I don’t have kids. That’s Manchicken’s job. He’s got three boys that are probably the coolest little monsters I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. Regardless of the lack of Darkmovienight offspring (seriously, the world is better off), I absolutely love animated comedies. Some of the absolute best films of all time are animated comedies and we owe it all to just a few people and studios: Disney, Pixar, Don Bluth, and Dreamworks. Now I know I’m likely missing out on a few key people (Steve Jobs and George Lucas had a LOT to do with the creation of Pixar), but as I see it, those studios and Mr. Bluth are the reasons we have cinematic gems like Kung Fu Panda 3.
Despite my unhealthy enjoyment of children’s movies (this doesn’t hurt since Mrs. Darkmovienight and I only have the attention span of 90 minutes anyway), I can still spot a good one, a classic, or just a disaster. Sadly in today’s age, we’re only given those options. For every Toy Story, there are at least four Alvin and the Chipmunks movies. Now to kids, this really doesn’t make much of a difference. I’ve seen some misses where the kids in the audience don’t even laugh (see last year’s The Good Dinosaur), but typically they’ll enjoy anything colorful you put them in front of for an hour and a half.
All of the mediocre children’s entertainment out there, it is extremely refreshing and relieving that Dreamworks decided to make a quality animated trilogy based on a Kung Fu Panda. In almost all regards, these films shouldn’t work. But somehow, they took a ridiculous idea, one of the largest, clumsiest, and cutest animals out there and turn them into an amazing warrior, sticking Jack Black’s voice in the titular character, and then unleashing it upon the cinematic world. Well, in 2008 the first Kung Fu Panda was introduced to the public and collected about $215M from the Domestic box office. Was it the star power? Sure, you had Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Jackie Chan, and the immortal Dustin Hoffman, but those names meant nothing to the kids. Nah, what you had was an excellent premise, fun looking slapstick action, and of course, a touching story of becoming more than you thought you could ever be.
Well, eight years from the original Kung Fu Panda, Dreamworks releases the third (and hopefully final) chapter to this epic tale of inner peace, humor, kicking butt, and of course…noodles & dumplings. If they choose to end the franchise right here and right now, then I believe Dreamworks will have succeeded in making one of the most complete trilogies in film during the modern era of animation.
If you’re not familiar with the Kung Fu Panda franchise, let me give you the nickle recap. A lowly Panda named Po, voiced by Jack Black has an utter obsession with Kung Fu and the protectors of the valley in which he lives: The Furious Five. These heroes of Kung Fu consist of Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Lui), Crane (David Cross), and Monkey (Jackie Chan). They’re also under the tutelage of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman).
In the first film, an important ceremony is held in which the Elderly Master Oogway (a tortoise voiced by Randall Duk Kim who is a relative unknown, but tied to many martial arts films), chooses “The Dragon Warrior”. Prophesies and such as they are, point to The Dragon Warrior mastering Kung Fu, saving the Valley, and bringing the neurotic Master Shifu “Inner Peace”. Through several slapstick moments and the usual cartoon foolery, Po accidentally interrupts the ceremony and is chosen as The Dragon Warrior to everyone’s disbelief. Two things then stand out from this film: acceptance of yourself and not judging a Panda by his belly. Shifu eventually trains Po in the ways of Kung Fu through Po’s exceptional appetite. The main antagonist, Tai Lung (voiced by the insanely good Ian McShane) is defeated by Po as the Dragon Warrior by not only using Kung Fu, but his true abilities: his bouncy stomach and a lot of luck. Oh and an amazing and advanced Kung Fu technique called the “Wuxi Finger Hold”. Shown below the Wuxi Finger Hold is what equates to the Kung Fu version of “The Nuclear Option”.
At any rate, Kung Fu Panda succeeded on all levels: animation, storytelling, character development, comedy, action, and a well tuned lesson to both children and adults. Not to mention the absolutely jaw-dropping escape of Tai Lung from his prison in a mountain. Not only is it possibly the best animated fight scene I’ve ever seen, but it truly blows you away with gorgeous animation and A-FREAKING-MAZING audio. I just have to show it, see below.
Kung Fu Panda 2 followed a lot of the same plot and of course added 3D, another prophecy, and the villain, Shen, voiced by Gary Oldman (which is again a step up from so many other animated films). This prophecy was about how a warrior of “White and Black” would eventually defeat Shen and save all of China. Shen attempts panda genocide and Po goes all Moses in a radish basket. It ends much the same way with good action, some pretty funny dialogue, and excellent animation. Still, it falls into the dreaded “Sophomore Slump” and doesn’t exactly have the most vibrant life from the first movie.
The first two films in the series do great jobs of everything discussed, but Kung Fu Panda 3 does something even more special: it ends a series well. Again, this is so rare that you just have to admire Dreamworks for finishing strong. It really did come full circle. If you watched the first two, there are so many jokes that have continued throughout the entire series and they find their way into the third iteration with ease.
As far as the animation, it was beautiful, but I’ll be honest that it seems we’ve hit a plateau for computer generated animated features. I honestly don’t know what is the next jump, but it’ll likely be about water, hair or grass…so we probably won’t even notice.
Again, taking Kung Fu Panda as an entire connected trilogy, you definitely see the growth of every main character (Dustin Hoffman’s consistent exasperation with Po learning complicated Kung Fu concepts that should take years is kinda brilliant). Along with the characters that have grown well over the past few movies, the story continues to be stellar. If you’ve seen the trailer, then you know Po attempts to train other pandas in the ways of Kung Fu. Not only does this concept bring the series full circle, as Po teaches them Kung Fu that fits each of the other pandas’ skills, just as Shifu did for him in the first movie. I really loved that symmetry.
While the first few films dealt with prophecies, Kung Fu Panda 3 concerns itself with legends. This an important distinction and one of the reasons why I feel it was brilliant and will ultimately end the Kung Fu adventures of Po. The latest baddie is Kai, again, voiced by the phenomenal J.K. Simmons, is out to take over all of Kung Fu and conquer China. Only the Dragon Warrior can stand in his way.
My only hope is that Dreamworks quits while it is ahead. I’m sure that everyone went and saw Kung Fu Panda 3 this week, so it made money. I just really want them to be smart and let this film be the end. I know there will be HUGE temptations to keep going, but there are plenty of examples that show why a franchise shouldn’t go too long (I’m looking at you Pirates of the Caribbean franchise).
Didn’t read my fancy words, here is the short version:
Kung Fu Panda 3 succeeded on all levels just like the first film: slick animation, compelling storytelling, true character development over three films, comedy with tons of call backs throughout the entire franchise, killer Kung Fu action, and finally the lesson that this series has consistently hammered- believe in yourself and you can do anything. I loved it and at least up North, you and your kids have been stuck inside all week and you’re bouncing off the wall, so go see this film, you won’t regret it at all. Every kid will love it and it has everything that you loved about the first few movies. Just be ready for a little bit of Kung Fu Fighting: