Across DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda trilogy, essentially a corrective against the crass, adult-aimed humor and incessant, instantly dated references that characterize the Shrek films, the series admittedly hasn’t changed up its formula much. Throughout these three films, colorful and entertaining kung-fu sequences are interspersed with the sharp comic repartee of their respective casts, and topped off with some gently affecting emotional beats concerning the value of family in the act of self-discovery. But an overarching thematic focus on finding the potential within modestly scaled ambitions resonates with these films’ own formal constraints.
Kung Fu Panda 3 finds the franchise’s titular hero, Po (Jack Black), still struggling with the burden of responsibility that’s come with the advancement of his powers that occurred at the end of the previous film. His humbling failure to fulfill a request from his shifu (Dustin Hoffman) proves that he’s not yet ready to take on the mantle of teacher, and so Po begins to once again harbor doubts about his destiny. His uncertainty is backdropped by a new super-powered threat, the Chi-draining villain Kai (J.K. Simmons), and the sudden return of Po’s father, Li (Bryan Cranston), whose ties to Po’s latest adversary prove crucial in figuring out how to defeat him.
Some of these plot points will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the first two Kung Fu Panda films, while the rest (a long-lost parent and a bad guy with a score to settle) have more or less just been ported over from How to Train Your Dragon 2. But where that film often seemed to suffer from uneven pacing, back-loading its action, as many animated adventure films seem to, in a chaotic and lengthy climax, Kung Fu Panda 3 continues to find a kind of balance and a benefit in its genre affiliation, evenly distributing its action throughout in quick bursts of fluidly animated fight choreography.
And when its own climax does arrive, it’s handled like a charmingly cartoonish riff on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Po and his never-quite-love-interest, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), train the inhabitants of an entire peaceful panda village for a coordinated offensive against Kai’s encroaching army, each faction’s respective attacks devised from the villagers’ greatest natural strengths (barrel rolling, spitting dumplings, and so forth). With this act, Kung Fu Panda as a series essentially comes full circle: The student has become the teacher, but only through recognizing, just as his teacher had to, that the best tutelage allows charges to advance in their own individual ways.