By David Jacobs // Contributing Writer
One glance at Kung Fu Panda 3 may make you think DreamWorks has attempted to bring its Jack Black-infused fighting panda back from the dead for a very big and much-needed payday.
However, this latest installment of Kung Fu action puts a refreshing twist on the series by separating Po from his security with the Furious Five and his identity as the dragon warrior to take on his most challenging task yet: the quest to discover himself. On top of this, he must face Kai, an ancient evil warrior who’s intent on erasing the legacy of Master Oogway and all that’s dear to him.
As the movie begins, Po explodes onto the screen with his heroic Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross). In dynamic fashion, he flies through the crowd of awestruck onlookers giving fiery high fives in a blaze of glory. Po seems to have settled into his dragon warrior name and has won the hearts of everyone in town. He’s happy to receive praise, but later that day when Shifu instructs him to train the Furious Five, he no longer desires to be so highly esteemed.
As can be expected, Po’s quirkiness and lack of confidence causes him to miserably fail. When he confesses his failures, Shifu asks him a seemingly easy question: “Who are you?”
Po quickly replies that he’s the dragon warrior, but Shifu rattles back that the dragon warrior’s purpose is meant to accomplish more than super-kung-fu high fives (or are you saying two separate things – “super kung fu” and “high fives”?) and eating contests.
I have always liked the character Po for his comical awkwardness and optimistic attitude, but the Po I began to see in this possessed the same sense of vulnerableness in his identity that made Kung Fu Panda a success to begin with.
My main concern when I walked into the theatre was that this third installment to the series would not bring the audience anything new. That the epic fight scenes and gorgeous visual effects that the first two films had would be all that this new film had to offer; however, I began to see that if they could focus their attention on developing Po instead of just on flashy fight scenes, then DreamWorks may have hit a homerun.
Soon after Po’s failure at teaching the Furious Five, his strongest foe ever, Kai, arrives from the spirit realm after defeating Oogway and hearing that Po is prophetically destined to defeat him. This brings Po deeper into doubt and despair when he is told that he cannot defeat Kai with typical kung fu. He must somehow learn to master his chi in order send Kai back into the spirit realm.
For those of you who have watched Kung Fu Panda 2, you are probably wondering if Po’s parents are going to make their way into this film. If you guessed that his father shows up in order to teach Po how to use his chi and fully develop into the dragon warrior that he is meant to be, you would be right. Well … kind of. Po’s father, Li, claims to be able to teach Po this needed skill which grants him the honor of taking Po back to his homeland. However, when Kai is rapidly approaching the village and Tigress discloses that he has taken out master Shifu and the rest of the Furious Five, Li confesses that he lied about being able to teach him how to use his chi in order to protect him.
I first wondered why they did not just have Li teach Po how to use his chi and have him save the day as a father-son duo. After a while though, I saw that Li’s failure put all of the pressure on Po to figure out how to save everyone. He no longer had Master Shifu or the Furious Five to lead the way for him which really brought Po to new heights.
The theme of friendship and untraditional family is very strong in this final scene. Po begins to train everyone in the village including his Li and his adoptive father. For the first time we see Po step up and fulfill the role of a teacher and which is something that I did not expect to see. Po ultimately defeats Kai when everyone looks past their differences and puts themselves under his leadership.
I do wish that I could have seen a bit more of the Furious Five. When you have such a first-string cast you really want them packed into all of the suspenseful scenes. Black and Jolie’s characters get the most screen time and though we do not see their characters’ relationship blossom past friendship, we see them both develop a greater sense of trust and respect for each other.
Once again, Kung Fu Panda 3 gives its audience something deeper than a comedic performance. But while kids will be sure to appreciate the action and humor, it’ll be hard for adults to escape the feeling that they’re watching a coming-of-age film as they see Po develop a greater confidence in himself as the dragon warrior, a panda and a son.
All in all, Kung Fu Panda 3 is not my favorite movie in the series, but I definitely enjoyed watching it and think that it did the series justice. The novelty of the visual effects and fight scenes had lost their full effect on me, but the story kept me thoroughly entertained. As long as you are still hungry for some kung fu intertwined with a few morals and visual effects, there is plenty for you to enjoy in the latest chapter of this series.