Being yourself is important. Staying true to who you are is important. Following your heart is important. Yes, I agree, but how many more animated movies sporting variations on this message do we need? There are countless important lessons that kids (and adults!) need to learn, but for whatever reason, mainstream animated movies keep coming back to this one. I can hear the studio executives now: “Hey, it worked for [rattles off list of box office hits], so why fix what isn't broken?” If those messages feel particularly worn-out in Kung Fu Panda 3, well, it's probably because this is the third time in a row this series has returned to that particular well.
In Kung Fu Panda 2, the lovable panda Po (Jack Black, School of Rock) came to peace with the fact that he never really got to know his biological parents. However, this installment reveals that his father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad) is still alive, and wants to make up for lost time. Much to the dismay of his step-father Mr. Ping (a temperamental goose voiced by James Hong, Mulan), Po runs off to a secret panda village (he had previously believed that all other pandas were extinct) and eagerly allows his dad to teach him “how to be a panda.” Naturally, much of this training doesn't mesh well with his “how to be a kung fu master” lessons.
Meanwhile, a new threat-of-the-week is on the horizon. Kai (J.K. Simmons, Whiplash), a powerful spirit warrior and angry yak, has escaped from the spirit realm and now plans to steal the “chi” of every kung fu master he encounters. One by one, Po's gifted allies – Mantis (Seth Rogen, Pineapple Express), Crane (David Cross, Arrested Development), Tigress (Angelina Jolie, Salt), Monkey (Jackie Chan, Rush Hour), Viper (Lucy Lui, Charlie's Angels) and even Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man) – lose their chi to to this sneering villain. Naturally, this leads to a great big showdown that dominates the bulk of the third act.
It doesn't take long to figure out how either of these storylines will play out: Po will learn that he can still be a proud panda without conforming to stereotypical panda behavior, and then he'll go kick Kai's butt. The only story thread that feels at least partially unique is the tense relationship between Li Shan and Mr. Ping, as the latter grows jealous while watching the former move in on his territory. It's a simple but effective exploration of two parental figures attempting to navigate a complicated relationship with each other without hurting their kid... an all-too-common challenge these days. Elsewhere, the plot is on auto-pilot.
What makes all of this predictable storytelling more frustrating than it might have been is that Kung Fu Panda 3 is a flat-out gorgeous movie. It might be the best-looking film Dreamworks has made, which is saying something when you consider the earlier Kung Fu Panda flicks and the How to Train Your Dragon movies. One scene after another offers stylish, visually striking ideas, and the action scenes are staged with fluid elegance. Hans Zimmer's score offers rich variations on the memorable themes that anchored the previous films, shifting nicely between lush beauty and thrilling action cues. The voice acting is good, too, particularly Cranston's work as the oh-so-affable Li Shan (you hear the smile in his voice). It should be noted, however, that this series is getting so crowded that a lot of prominent names are now being reduced to bit players.
Don't let my crankiness stop you from watching this with the kids. It's a perfectly fine for what it is: colorful, occasionally exciting, occasionally funny, always cute. Still, it's sort of exasperating to see this series – which started out on a fairly promising note – continue to settle for being just good enough. You'll have forgotten most of Kung Fu Panda 3 within days of seeing it.
Kung Fu Panda 3
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Year: 2016