Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

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Po, though comfortable in his role as the Dragon Warrior, still does not know where he came from.  His sense of self is further challenged when asked to take over teaching the Furious Five.  As Po struggles for his identity, a new threat emerges from the spirit realm, just in time for his missing family to come back into his life.  Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni direct Kung Fu Panda 3, with the screenplay written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, and stars Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, and J.K. Simmons.

Five years came and went between the release of Kung Fu Panda 2 and the franchise's third installment.  Since then, Kung Fu Panda's become another DreamWorks Animation institution spread too thin with licensing deals and multiple television specials.  Even though the Po (Jack Black) saturation point threatened to burst my goodwill toward the franchise, the warm-hearted optimism at the core of the two previous movies kept my hopes up for Kung Fu Panda 3.

I'm happy to report Kung Fu Panda 3 is every bit as optimistic and energetic as the previous entries.  The opening sequence of Grandmaster Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) fighting the villainous Kai (J.K. Simmons) in the spirit realm opens up the possibility that the Kung Fu Panda franchise will abandon what little reverence it has toward gravity and embrace all dimensions of goofiness.  The plot, dealing with Po discovering and returning to his biological family, has a string of body positivity running through the character interactions that's a refreshing change from the frenetic fights of the Furious Five.

Family regrets subdue some of the optimism central to Kung Fu Panda.

What I'm less happy to report is that Kung Fu Panda's optimism, energy, and good intentions can't make up for a story hampered by silencing supporting characters and a wonky moral message.  Po has always been the bouncy and lovable center of the Kung Fu Panda movies.  But one of the running joys of the series has been seeing Po's interactions with the different styles of the Furious Five.  It may be heartwarming to see Po reunited with his family, but the sea of bouncing panda bodies all stuffing themselves in unison has the dulling effect of an artist deciding to copy/paste their one big success.

That decision's disappointing even though it makes sense from a storytelling perspective.  Less understandable is giving the villain the ability to silence the colorful members of the Furious Five.  Kai isn't very interesting to begin with as he's a garden variety if ably voiced villain who wants more power.  This is a far cry from the surprisingly complex writing of Tai Lung in the first movie, or the unhinged threat of Lord Shen in the second.  Making matters worse, Kai has the ability to siphon his opponents' power, which turns them into silent jade warriors in the process.  When this inevitably results in the silencing of the Furious Five, all that we're left with is a rote villain and clones of the hero.

Points to Kung Fu Panda 3's screenwriters, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, for using the silencing of the Furious Five to delve into Po's relationship with his biological (Bryan Cranston) and adoptive (James Hong) fathers - Li Shan and Mr. Ping, respectively.  There's a great sequence early on where Po and Li Shan's shared obliviousness keeps them from realizing their connection, and is followed up with a delightful romp around the treasure room of the Furious Five where the animators toy around with the array of weapons left unused in the previous two movies.  While Mr. Ping's storyline is filled with the familiar, "I don't want my son to leave me," adoptive family clichés, there's still a good bit of fun to be had with Mr. Ping's obsession with selling more noodles.

Mr. Ping is filled with his share of fatherly regrets as well.

All this leads to a the negative counterpoint in muddled moral messages about what lies are okay to tell to your children and what are not.  It's screwed up to lie to kids about where they came from, much like it's screwed up to give your kids hope on the sole basis of lies.  There is fertile ground in discussing the complex interplay between stories we weave to comfort ourselves and the next generation (something How to Train Your Dragon 2 did well), but the lies in Kung Fu Panda 3 are so blatant and hurtful to Po that each father's justification comes off as entirely self-serving and the eventual reconciliation hollow.

A bit of the fantastic animation that made previous entries great might have helped all this go down more smoothly.  Aside from the opening and climactic clashes, both taking place in the spirit realm, Kung Fu Panda 3 disappoints.  I'll watch a fourth if DreamWorks feels so inclined to produce it, but it's probably for the best to retire the film series with Po's tummy filled with dumplings and the land settling after so many conflicts.

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Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni.
Screenplay written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger.}
Starring Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, and J.K. Simmons.

Posted by Andrew

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