrives eight years after the original hit theaters with a one-two punch of heart and humor. Kids will eat it up, and parents may find themselves fighting back an unexpected numbers of cheers, tears and giggles as the action-packed story unfolds.

Kung Fu Panda 3 returns us to the anthropomorphic Asiatic world of Po (Jack Black), the roly-poly panda bear with the mad martial arts skills. For this go-around, Po is faced with a couple of major life changes. First of all his kung fu teacher Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is retiring and leaving his school to Po. Preternaturally talented, but lacking in self-confidence, Po isn’t sure he’s good enough to be showing the likes of the legendary Furious Five (Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Viper and Crane) how to fight.

Po’s second dramatic change-up comes when his real father, a genial panda (played perfectly by Bryan Cranston) shows up. Up until now Po has largely been oblivious to the fact that the man who raised him is actually a cranky goose (the great James Hong, voicing the film’s secret emotional cornerstone). But when an ancient, supernatural warrior named Kai (universally welcome character actor J.K. Simmons) pops over from the spirit realm and starts turning martial arts masters into his stone-faced slave army, Po is told the only way to defeat this monster is to rely on the chi-channeling powers of the pandas. Unfortunately, Po—having been adopted by a noodle-making goose—knows nothing about being a panda.

While Kai muscles his way through the martial arts world—making slaves of even Po’s best friends—our hero hangs out on a lush, mountaintop hideaway trying to get in touch with his inner panda. Although he’s supposed to be learning about the magical healing powers of chi, he’s mostly being instructed in the ways of eating and laying about by his long-lost father. Will Po be able to whip his fuzzy kin into fighting shape by the time that big bully Kai (no, really, he’s a bull) shows up?

As always Kung Fu Panda has a lot of lessons to impart. It’s one of the few movies that treats martial arts less as a method of beating people up (although there’s plenty of action to be had here) and more like the spiritual discipline that it is. Understanding, empathy and inner peace are as important here as fighting ability. This series has always been about being true to yourself, an axiom that gets harder to live by now that Po is caught between two fathers—easygoing panda pop Li and uptight feathered father Ping, both of whom have their strengths and weaknesses. This family dustup (”My Two Animal Dads”?) is handled in just about the sweetest and most heartwarming way possible.

A review couldn’t pass without mentioning how incredibly beautiful Kung Fu Panda 3 looks. This Far East fantasia of character and design is rendered with eye-popping style and skill. Flower blossoms swirl through the air, snowcapped mountain peaks disappear into the horizon and even the chain-linked weapons of the enemy twist and twirl in beautiful slow-motion patterns. It’s like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—only with actual tigers and dragons. The computer-based animation looks fantastic (particularly in 3D), and a handful of watercolor-style flashbacks add to the sharp artistic style of it all. Honestly, this may be the best-looking film DreamWorks has ever produced.

Equally lighthearted and emotionally cathartic, Kung Fu Panda 3 adds a thoroughly satisfying final chapter to this entertaining trilogy of martial arts fantasies. It’s a perfect wrap-up to the tale of Po and his journey of self-discovery—but it’s also good enough to make us hunger for just a little more of the same.