Overview: While Po takes on the mantle of the retiring Master Shifu and reunites with his biological father, the ancient Kai escapes from the spirit realm, seeking to capture the Chi of every kung fu master. 20th Century Fox; 2016; Rated PG; 95 minutes.
The Secret Ingredient: Truly great animated movies are difficult to come by when they’re not under the Studio Ghibli or Pixar brand name. Even then, a few subpar movies may sneak through the quality cracks (Cars, for instance). So let it be known that Dreamworks not only has two fantastic movies about a panda learning the art of kung fu, but thanks to the direction of Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni, we now have a masterful trilogy of movies that show other animation studios how it’s done. And please understand I am not using the word “masterful” here lightly. The Kung Fu Panda trilogy exemplifies an unparalleled understanding of storytelling mechanics. The first film deconstructs the “hero’s journey” which so many films prior have attempted to ape, while informing the audience with a message of accepting oneself (“There is no secret ingredient.”) The sequel somehow tops it off with a renewed story and builds upon everything that came before in a tale of fulfilling prophecies and letting go of past traumas.
Third Time’s the Charm: This third film is about self-acceptance once again, but on a larger scale. It is not a rehash of the themes of the first two films but rather an exploration of the methodology Po learned along his first two adventures. He has learned the ways of kung fu so his next lesson is all about sharing the knowledge with others. The Kung Fu Panda series has had no shortage of remarkable villains and J.K. “Not my tempo” Simmons is no exception as Kai. Kai desires the power of the spirit known as Chi. When he drains someone of their Chi, they become jade zombies serving the will of Kai. This is a movie where the remnants of a lost panda civilization fight jade zombies. If that doesn’t win you over, you are objectively a boring person. But the real understated brilliance of why the Kung Fu Panda villains work is their personification of each film’s themes. They are more than just obstacles that need to be overcome to save the day, they present the next step in the evolutionary process of Po as the Dragon Warrior. Kai’s ability is meant to manifest himself as a superior being. Po’s teachings show him as a being of pure empathy, capable of spreading good with his fellow animals.
At the Valley of Peace: As was the case with the second film, the animation improves yet again while showcasing breathtaking action choreography and lush environments of Ancient China. Skies feel more filled with rushing winds and rivers feel more flushed with life. I find 3D compliments animation far better than live action and Kung Fu Panda 3 continues to back up my belief, especially when it comes to the action sequences. The fights are not as tightly constructed as the first or second film but they may be the most entertaining in terms of their use of slapstick. Dumplings are used as weapons, so make sure to thank this movie for that contribution to cinema. When Kung Fu Panda 3 came to a close, I wondered if there would be any tease for what comes next as Kung Fu Panda 2 so powerfully did before it. Although there are supposedly three more sequels in the works, it’s all irrelevant. For now, Po’s adventures have come full circle with the apprentice becoming the master.
Overall: The Kung Fu Panda trilogy closes with the same heart and excitement it opened with back in 2008.