I probably would have enjoyed Kung Fu Panda 3 a lot more if its two predecessors hadn’t been made – or, at the very least, if I had no knowledge of them. But because they have been made, and because I do have knowledge of them, I’m forced to see this new film through the dreaded lens of cinematic relativity. This is by no means an awful movie, or even a bad one, but it certainly doesn’t try as hard as what came before it; it plays more like an episode of a Saturday morning cartoon, which is to say that it’s entertaining but also lacking any significant sense of depth or meaning. Whenever it comes close to a serious moment, the filmmakers undermine their efforts by inserting some kind of physical or verbal gag.
Indeed, every opportunity is taken to make the story funnier. Some of the jokes are so physical that they border on slapstick. There’s nothing inherently wrong with slapstick comedy. Look what it did for the Looney Tunes shorts. And God knows I’ve recommended my fair share of lightweight cartoon films; if I recall, I was especially kind to Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. But in the case of Kung Fu Panda 3, when you know that the two stories preceding it had senses of humor that were to some extent more sophisticated, and when you know that it allowed for recommendable family fare, you can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers chose now to play it safe, to dumb it down, to rely more on silliness than on storytelling.
The plot involves Po the panda (voiced by Jack Black) reuniting with his long lost biological father Li Shan (voiced by Bryan Cranston), who was thought to have been killed years ago in a village raid. It turns out that his father now resides in a remote valley with other pandas, where they take laziness and gluttony to levels that surprises even Po. Rather than walk from point A to point B, for example, they simply roll down hills, and they’re all encouraged to sleep through the entire morning. The odd thing about this is that pandas are supposed to be able to call forth their chi, or life force, and use its power for healing; it doesn’t seem as if these pandas, with their constant dumpling and noodle eating, are well versed in this particular skill.
Despite this, Li promises to teach Po all about chi harnessing. And not a moment too soon; Po’s village is under attack by a spirit warrior named Kai (voiced by J.K. Simmons), who steals chi from living beings, who are then turned into zombie minions made of jade. Select members of Po’s Furious Five team – Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie), Crane (voiced by David Cross), Mantis (voiced by Seth Rogen), Viper (voiced by Lucy Liu), and Monkey (voiced by Jackie Chan) – will fall victim to Kai’s reign of terror. On top of this, Po is a seething hotbed of angst, his identity as the fabled Dragon Warrior, and even as an ordinary panda, put into question when his master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) decides to retire from teaching the Furious Five and focus on mastering chi.
It’s a decent enough plot. And of course I fully expected there to be jokes. I just didn’t expect there to be so many. How menacing can Kai be, for example, when his efforts to intimidate and control are undermined by his efforts to explain who he is to those who don’t know? And why cut the tension and excitement of the climactic final battle with Po’s most audacious comedic displays? We’re supposed to cheering on a hero, not laughing at a jester. At least, not at that point; earlier in the film, I certainly tolerated all the jokes about Po’s hatred of stairs and his voracious appetite.
Like the previous films, Kung Fu Panda 3 is a triumph of animation and art direction – all of which would look brighter and more fully realized if you opt for a 2D presentation instead of paying extra for 3D. There are some especially good visuals in the spirit realm, where an ancient turtle (voiced by Randall Duk Kim) awaits rescue, having fallen victim to Kai’s chi stealing. As I said before, this isn’t a bad movie. But it is an underwhelming one. It’s a lightweight followup that just doesn’t try as hard as the first two films. It was apparently made more with box office in mind instead of finding that balance between entertaining and compelling. At this point, I wouldn’t hold my breath for a fourth film.