The Whole Package – Smart, Beautiful, with a Glorious Appetite
As I sat down in an empty cinema screen to see Kung Fu Panda 3, being a notorious fan of the previous two films I couldn’t help being filled with glee while watching that awful trailer for Top Cat Begins, realising the film I was really about to see would be a masterclass in animation, art direction and visual comedy – I wasn’t wrong.
Po, upon learning his father is not really a goose, travels far to a secret panda village in the mountains with his biological dad, in order to discover what it really means to be a panda. All the while Kai, the master of pain, beast of vengeance and maker of widows has returned from the spirit realm in order to wreak havoc on China, stealing the chi of the kung fu masters to become the most powerful warrior to have ever existed. Knowing that only a master of chi can destroy Kai, Po must learn to become a master of chi to save the world.
Joining the already comfortable performances of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie and the other celebrities are Bryan Cranston as Po’s biological dad Li Shang, and J.K. Simmons as the ancient Kai, both excellent in their roles. Cranston has a great on screen chemistry with Po, and the introduction of a comical and threatening villain from the days of Master Oogway brings the Dragon Warrior storyline full circle.
From kung fu, to inner peace, and now to teaching and chi, the character arc of each film in the series has remained the same, albeit with increasingly flashy set-pieces. This is certainly the most stylistic and painterly of the films, adopting an Edo Period art style for most of the action sequences and character framing, making the fighting much more abstract and beautiful than in the prior films. Worth highlighting again is the wonderful soundtrack worth by Hans Zimmer across the whole franchise, but in particular with the adaption of an Imagine Dragons song into a oriental-style villainous motif – a punching and industrial soundtrack to emphasise the awe and fear the character is meant to invoke.
As Po learns more about his panda heritage, the core conflict in the ever present family and identity themes of the franchise is that our Kung Fu Panda not only has a goose-father, but a biological panda-father. While this juxtaposition is often played for laughs, reiterating the bamboozling 20 year period in which Po did not know he was adopted, the family storyline also forms the emotional backbone of the film, referencing the slaughter of the panda race and the fate of Po’s mother. While this was dealt with in the previous film, the difference in hearing it from Li Shang’s perspective makes the horror of Po’s past much more intense. However, as always with the series, horror and pain are dispelled but the finale, where depth is combined with flash to create a satisfying conclusion to each arc. Admittedly I was disappointed with the final showdown this time around, with the impressive Kai getting the least dramatic blaze of glory, especially when compared to Shen in Kung Fu Panda 2.
There is a definitive tone of finality to Kung Fu Panda 3, implying the journey has reached its end and Po has no more stories left to tell, and if that is the case, the Kung Fu Panda films have finished on a high point, going out in a celebration of martial arts and leaving one man-child very, very happy.