Looking Back at 2010s Films: Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

12 Nov

By Tanner Smith

One of the best, most surprising animated treasures of the 2000s was DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda,” starring Jack Black as a panda who learns kung fu…thinking about what I just wrote baffles me for how stupid it seems and yet delighted that it actually worked.

And it definitely worked. Released in 2008, “Kung Fu Panda” was not only beautifully CG-animated and very funny AND wonderfully choreographed (for animation, providing as many kung fu styles as possible takes incredible skill)…but it was also rather moving and beautiful when it needed to be, and it taught a valuable lesson that speaks to both kids and adults: we all have unique skills that help make us who we are.

Three years later, in 2011, we got “Kung Fu Panda 2,” which was even better. More atmosphere, more action, more visual treasures, and most surprising of all, more emotions–you will believe Jack Black as Po the Kung Fu Panda will make you feel things!

I could make a Looking Back on 2010s Films post about “Kung Fu Panda 2,” but honestly, I think I’d rather write about “Kung Fu Panda 3,” my favorite of the trilogy.

Yes, it’s a trilogy with a conclusion…unless DreamWorks decides to go the PIXAR/”Toy Story 4″ route and meet back up with familiar characters years later. (I’d be fine with that, if it’s done well, like with “Toy Story 4.”)

With each passing film, we see a neat progression in Po’s character. In the first movie, Po was a mere kung fu enthusiast (and flabby panda) who was chosen to become the Dragon Warrior to combat a dangerous villain and bring peace to the valley. No one believed in him until he was able to find the skills within himself to get the job done.

But with “Kung Fu Panda 2,” we’re reminded that it’s not as simple as that to become what you desire to be. Po had to search within himself to find out who he truly is and not just who he wants to be. (Oh, and he also had to find out about his origins, as his father’s a duck who obviously adopted him.) Through it all, he finds inner peace. A satisfying resolution for an even more satisfying sequel. Where can we go from there?

Well now we have “Kung Fu Panda 3.” What are we going to tackle with this one? Well, this time, Po has to be a teacher. Already, I’m intrigued. Po is still excitable and energetic. He has mastered many of the ways of kung fu, but we see he still has a lot more to learn. Now, Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) is stepping down as master of the Furious Five and appointing Po as the new guy in charge. But even Po knows he’s not ready for this responsibility–and thankfully, we get a scene early on in which Master Shifu states the reason he wants Po to teach is so Po himself can learn something new, because he shouldn’t get used to what he already knows. Pretty good point there.

Anyway, Po is visited by another panda in the valley, named Li (Bryan Cranston), who it turns out (GASP!) is Po’s birth father! It’s a happy reunion that turns into more than that when it turns out Li may be able to help in defeating a new all-powerful villain, the chi-stealing warrior Kai (J.K. Simmons). You see, pandas possess the hidden secrets of the power of “chi,” which translates to “life force” or “energy flow.” The more Kai can possess from those he comes across, the more powerful he becomes. Thus, Po has to travel with Li to the secret panda village to learn chi. But it’s going to be harder than it seems, as Po is interacting with his own species and finally learning how to be…a “panda,” for the first time in his life.

Oh, and Po’s adoptive father–you know, the goose (James Hong)–is understandably jealous of Po’s new attachment to the father he never knew. Thankfully, this subplot isn’t as annoying or even as distracting as it could have been. And its resolution is actually kind of touching…but not as effective as…

You know, it’s baffling and kind of disconcerting that “Kung Fu Panda 3” didn’t get the attention it deserves. Critics recommended it mildly at best. It was released in January, when it could/should have been a fitting summer release. And of the three “Kung Fu Panda” movies, this was the only one not to be nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.

People just see it as just another “Kung Fu Panda” movie, which is a shame, because…I love this movie.

Why do I favor this one over the previous two? Because it’s a definite proper conclusion in this sense: it’s the only one in the trilogy that came through with its original promise. You ever notice that what usually defeats the previous villains is some kind of magic that was never fully explained, defeating the purpose of the message the films try to get across, that it’s best to find your own inner strengths? Well, this time, even though the mystic Wuxi finger hold (which I still don’t get) plays a role in the climax, the focus is still on what Po is able to teach his fellow pandas in the ways of kung fu. He teaches them to use their abilities to their advantage, and in a fresh, inventive way, it truly works. There’s an ancient Chinese saying that kung fu lives in everything we do–this is a Kung Fu Panda showing us how! As strange as that may sound, it’s truly effective.

Now, I can just predict some troll commenting, “Haha I’m writing an angry comment on your blog–is THAT kung fu? XP” To that, I say, “It just might be.”

And as Po learns who he himself really is, it’s actually very emotionally satisfying. I can’t help it–the “Kung Fu Panda” trilogy is better than it had any right to be. With the right skills and writing and technical wizardry, you can make even the silliest ideas work wonders.

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