Sunday, February 14, 2016

'Kung Fu Panda 3' review

I sincerely believe that Kung Fu Panda might be the most underrated animated film of all time. Seriously, whenever people talk about animated films, we always hear about the same group of films- the Pixar movies, Disney, Studio Ghibli, Shrek, and maybe LEGO Movie thrown in for good measure. Kung Fu Panda is immaculately designed and crafted, with a story that is infinitely appealing. It deserves to be considered one of the best animated films of recent years. The first sequel, Kung Fu Panda 2, went darker, but to a somewhat disappointing effect. Flash forward to 5 years later and quite a bit has changed. Dreamworks is housed at Fox now and we've seen plenty of big hits come and go in the animated world. With that, Kung Fu Panda 3 sorta feels like an afterthought- it's almost like the filmmakers went "Oh yeah, I guess we did still have another story to tell."

Kung Fu Panda 3 is a perfectly pleasant movie. It's nice to see these characters back on the big screen, Po is still one of my favorite animated creations and I adore the attention to detail in this beautiful universe that the filmmakers have created. And as a finale to this trilogy of films, it is an incredibly satisfying, bittersweet experience, especially as someone who has been around for this franchise since the beginning. Unfortunately, the film itself is very slight and minor- it's undoubtedly entertaining, but the film ends up feeling just a bit undercooked. A weak villain, light plot development and some emotional beats that just don't hit add up to a film that works until it doesn't. If you're a fan of this franchise and these characters, you'll have a good time. Anyone else will probably walk away indifferent.

A few years have passed since Po (Jack Black) first became the dragon warrior, but he's still in the midst of training. He's fighting with the Furious Five (Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Lucy Liu, and Jackie Chan) and stopping bad guys, all while still eating plenty of food. However, a new task awaits him. Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) announces to Po that he will be retiring soon, and that it is Po's new responsibility to train the Furious Five. He's completely skeptical and the first training experiments go very poorly. Po is discouraged and believes that he'll never be able to be as good of a master as Shifu.

But then come a few interesting developments. One day, Po's long-lost father, Li (Bryan Cranston), appears in the village after a long journey that led him to his son. Their relationship is immediately rekindled and they have a blast running around the temple and messing with the relics. Unfortunately, this peace doesn't last for long, as a more sinister threat arrives in the form of Kai (J.K. Simmons), an ancient kung fu master and adversary of the iconic Oogway (Randall Duk Kim). Kai has stolen the chi (a spiritual essence) of every master in China and he's one his way to take down Po and Shifu next. All hope seems lost until Li reveals an ancient panda secret, which could help prevent the reign of an evil mastermind.

I think it's tough to judge Kung Fu Panda 3 as a singular film, and not as a conclusion to a full trilogy of films. On one hand, this third chapter completes several character arcs that its predecessor left open. Po's origin has been told, his rags-to-riches tale is complete and his ascension into Kung Fu history has been chronicled. Without this film, we don't get the satisfaction of seeing all of this play out. I love the way that Kung Fu Panda 3 reunites Po with his family and completes his destiny. The films may not be able to match up, but I have such a deep respect for how these filmmakers handle the characters. Jack Black voices Po with such humor and warmth, and the script by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger knows these characters so thoroughly well.

But on the other hand, Kung Fu Panda 3 is an immensely flimsy vehicle for this full trilogy arc. The story feels like an coda- it's a 95 minute film and it truly feels like the creators scraped together whatever they could that would work as a serviceable story and allow them to complete Po's journey. Everything just sorta happens, and directors Jennifer Yuh and Alessandro Carloni wrap things up with a nice bow that leaves everyone satisfied. There aren't really any major stakes or consequences, all of which is especially compounded by the fact that Kai is an incredibly weak villain, despite the energetic voice work. The family dynamic is a nice touch, and yet, most of those subplots fall flat. There are some possible twists that don't really work out and overall, there's a strong sense of predictability (and yet, a simultaneous sense of randomness) that carries through this film.

And yet, it's fun. Kung Fu Panda 3 is literally impossible to dislike. Even as I watched it and picked apart all of the trivial details that I wasn't a fan of, I laughed and had a good time. It's a very funny film and it was a sheer blast to see what basically amounted to an entire village of fat, hungry panda bears on screen. It's not as endlessly delightful as the original film, but this is a vastly more breezy and enjoyable film than Kung Fu Panda 2. If you don't expect anything too deep or meaningful, it ends up being a solid ride.

Kung Fu Panda 3 won't leave any lasting impact on the world of cinema and it's far from a great animated film, but it completes this franchise with grace and heart. And to be honest, I really couldn't have asked for more. Kung Fu Panda is a critical piece of my childhood and my film history, and after the disappointment of the sequel, the way that this threequel capped it off was sweet and captivating. Po's story has ended and there's literally nowhere to go from here. There's something inherently sad about that, but at the same time, I wouldn't have it any other way.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.9/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Joblo

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