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It's about time... I've finally seen Kung Fu Panda 3, the epic finale to DreamWorks' saga of the panda who became the Dragon Warrior.
Kung Fu Panda 3 takes us back to the Valley of Peace, where Po must take the next and final test to fulfill his destiny... To teach kung fu. Unfortunately, that goes over like a lead balloon, and once again Po finds himself confused about the ins and outs of being a kung fu master. Time is at the essence, and soon it is revealed that a deadly general named Kai, who was banished to the Spirit Realm years ago, has returned to Earth and plans to take the chi of all kung fu masters, and then... Take it from those who had it... The pandas.
Adding a level of spirituality to the franchise more than differentiates this third installment from its predecessors, and best of all, the story isn't really a retread of what's come before. Some elements do ring a bit too familiar, such as Kai's backstory, which reminded me of Lord Shen's backstory... as both of them saw a particular power and wanted to exploit it in negative ways. The Spirit Realm makes for very interesting worldbuilding, giving this world more depth than it already had. The introduction of chi adds even more, and plays a crucial role in the plot.
Po's journey is all about self-realization, and that ties into the roles of his real father and his adoptive father. This is where the picture really shines. Mr. Ping objects to Po's father, and at the same time you kind of get the sense that Li Shan might not be what he seems. (I remember early plot synopses for this movie teasing an enemy that was "more close to home", so I kept that in mind.) Instead, we learn that he's willing to do something that's wrong in order to protect his son and never lose him again. Aside from that, while Po learns his place as a master, Mr. Ping gradually learns to let go. Teaching the pandas kung fu the way Shifu taught him is more than set up by that point. A lot of things are set up in the film, and they do pay off quite nicely.
The first act is a bit wonky in terms of the pacing, and I also want to point out that many scenes that were in the trailers weren't in the film: Po bothering Shifu as he's trying to meditate, Po teaching the pandas to throw a punch resulting in them being knocked over like dominoes, and few other shots. (The epic shot of Kai roaring in the Chinese trailer wasn't here either.) The middle is where it slows down and builds up the climax carefully, and the final battle itself throws everything at the screen, making for a spectacular finish.
Kung Fu Panda 3 perhaps has too much in it, though. It's plumper than the titular panda, it's almost a bit too big for a 90-minute running time. Parts of it feel a little too fast, and characters like Mei Mei felt really underused, and it makes me wonder if she had more of a role in earlier iterations of the story. Characters like a kid panda named Bao were emphasized in the marketing, but he had only a few lines and that was it. The film also leans too heavily towards comedy, shoehorning it into sequences where it doesn't really belong, not dissimilar to a majority of the Disney Renaissance films... Which Jeffrey Katzenberg, who is currently overseeing the studio's films more so than in the past few years, was very, very involved with.
Speculation aside, I don't think the overuse of comedy hurts it too badly, but it can be distracting. Some one-note characters become unfunny after being run into the ground, such as a panda villager who loves to hug everything and a baby panda who loves Tigress because she has Po's action figure of her. Some of the fight scenes are broken up by the humor, making the tone ping-pong. I feel that this entry in the series could've been darker, considering how high Kung Fu Panda 2 soared. Kung Fu Panda 2 has some genuinely dark moments for a family film, from Po's flashbacks to the genocide of his kind to the menace of Lord Shen.
This film doesn't try to aim that high. The villainous Kai is fun to watch and has some really cool powers and abilities, but he's definitely not Lord Shen. Even in battle he wasn't as tough as Shen, for a little while he seems like the true final boss, but then Po defeats him in the Spirit Realm like it's no hassle... Though his defeat is pretty epic, I must say. The Jade Zombie Army stuff is cool, but I felt a little more could've been done with it as well. It's a very neat idea, taking the good masters and making them into evil stone versions of themselves, but it's ultimately just a peg in the whole scheme of things.
That brings me back to the film's biggest issue. It's a bit bloated, it feels like the writers wanted to throw every big thing at the screen in order to make this final installment epic, but I think with a longer running time it could've used all those elements to the fullest. Sometimes I think the roughly 90-minute running time isn't suited for every story, and some animated films in the recent years make me feel that way. I'd argue that Kung Fu Panda 3 would've been much stronger had it actually gone the extra mile and go for, say, a 110-minute running time. I'm not joking!
Visually, Kung Fu Panda 3 is one of DreamWorks' most delectable. If you're a fan of how the series uses traditional animation, you're in for a treat, because we get a lot of stylized scenes where things appear to be 2D or painterly. We do get a full flashback scene done in the Chinese folk art style, and then some. Action scenes, montages, all of them are given this glow, this aura that goes beyond the film's regular style. The scenes set in the Spirit Realm? Absolutely gorgeous. Even though this film feels like a definitive ending, I'd like to see more of the Spirit Realm. There's actually a slight hint towards the end that could point to a possible sequel, but I do think that they'll cap it off here.
Kung Fu Panda 3 is ultimately a solid climax. In many ways, this trilogy mirrors the original Star Wars trilogy. The first installment is a damn fine slice of adventure storytelling and is pure escapist fun, while the second aims even higher with the story and goes down some dark paths, and then the third one lightens things up a bit and feels more like one long climax than anything. That being said, I appreciated how it tied into the first film and explained why Oogway chose Po despite the fact that Po landed in the middle of the ceremony, and why pandas would've been Lord Shen's undoing before he killed a majority of them. From the very start, the pandas were powerful with chi.
We're left with a fun third installment that brings action and laughs, is at times emotionally resonant, has a strong middle, and expands upon the film's world in grand ways.