Most movie trilogies follow the best-to-worst pattern of 1-3-2, where the third movie corrects for the overreaches and underestimations of the first sequel but still doesn’t top the original. Of course, while everything from American Pie to X-Men follows this rule, there are less common trilogy patterns, too, like that demonstrated by the Return of the Jedi effect.
First sequels are commonly worse than the original, but when the few that somehow manage to equal their originators are almost always followed by a third entry that just can’t quite match the first two. Iron Man 3, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Mockingjay, Part 1, and Insidious, Chapter 3 have all had this issue in recent years.
As Kung Fu Panda 3 begins, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) steps down as the teacher of Po (Jack Black) and the Furious Five (Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Angelina Jolie, David Cross, and Jackie Chan), naming Po as his replacement. Po, naturally, finds as much difficulty with teaching as he did with learning to be the Dragon Warrior in the first film.
Meanwhile, in the Spirit Realm, the unresting and malevolent Kai (J.K. Simmons), banished five centuries earlier by the great Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), has been growing collecting the qi of ancient warriors and growing more powerful. When he finally is strong enough to cross back in the Mortal Realm, it falls to Po, Shifu, and the Furious Five to try and banish him again.
A prophecy says the only way to defeat Kai is by being able to channel and control qi, an ability pandas have long been said to possess. Fortuitously, Po’s biological father (Bryan Cranston) finds him and offers to take him home to meet his whole village of pandas and learn the secrets of qi.
If this all sounds very Spider-Man 3, with too many plots bandying about, rest assured it’s handled far more elegantly than it sounds. The threads weave together more organically than they first appear, creating a whole that does justice to a story that actually began eight years ago in the first Kung Fu Panda.
The only problem is that while there’s more plot going on here than in the first two entries, the running time remains about the same, resulting in characters getting less screen time apiece than they were afforded in the first two movies. While that’s slightly disappointing when it comes to the short amount we get of recurring voices like Rogen and Cross, it becomes more damaging when the two dozen new characters within the panda village are introduced, with so little time for introductions barely any have more than one dimension. (I’m not even sure Kate Hudson’s new character has more than one line.)
If there’s one area in which the Kung Fu Panda series has always excelled, it’s artistic flair, and Kung Fu Panda 3 is no exception. Despite the insanely high bars set by the first and then second movies, the series’ visuals are at their sumptuous peak here, dazzling in ways other computer-animated movies don’t dare to even attempt. From an artistry standpoint, the Kung Fu Panda movies are the most visually gorgeous of any computer-animated movies of the last twenty years, and Kung Fu Panda 3 is the most magnificent of the bunch.
By not expanding its running time to accommodate its larger story and thus giving short shrift to its cast of new and returning characters, Kung Fu Panda 3 ultimately doesn’t quite reach the heights of its older brothers. Still, following two great movies with a really good movie is no small feat and no easy task, particularly in the world of family-friendly franchises. Just ask George Lucas.
3½ stars / 5