Confusing Panda, Syncretistic Dragon

"Kung Fu Panda 3" features some beautiful animation but is otherwise unbearably flat, with recycled jokes, dull characters, and a contradictory approach to its own universe.

MPAA Rating: PG 
USCCB Rating: A-II 
Reel Rating: (2 out of 5 reels)

Right from the beginning, this installment of the Kung Fu Panda franchise commits a cardinal sin by violating its own universe, creating a world full of contradictory and confusing ideas that backtrack on its surprisingly sophisticated predecessors. It invents nothing new, brings in a villain without any discernible motivation, and relies repeatedly on puns from the previous films. Everything good about this third venture came from the first two—and everything bad is its own fault.

The villain is Kai (J.K. Simmons), a knife-wielding ox, who descends from the spirit realm to collect the “chi” from all great kung fu masters in an attempt to rule the mortal world. The best way to describe chi is the life force that surrounds and penetrates everything, somewhat like the Force but without any of the cool stuff like levitation or mind reading. Meanwhile, Po, “the kung fu panda,” (Jack Black) has been assigned by Master Shifu as the new teacher of the Furious Five, a task for which he is woefully unprepared. As promised in the cliffhanger from the previous film, Po’s biological father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) finds his long lost son, much to the dismay of the adoptive father. Fortunately for the plot, pandas are masters of chi, and Li brings Po back to the secret panda village to master this new art and to eventually defeat Kai.

One of the things that made the original film so fresh and rewarding was how it employed the Chinese philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism in its storytelling without being preachy or lecturing. While Christians must take its message with a grain of salt, it’s a good way to introduce older children to another culture. Here, syncretism not only rears its ugly head but cuts through any positive meaning that might come through a fruitful understanding of the differences between Eastern and Western thought. For example, the filmmakers add an additional “spirit world” reminiscent of the Greek concept of sheol and try to somehow connect it with chi. The spiritual laws of the film keep changing and have no underlying consistency. Worst of all, there is an additional and overt layer of New Age thinking where characters are encouraged to just “be themselves.” If this is true, why can’t Kai take over the world if that is what he really wants?

With the exception of the beautiful animation, everything is unbearably flat. The writers constantly recycle old jokes that lose luster well after the umpteenth time; there are only so many times that sitting on someone is funny. Most of the previous characters, especially the Furious Five, are relegated to the background to make room for a host of uninspired new ones, like the girl panda who tries to seduce Po with…ribbons? The final showdown is contrived and, if you think for just a second, involves Po committing suicide before being raised from the dead. Days later, it still doesn’t make any sense.

The harshness of this review is partially due to how good the first two Kung Fu Panda movies were. Kung Fu Panda 3 is entertaining at times, but as Shifu says, “if you only do what you can do, you’ll never be better than what you are.” This time, Po only gave the audience what they expected—or had already experienced, in better form, in the previous movies—and nothing more.

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About Nick Olszyk 189 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.