Never in a million years would I guess that I would hear Bryan Cranston voicing a panda, nor did I expect to ever hear Gary Oldman voicing a peacock. But these simple casting choices (among a million other things) are one of the many things that the extremely fun Kung Fu Panda franchise have given us. What’s even better? This series, now eight years old, has managed to be one of the few movie trilogies that gets better with each installment.
This third entry picks up where the the second left off, with Po in power as the Dragon Warrior and anxious to defeat evil and eat dumplings. In the tradition of the previous installments, this film begins in the Chinese Spirit Realm, where Master Oogway is shown interacting with some kind of ancient evil. In the case of this film, the ancient evil is Kai (here voiced by J.K. Simmons), a mean and brutal force of a villain that is set on stealing all the chi he can get, almost as dedicated to the task as Austin Powers was to retrieve his mojo.
Chi, for those that are stupid, unknowledgeable Americans like myself, is the basic force that holds life together and allows things to go on living (according to Chinese culture). And this is one thing that I’ve loved about the Kung Fu Panda movies: its ferocious desire to appreciate Chinese culture. As I watched Kung Fu Panda 2 for the first time last night, I realized that nearly every frame of that film contained some form of respective cultural artifact that represented the Chinese way of living. In 3, I didn’t notice as much minute details, but that didn’t diminish the film’s overall affinity for China, despite the human creators of that very culture being absent and replaced with anthropomorphic animals.
One of the strengths of this franchise is the cast of characters, and here they are all in top form, just as likable and entertaining as ever. Jack Black is loveable as Po, the overweight and food-obsessed giant panda who believes wholeheartedly that he is the only panda left in the world. His sidekicks (and former childhood heroes), the Furious Five, are just as confused about Po’s place as leader of them. It doesn’t help matters when Master Shifu announces his retirement, and places Po in his spot early in the film. But still, they each respect Po (after all, he is the Dragon Warrior, and his previous successes and unique kung fu abilities testify to that), and their interactions and bantering is quite funny.
As the main baddie, J.K. Simmons is fine as Kai, but my main issue with him is that I found it really hard to hear him as a character. I enjoyed the story of Kai (although he did lack the character depth of Lord Shen in 2) and the animation of his character was really gorgeous and reminiscent of Xibalba from The Book of Life, but it was hard to hear him as a character. To me, it just didn’t sound like he was diving into the role like Gary Oldman did in his role (I think that was some truly great voice work). But mainly, I was just disappointed when the film ended and he hadn’t once yelled, “NOT MY FUCKING TEMPO!” during a battle scene.
On the film’s strongest front is the introduction of Li, Po’s father. Not only is he introduced to his son in a funnily awkward sequence, but the film moves into really deep emotional territory when we find out just how hard Mr. Ping takes the arrival, fearing that he is going to lose his son. It’s really good, adult oriented stuff that makes the film tug on the parents’ heartstrings while the kids marvel at the gorgeous animation and the exhilarating action sequences. And I think that balance is what a lot of modern animation is missing, and it’s why I love these Kung Fu Panda movies so much.