Kung Fu Panda 3 Offers More Visual Splendor But a Less Interesting Story

By  · Published on January 26th, 2016

DreamWorks Animation

As expected, Kung Fu Panda 3 is a gorgeous animated feature. Watching it, mesmerized, I wished it hadn’t taken almost five years for a third installment of the series. I also questioned my appreciation for many animated features in the interim. Why was I encouraging the photorealism of The Good Dinosaur’s backgrounds when I should be demanding style, as is found in abundance in this sequel? Both movies are frustratingly thin with their plots, but Kung Fu Panda 3 has a much more dazzling and thoughtful visual aesthetic.

Like its predecessors, the third Kung Fu Panda works with one primary mode of animation but supplements with other designs for flashbacks and other deviations from the main narrative. The original film limited its layering to an intro inspired by shadow puppets. Kung Fu Panda 2 employed its own 2D designs for a sequence depicting a past panda holocaust. Now this one, which is helmed by 2’s Oscar-nominated director Jennifer Yuh and its story editor Alessandro Carloni, follows suit with a villain’s back story rendered in a sequence inspired by Chinese calligraphy.

The series continues to borrow brilliantly from and pay tribute to the artistic traditions of its setting, but where Kung Fu Panda 3 does disappoint is in its lack of historical depth. The previous feature may have been ironically upbeat in its story of good guys thwarting the use of gunpowder as a weapon, but at least it recognized a significant part of early Chinese history. This second sequel does heavily involve the concept of qi, but simplified it comes off like it’s modeled after the Force from Star Wars rather than the other way around.

The plot of Kung Fu Panda 3, which features a script by returning writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, centers around a villainous yak named Kai (voiced by J.K. Simmons), whom I kept thinking was supposed to be familiar to viewers, as if he’d been a part of the franchise previously. But it’s just a running joke that nobody in the movie knows who he is, and he thinks they should. At the start, we find him in the spirit world, battling other deceased kung fu masters, collecting their qi as a prize won with each victory. Through his defeat of Grand Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), he’s able to return to the physical realm.

Kai wants to amass the qis of all the masters, including our titular hero, Po (Jack Black), as well as all the other pandas in the world. As teased at the end of Kung Fu Panda 2, the genocide didn’t actually only leave a single cub untouched. There’s a secret society of pandas up in the mountains, and among them is Po’s biological father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston). Papa panda comes down to his son’s village, to the jealous annoyance of Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping (James Hong) and then brings him back to the panda paradise.

As it turns out, all pandas have a strong qi, and unfortunately Po leads Kai to their Shangri-La, so he has to teach his fellow black and white furballs how to fight. It’s that classic trope where the hero trains the peaceful villagers to assist against the big bad guy, but specifically it’s another way the series gets to pay homage to the kung fu classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. There’s a well-rooted foundation to the plot of Kung Fu Panda 3, but looked at straight on, it’s still just a movie about a villain showing up and then the hero defeating him, and there’s not much going on that’s any more interesting than that.

Where the movie does excel, in addition to its broader animation achievements is in character design and execution. One new character in particular, a female panda voiced by Kate Hudson, succeeds in conveying a lot of personality in a short amount of time, stealing the whole panda village section (it goes without saying, since it’s not saying much to recognize, that this is the best thing Hudson has done in 16 years). Even characters who only exist in the form of an idea, like a kung fu dolphin hinted at only through his body armor being worn by Po, are well developed.

Meanwhile, it’s again appreciated that the celebrity voices are never too distracting for their characters. Some fans of the series may, however, be disappointed by how little screen time the regular supporting characters, namely Po’s friends at the temple, area given – in fact, some of them are gone from the plot for a long stretch of time. I would think Angelina Jolie might have been upset by the shrinkage of her role, as Master Tigress, if it wasn’t for four of her kids being part of the cast, as young pandas, this time (Black’s son also has a minor part).

Also worth noting is how there aren’t any memorable action scenes in this one. Five years later, I still recall the coolest bits from Kung Fu Panda 2, as well as a lot of other spectacle (that’s a movie in part about spectacle, though, so it make sense). There are few moments I still remember after seeing Kung Fu Panda 3 only a few days ago. At least it’s all pretty to look at while it’s on screen. Even if that’s all DreamWorks Animation can promise with this series, I’d still like to see a fourth. Preferably before another five years pass.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.