Kung Fu Panda 3 is a pretty big step back from the first two films as it loses its way at almost every turn.
Kung Fu Panda 3 picks up shortly after the last film, which ended with a reveal that there was a sanctuary of Pandas still alive somewhere out there. For fans of the series and its mythology, this opened a lot beyond just the possibility for Poe to find his relatives, it was another opportunity to open the world. But, when Poe’s panda father, Li Shan, walks into the Valley of Peace and is reunited with his son, the film sets off on a my two dads bickering match for their son’s affection. Notice there isn’t any mention of some Kung Fu in there.
Now, there is an old villain of the land, Kai, that has escaped the spirit realm by defeating all of its masters, including Master Oogway, who threatens peace in the world, but the film is barely about that and we don’t really see him fight anyone. In fact, four of the Furious Five and Master Shifu are all defeated and turned into jade zombies by Kai by half way through the film’s runtime. The battle against Shifu and the remaining Five is the standout action set piece of the film, but it pales in comparison to even the weakest beats of the first two films. The first two films in the series were basically all out action films, but Kung Fu Panda 3 puts the action squarely in the background. And on top of all of that, half of the action takes place in the spirit realm which has no rules or weight and feels off compared to what came before.
Directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Alessandro Carloni instead decide to throw all of their eggs into the basket of the relationship between Poe and his two dads, which is fine, but doesn’t really work all the way. This totally seemed like the next logical step forward for Poe and the series, but I didn’t expect it to by the primary thread of the movie. Expectations aside, what they did with the story was underwhelming as well. They mine some decent comedy out of the threesome of Poe, Li Shan and Mr. Ping, but they try to stretch it out way beyond what it’s capable of. To make matters worse, the filmmakers decide to make all of the Pandas basically act like Poe. Poe’s silliness was perfectly balanced against the serious nature of the drama/mythology of the series, but when 90% of the characters are acting like that in the film, well, it can get a bit unbearable. But the icing on the awfulness cake is that they mine most of the humor in the panda village off of a pair of pandas that are pretty clearly mentally handicap.
There are a couple of good laughs in the film, the action is ok, I still like the Furious Five, but everything I like about this series was pretty much marginalized for this entry. The fact that the mythology gets short shrifted might be my biggest complaint though, as they find a cool conceit with the pandas, but completely force it upon the story in unearned fashion. The film does a good job of introducing chi to the Kung Fu Panda world, but then they implement it as a deus ex machina through characters that shouldn’t be remotely qualified to wield it. They cut some serious corners to get there by paying some lip service to Poe’s teaching skills being the unlocking key, but the big moment isn’t earned and by the final shots of the film chi has been marginalized because everyone can use it. The world building seemed like this series could go anywhere, but they went supernatural and it really cheapened the whole thing.
As you can tell I was quite disappointed with Kung Fu Panda 3. The movie was fine, gorgeously animated, but this isn’t really what I want from my Kung Fu Panda movies. The final scene seemed to be fairly definitive and I wonder if they should just stop here. The introduction of chi just makes everyone a superhero for the most part anyways, so I don’t see how they can bring things back down to reality (a reality with kung fu fighting anthropomorphized animals) regardless if they make more. It’s a shame, I had high hopes for this series way back when we first met Poe and the Furious Five, sad to see where they’ve landed.