Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

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“You must take the next step on your journey, from warrior to teacher.”

Kung Fu Panda 3 passes the lifeguard exam, retreading familiar territory for an hour and a half or so. Breathing life into a mummified storyline. Hauling the weight from the bottom of the abyss just when you expect a thud in the deep end. The handsome animation, a clear best for the franchise, buoys the lackluster curb appeal just a blip above the surface of mediocrity. Where does the martial arts bear go from here? I’m not sure there is actually any territory worthy of still charting. But, like the previous installments, Kung Fu Panda 3 is harmless moviegoing fun for the whole family with just enough substance to be an all around mild recommendation.

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Po (Jack Black) returns as the Dragon Warrior. The members of the Furious Five are back, as are a few new faces scattered throughout. Following an unexpected retirement by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), Po is thrust into the role of teacher and his former peers now pupils. It’s all disarray and chaos produced by incompetency and uncertainty from Po. He’s forced to learn the job as he goes thanks to the evil Kai (J.K. Simmons) capturing the chi of former Kung Fu Masters, collecting their strength and growing more powerful by the minute. Through a little bit of destiny or a whole lot of thematic convenience, Po learns that only those from the panda colonies can be true masters of chi, and he alone must prevail against Kai. The formula is tried and true.

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What Kung Fu Panda needed was a palate cleanser. Something to gargle, spit, rinse and repeat until we found that next flavor and that new depth. Instead the audience is served an Amuse-bouche (literally French for “mouth amuser”). It’s a bite-sized appetizer like portion, and in this film comes too late, but still lives up the term itself. Po’s father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) follows a spiritual calling to find his long-lost son, and that’s where the film finally finds its footing outside of the directionless action pieces. Because Po was adopted and raised by the goose Mr. Ping (a wonderfully voiced James Hong), the story allows itself, sporadically and sometimes forcefully, to comment on the topic of co-parenting. Even when Po wrestles around with foes, each parent trying to ensure his safety, the son of both yells out, “Thanks Dads!” We don’t expect that in a kid’s movie, and Kung Fu Panda 3 wisely doesn’t take a political or social position. All it does is acknowledge, and usually that’s enough.

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Although the movie brings a sense of finality, I’m sure they’ll find a way to pump out more. The series has been incredibly successful domestically, as well as instrumental in developing a relationship with the strict Chinese film industry. The English and Chinese versions are actually animated separately and require no dubbing or subtitles. That may not sound important, but the diversity will translate into strong box office numbers. So in short, no, I wouldn’t be surprised if the story kept on. If they introduced a love interest followed by the trials of raising baby pandas. Maybe that’d liven things up a bit. Ultimately, Kung Fu Panda is a solid message to kids to “be yourself” told through devices and copycat scenes from the earliest days of animation. Now, after three films, it’s time to grow up a little bit, or challenge that old proverb by taking the less traveled fork in the road. That’s where there is more to feast on.

“Never under-estimate the impact of a dramatic entrance!”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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