There needs to be a term for it, if there isn’t already: that moment where a movie missteps at the ending, sending you out of the theater annoyed when you’d been having a perfectly good time before then. It often unfairly discolors the experience–Mission: Impossible III isn’t a bad movie before it peters out limply, and Star Trek Into Darkness had a lot going for it before it pulled the “let’s restage every major scene from Wrath of Khan again, but with a TWIST” card. Likewise, Kung Fu Panda 3 has some incredible moments, and is full of genuinely creative use of 3-D, but the ending is so utterly unearned–it literally only happens because it’s that time in the script that something has to–that it makes you wonder why you bothered caring for the story logic in a tale so ready to abandon same.
For the benefit of anyone who feels jaded at the notion of a third Kung Fu Panda film, part 3 grabs your attention right away with a battle in the spirit realm, as the heroic and ancient tortoise Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) does battle with pissed-off elk/buffalo-ish creature Kai (J.K. Simmons) on a series of floating rocks, as the two hurl gravity-immune buildings and mountains at one another with abandon, all as they try to steal one another’s chi. (You may know chi as an eastern concept of energy which sustains our bodies. This movie knows chi mostly as that thing Ken and Ryu use to make fireballs to hurl at one another.) Kai, of course, inevitably wins the battle so that he may come back to the non-spirit realm and be the arch-villain to menace heroic panda Po (Jack Black), who in turn is finally realizing that his believed-dead panda clan actually still exists, and may understand chi forces better than he does.
In other words, much as the ancient monarchs predicted: He’s just a Po boy, from a Po family, who must spare him his life from that monstrosity.
As Kai roams the countryside defeating kung fu masters and turning them into jade zombies who fight for him, Po encounters his birth father Li Shan, revealed to be alive at the very end of the previous film. Against the jealous screeches of adoptive dad (and goose) Mr. Ping (James Hong), Po travels to the panda village high in the mountains, where he sees that they’ve learned as a species to weaponize their love of being fat, lazy, gluttonous goof-offs. There’s something amusingly subversive to all of this when one imagines the film being viewed in China, and under all the martial-arts trappings they’re presented a message that stereotypically American characteristics are needed to augment their own abilities. But the pandas, we are told, also once perfected the secret to unlocking chi, and that is what Po will need to learn in order to face Kai properly.
Kung Fu Panda 3‘s biggest strength is its thought-out use of 3D. Rather than do a simple conversion, which is technically very easy to do with all-CG cartoons, directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni (both veterans of the franchise) actually play with depth of field to enhance the battles. Yes, things pop out, but there are also mulitple uses of split-screen, in which each split area has a totally different sense of depth. The stylistic creativity extends to the animation, with little touches like having the jade zombies look like stop-motion in their movements. (It does not, however, extend to finding a song other than “Kung Fu Fighting” for the end credits. Can somebody else please write a new popular tune about martial arts so we can retire this cliche?)
Practically every famous voice talent ever in a Kung Fu Panda movie returns for performing duties in this one. Even Jean-Claude Van Damme gets a line or two, though Angelina Jolie’s Tigress gets the, ahem, lion’s share of supporting fighter screen time, and I’m guessing the fact that a couple of her kids also get to be in the movie as young pandas might have had something to do with that (they’re perfectly fine, by the way). Cranston does his best John Goodman as Li Shen, while Simmons appears to be aping Keith David in the villain role, neither of which is a bad direction, but you do wonder why the producers didn’t just spring for the more obvious choices. Surprising in a good way, though, is Kate Hudson as the Mary Katherine Gallagher-like panda Mei Mei–I could have sworn while watching that it was a more traditional comic actress like Molly Shannon or Lena Dunham, but Hudson more than surprises with a versatility she hasn’t been allowed to show in live-action for years.
So what’s my misgiving? Minor spoilers are mandatory here, but honestly, if you’ve seen any kung fu movie ever, you know that it all boils down to the hero learning a new skill in order to fight the villain. The problem is the way this new skill is learned, or rather not learned. It just kinda shows up when expected, as expected, with no clear indication why it could not have done so significantly earlier. After two prior installments, has everyone really forgotten that “be true to yourself” and “follow your heart” are usually the way these things go? I expect this sloppiness in your run-of-the-mill animated adventure, but oh, Kung Fu Panda 3, you had me predicting greatness for you about halfway through, so an average ending simply does not rise to the level of Dragon Warrior.
I’m still giving it three burritos for overall enjoyment. But it could have had three and a half, I tellzya!
images: Dreamworks animation and the Kung Fu Panda Facebook page.