In terms of Dreamworks Animation, whilst the Shrek series is what put them on the map, the series that really solidified the credibility of Dreamworks was the Kung Fu Panda series. This is a series that could have very easily gone wrong, relying too much on broad slapstick, in a similar way to other Dreamworks films like Over The Hedge and Shark Tale. However, thanks to good writing, good performances and beautiful animation, Kung Fu Panda became one of Dreamworks’ best films, until it was completely eclipsed by Kung Fu Panda 2, which took all the things that made 1 good and amped them up to greater heights, and it’s currently tied with How To Train Your Dragon 2 as my favourite Dreamworks Animation film (not made by Aardman). Now, after 5 years, we finally get the third film in the series and whilst I don’t think it’s as good as 2, it’s still a worthy follow up and should be a great final film in the series.The film revolves around Po, the Dragon Warrior, who is tasked by Master Shifu to become a kung-fu teacher, which he fails spectacularly at. At the same time, Po’s birth father, who was revealed to be alive at the end of Kung Fu Panda 2, finds Po in the village, which creates a rift with Po’s adoptive father Mr Ping. However, the reunion is marred by the return of Kai, a warrior banished to the spirit realm by Master Oogway 500 years previously, who has returned to the moral world to find Po and take his chi to gain mastery over it. The only way to defeat Kai is to be a master of chi, the technique being known to the village Po’s father, Li Shan, comes from, so Po goes to the village to find out about chi, whist also discovering his true nature as a panda. The film works best when it is exploring the identity issues that Po is having, his issues over not being a true panda, mixed with the discovery that his birth father is alive (when Po assumed him to have died with his mother in 2). This growth for Po drives the narrative of the film and does a great job fleshing out his character. This also works well for the characters of Li Shan and Mr Ping, it being clear that both love Po and want what’s best for him, but both not really trusting the other (mainly on the part of Mr Ping) and the character development for these two is excellent. However, there are a few problems with the plot. The film feels a bit too much like a rehash of the other films, the element of Po needing to learn a new technique that Shifu is trying to learn as well is lifted straight from 2, just replacing inner peace with chi and Kai’s backstory is a bit too similar to Tai Lung’s from the first film. There are also a fair few plotholes near the end of the film, although I won’t talk about them here in case I spoil the film. However, as a whole, the plot works really well, especially in regards to the character development.
In the voiceover performances, the film continues the strong pedigree of the series. Jack Black is still great as Po, doing a great job showing the difficulty he has discovering who he really is, whilst also showing his frustration and even a semblance of arrogance over his skills. Bryan Cranston meanwhile makes a strong showing as Li Shan, showing the love that the character has for Po and the similar personality, along with a very warming vibe throughout the film and a palpable sense of loss over the death of Po’s mum. I’m really glad that this film gives the great James Hong more to do as Mr Ping, his love for Po manifesting here in a rivalry with Li Shan, with it being clear Mr Ping will do anything to keep Po safe. JK Simmons meanwhile makes for a great intimidating villain as Kai. He doesn’t quite have the same power as a villain as Gary Oldman’s Lord Shen from 2 (mainly due to the lack of a personal connection with Po), but he is still a great threat. The other actor though don’t get enough time to shine. It’s clear that Kate Hudson was meant to have a bigger role in the film and this means her character doesn’t get enough development, feeling quite one dimensional whilst Angelina Jolie, whilst good, isn’t utilised fully here. There’s also the problem carried over from 2 with the other kung fu masters not getting enough to do, there’s more of a role for Dustin Hoffman, Seth Rogen and David Cross here than in 2, but that’s still not enough, whilst Lucy Lui and Jackie Chan are completely wasted.
The biggest strength of the film though comes in the technical department. The animation in this film is easily the best in the series, the use of lighting and colour creating some of the most beautiful imagery in any CG animated film. The use of 2D animation for flashbacks, a trend carried over from 2, is also very effective, blending really effectively with the CG. The action scenes meanwhile are probably the best in the series because of the stronger animation, the speed and movements of all the characters being more effective here than in the other ones. The music is also strong, carrying on the use of traditional Chinese instruments to create some very memorable and striking moments, the theme for Kai being the highlight in this film.
Overall, whilst it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Kung Fu Panda 2, Kung Fu Panda 3 is still a worthy sequel in this excellent series. The animation is better than ever here creating some beautiful imagery and amazing action, the general plot is very effective and the performances from Jack Black, Bryan Cranston and James Hong are excellent, making up for the rehashed nature of some of the plot and the underutilisation of the other actors.I really hope that Dreamworks doesn’t decide to make more of these films as this provides a very effective ending to the Kung Fu Panda series.
My Rating: 4/5