The Kung Fu Panda films are oddities in so many ways, stuck in a weird nether realm that keeps them from being as good as they could be, or as bad as they could be. In a lot of ways, Kung Fu Panda was emblematic of Dreamworks Animation at the time of its release. It was a company mainly known for ugly, goofy little kids films that paled in comparison to the astonishing work coming out by Pixar, and by and large, the company got little respect. When your output consisted of Shrek, Madagascar, and so forth, why should it?
And then came Kung Fu Panda, which felt like the transition between Dreamworks’ old stuff and their bigger, better efforts like How to Train Your Dragon. Yes, Kung Fu Panda had a silly plot, and some cheap jokes, and whatnot. But it also had genuinely beautiful animation, a love of action that translated to fluid, interesting battles, and a reverence for martial arts beyond the superficial fighting techniques of The Karate Kid. It wasn’t a perfect movie by any means, but it was one that I liked a lot more than I expected, mainly due to that animation and beauty (especially that beautiful opening five minutes, which tells a story in a very different style).
Then came Kung Fu Panda 2, which I liked even a little more. It had a lot of the same problems as the first, but again, the animation was beautiful (with another amazing shift for a brief flashback sequence), great voice work, fluid battle sequences, and an interesting story that I thought was more compelling than people gave it credit for (guns being used to replace martial arts as a way of moving on from the past). And yet, some of the same problems remained – broad jokes, a plot that sometimes felt like a rehash of the first (Po is inadequate and viewed as a joke, he has to learn something new about himself, uses that to surprise the villain) – and a seemingly internal split between something ambitious and something broader and sillier – in other words, between new Dreamworks and old Dreamworks.
Now comes Kung Fu Panda 3, and if you’re wondering why I spent so much time in this review talking about the old movies, well, it’s because everything I’ve said about the first two once again applies. Once again, the animation is beautiful, the action well-choreographed and better than the genre demands. Once again, there’s some amazing sequences that change up the style to masterful effect, this time echoing ancient Chinese scrolls. Once again, there’s hints at something deeper and more thoughtful. Once again, there’s an overqualified voice cast, this time adding in Bryan Cranston as Poe’s father and J.K. Simmons as the villain. And once again, it’s the same story. Poe is viewed as inadequate; he has a new skill to learn; he nearly doesn’t; he learns it within himself; he saves the day with these new powers.
It’s frustrating, because there are moments of Kung Fu Panda 3 where you can see the really great movie that could have been…and then there’s another cheap joke, another wacky moment that undercuts it. But more damning is the fact that this is the third movie in the series, and it’s doing everything the first one did, with no signs of changing.
I didn’t hate this movie at all – not by a long shot. It’s too beautiful, too well made, and really, too entertaining. But it’s disappointing to see something that could be something really wonderful, something that would allow Dreamworks to really evolve, and see it crippled by the same things that I hate about bad kids movies, and the same things I’ve hated about this series from the beginning. It remains, three movies in, a weirdly bifurcated film, part martial arts family story, part broad kids comedy, and it still hasn’t figured out what it wants to be. And when the message of this series is, as it’s always been, “Be Yourself”…well, that’s cruelly ironic.