I wasn’t crazy about “Kung Fu Panda” in 2008, but I loved “Kung Fu Panda 2” in 2011. So I had high hopes for “Kung Fu Panda 3,” using the logic that maybe this franchise gets better as it progresses. Alas, it seems to have reached its creative peak with the second film, but the third is not without its charms.
All your favorite good guys are back. Jack Black returns as Po, the clumsy panda who literally fell into a position as the Dragon Warrior, the fiercest Kung Fu master in all of China. He’s flanked by his friends The Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and Mantis (Seth Rogen). Also returning are his mentor Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and adoptive goose father Ping (James Hong). We even get the return of late Kung Fu master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), more at peace than ever in the afterlife. All of these characters are welcome, but some seem to have been wedged in only because they’d be conspicuous by their absence. The contributions of The Furious Five in particular amount to little more than a cameo.
For this film, Po learns from Shifu that as Dragon Warrior, he is expected to take over as teacher to The Furious Five. As much as Po loves the idea of being the best, he hates the pressure of having to be a leader. Maybe he’s not meant to be the Dragon Warrior after all, which is not exactly a fresh conflict in this series. He snaps out of his distraught demeanor by the sudden appearance of his biological panda father Li (Bryan Cranston). The two bond, much to the dismay of Ping, who’s afraid Po has no more use for him.
The family reunion is interrupted by villain du jour Kai (J.K. Simmons), a bull who specializes in collecting the chi of kung fu masters past and present, essentially turning them into robots that do his bidding. If he collects the chi of the Dragon Warrior, he’ll be unstoppable (or unstoppa-bull). The pandas in Li’s village are supposedly masters of chi, so Po goes with his father to learn the ways of his kind. Their methods turn out to have a lot more to do with laziness than they do with peace. It’s certainly a convenient life for Po, but it’s not getting him anywhere.
The humor in the film is about what you’d expect, which isn’t a bad thing. Kung fu slapstick and eating jokes abound as always, and they usually land pretty well. It can get a little juvenile at times, but the movie is made with juveniles in mind. The film is right to think that if one panda is cute and funny, a whole village of pandas will multiply those qualities. It’s a ton of fun to see the pandas eat, dance, hug, fly, and tumble (this film had the good timing to come out around the same time as that video of Tian Tian the panda rolling around in the snow at the National Zoo).
The problem with “Kung Fu Panda 3” is that we get the feeling that we’ve seen this all before. The interaction with other pandas may be new to this series, but the obstacles are the same as ever. Po is having an identity crisis, he doesn’t know if he deserves to be called Dragon Warrior, he ends up surprising everybody including himself. It’s not a bad journey, just an overly familiar one. And even the whole “main character discovers more of his own species” aspect has been done before in a lot of animated sequels. Still, this is an adequately enjoyable film in an era where “adequately enjoyable” is getting harder and harder to find.
“Kung Fu Panda 3” is rated PG for martial arts action and some mild rude humor. Its running time is 95 minutes.
Robert Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. He has been a published movie reviewer since 2006.