I had no interest in seeing either of the first two Kung Fu Panda movies. I thought they were a place for a brand of Jack Black shtick that I had grown tired of by the time 2008 got here (for the record: peak Jack Black was 2003’s School of Rock). I had a strong idea of what these movies were, and I didn’t want anything to do with it. As far as Kung Fu Panda 3 is concerned, I was wrong. This is a charming movie, a funny movie, sometimes even a touching movie. I regretted nothing about my time spent watching Kung Fu Panda 3, and it’s the first movie of 2016 to make me feel that way.
Kung Fu Panda 3 tells a story I was happy to hear told. Po (Black) is told he needs to start teaching the rest of his action team (voiced by a perplexing mix of stars from Angelina Jolie to David Cross to Jackie Chan) and he’s terrible at it so he needs to find his inner self just as his long lost father returns and an unbeatable opponent returns from beyond the grave. It’s not the most intricate story, and there were things set up that never got paid off to my satisfaction— like a pivotal character always nervously saying he was “sent by the universe” sounds more like an evasion than the actual eventual truth. This isn’t a movie that wants to be deep; it’s a movie that wants to be fake deep and it does a fine job at that. It keeps the jokes apart from the fight scenes and provided some touching moments between Po and his biological father (Bryan Cranston) and his adoptive father (James Hong) that get to some real places.
The action scenes were better than I expected them to be, but I’ve since realized that was a low bar to get over. Dreamworks typically does good work but their action is usually more frenetic than it is good, I suspect it’s hard to get any material that would look as good as humans doing it just because of how their art style tends toward flatter character designs. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the fight scenes particularly because of how they used the individual animals to different effect. A crane did not fight like and alligator did not fight like a panda. The disappointing exceptions were Master Monkey, who is probably just a bit too person-like to have a distinct style, and Master Tigress, who was also just too much like a human to be exciting. Again, not having seen the previous two entries in this series perhaps none of this was new, fresh, or exciting but it was sort of a delight for me.
It feels weird having to say this, or that it feels like a point of recognition, but I appreciated that no one in this movie was doing an accent. There’s a long shameful tradition in Hollywood of over the top accents, and I’m so glad we’re past that here. It feels generally culturally sensitive, although mostly by being so generic about everything that it’s impossible to feel it being specific enough to be offensive. I did not care for their depiction of dumplings being quite so big though— where are these animals getting dumplings that are universally the size of bao?
If this review were itself a movie made for children I would be learning an important lesson about judging a book by its cover, but it isn’t and I’m not. Instead, I think I’m learning a lesson about the ever-improving work coming out of Dreamworks as they move away from being “the House That Shrek Built” and towards being the people that brought you How to Train Your Dragon. It also might be a lesson about coming back to Jack Black after so many years away, he might not be as stale as I thought although I feel for the parents who had to deal with their children responding to everything they were told this weekend with “chitty chitty chat chat” emulating the climax of this film. Kung Fu Panda 3 is a good movie. Although, it is possible that after Norm of the North, any competent animated movie was going to seem like Citizen Kane. It’s probably actually a good movie.