As much as Shrek and Madagascar in particular have come to define the legacy of Dreamworks Animation most of all, if there’s any Dreamworks Animation franchise that shows off the full potential of the studio, it’s How to Train Your Dragon!… Though Kung Fu Panda is in a close second.

With two critically and commercially successful movies already under the franchise’s belt, both of which being great blends of exciting action, heartfelt charm and hysterical comedy, the four-and-a-half-year wait for a third installment in the acclaimed series was especially brutal. Making matters worse is that Kung Fu Panda 3 saw a delay out of its originally planned late 2015 release window, since Dreamworks Animation and 20th Century Fox didn’t want to compete against the duo of Disney/Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur and Fox’s own Alvin & The Chipmunks: The Road Chip, along with the mammoth Disney/LucasFilm release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which all made for a Holiday season that was pretty much already cornered at the movies.

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Fortunately, Kung Fu Panda 3 didn’t slip too far into 2016, though its January release certainly feels odd. January is one of the worst months of the year for movie releases. Since it comes off the especially busy Holiday season, it’s a popular month for studios to dump their garbage movies that can’t be marketed at any other time of year, without even the benefit of some of the Oscar contenders that sometimes help salvage the similar September lineup of any given year, excluding re-releases and December holdovers that sometimes linger in theatres after the holidays. Releasing a high-profile blockbuster animated movie like Kung Fu Panda 3 this month would seem to be inexplicable to many.

Don’t let the release month fool you though, since Kung Fu Panda 3 is every bit the superb final product that its two predecessors were, and could be the best in the series to date! With Po’s origins finally coming to light, and a cool new villain breaking out of the Spirit Realm to attack China, Kung Fu Panda 3 offers another batch of the same blend of dazzling animation, high-quality fun, and potent heart. It’s still similar to the previous two movies, and its wide-eyed simplicity is still kept squarely within the realms of kid-friendly presentation, but for viewers of all ages, Kung Fu Panda 3 is 2016’s first highly recommendable crowd-pleaser!

CHARACTERS

The familiar leads from the previous two Kung Fu Panda movies make a return in Kung Fu Panda 3, and they’re about the same as you remember them. Po is still the well-meaning, but inept do-gooder who has an accidental destiny thrust upon him. Master Shifu is still the exasperated teacher who has to put up with Po’s failings, albeit to a lesser extent this time, since we’re now on the third movie, and the valley has had plenty of time to accept Po as the Dragon Warrior. The Furious Five are still their usual selves, even though some, like Viper in particular, barely get any lines or characterization this time. Po’s adopted father, Mr. Ping is also the same lovable noodle maker that he always was.

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Even though the leads would be well familiar at this point, things still get shaken up pretty well however, when Po’s father, Li Shan, voiced by Bryan Cranston, finds his way to the Valley of Peace, and Po is reunited with him, with these events springing off of the cliffhanger ending of 2011’s Kung Fu Panda 2. This creates a conflict between Li and Mr. Ping, since Mr. Ping gets territorial with his adopted son, and feels threatened by the fact that Po clearly has a lot in common with his biological father, down to their appearance and outlandish eating habits. Fortunately, this leads to the biggest role yet for Mr. Ping in Kung Fu Panda 3, who stows away with Po and Li, when Li decides to take his son to the hidden Panda Village, where Po is actually from.

Unfortunately, the most terrifying villain that Po has faced yet is also in the process of breaking out of the Spirit Realm, that being Kai, an enchanted bull with two jade swords chained to his arms, voiced by J.K. Simmons, who is a master of stealing Chi, which allows him to capture and control the spirits of Kung Fu masters as jade soldiers. Kai is the nemesis of the late Master Oogway, making him another great way that these movies continue to increase the scale of their villains with every new installment. Kai’s presence is also effectively worked into the introduction of Li to boot, as the ways of Chi were actually taught within the Panda Village, so Po has to travel there anyway, in order to gain the skills necessary to defeat Kai, as only a true Master of Chi can destroy him.

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As you can see, the central character arc of Po is once again similar to the prior two movies. Po must once again face a villain who is a master of a special skill that Po hasn’t yet learned to use, and a comical journey of self-discovery will unfold, which has Po attaining a new level of spiritual growth, which ultimately allows him to defeat the bad guy at their own game. Like I said, the formula of Kung Fu Panda is pretty reliable at this point, but it’s also a fine example of Dreamworks Animation wisely not fixing what isn’t broken. The addition of the Panda Village also adds in the necessary novelty to make Kung Fu Panda 3 avoid feeling like a re-tread of the former two movies, as we get a great look at Po’s origins, and effectively move beyond the Valley of Peace.

Kung Fu Panda 3 also carries the interesting angle of Po having to pass on his knowledge, when Kai sets his sights on the Panda Village once again. Po is the only hope to teach the helpless, carefree pandas how to defend themselves, which the trailers also showcased at length. The movie uses this device to deliver a heartwarming message about family, along with the series’ usual message of believing in oneself and embracing what makes one unique, which still hasn’t gotten old, and still makes Kung Fu Panda 3 an emotionally satisfying movie for adults, while still carrying a simple, yet great moral to share with children.

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Ultimately, Kung Fu Panda 3 strikes a fine balance between what to keep familiar, and what to freshen up in its latest installment. The movie’s altered focus on Po and his background works great, and the decreased emphasis on the Valley of Peace, which was already effectively covered in the previous two movies, isn’t something that comes to the detriment of the cast. The new panda personalities are a lot of fun, and the addition of Po’s father creates a strong balance between humour and drama, especially as Po begins to learn of just how he ended up in the valley, under Mr. Ping’s care. Even with audiences no longer having to fill in the blanks themselves when it comes to Po’s backstory, Kung Fu Panda 3 offers as much fun and heart with its cast as the predecessors did, if not even more!

PLOT

As I said, the plot behind Kung Fu Panda 3 is pretty simple, and continues to tread pretty closely to the story foundations of the previous two movies. The Panda Village is the primary thing helping to keep Kung Fu Panda 3 distinct, as is its new supernatural villain, but this makes Kung Fu Panda 3 effectively feel like a novel and exciting adventure, without betraying what made these movies so appealing in the first place.

Once again, the movie has a little bit of everything when it comes to making a simple, but lovable kid-friendly flick. There’s also some pretty funny callback jokes to the first Kung Fu Panda movie in particular, though the new humour based around an entire village of pandas that heavily resemble Po, is pretty great as well.

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When it comes down to it, the story of Kung Fu Panda 3 remains pretty simple, but even with its story formula being well-established now, the tale doesn’t disappoint in its third incarnation. The heavier focus on Po makes for a movie that is slightly deeper and more family-driven, though no less appealing, and still plenty digestible for kids. The story is yet again very well-crafted, and feels both fun and exciting, as well as genuinely humourous and easily lovable, for any viewer.

DIRECTION

Kung Fu Panda 2’s director, Jennifer Yuh Nelson returns to helm Kung Fu Panda 3, this time with a co-director, Alessandro Carloni. Carloni formerly did animation and storyboards for all of the previous Kung Fu Panda movies, along with some of the short films as well, so the combination of familiar helmers probably explains why Kung Fu Panda 3 isn’t rocking the boat too much when it comes to its story foundations, beyond the change in principal setting.

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Kung Fu Panda 3 stays very true to the style of the previous two movies, which is a great thing. As usual, the fun voice work is outstanding, the animation is very stylish and energetic, and during the handful of moments where Kung Fu Panda 3 gets emotional, it will even make you a bit teary. Despite this sequel coming with a familiar presentation, said presentation is as good as it ever was, and the way that both Nelson and Carloni make use of a whole village full of Po-like pandas adds to even more great comedic possibilities, which the movie capitalizes on well, without becoming so goofy that it ceases to be cool.

MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK

The sugary, Chinese-string filled soundtrack to Kung Fu Panda 3 once again echoes the soundtrack of the previous two movies, but is still well-composed and great fun to listen to. The music is yet again put together by super-composer Hans Zimmer, albeit no longer as a collaboration with John Powell this time. Fortunately, Zimmer doesn’t seem to suffer from the loss of Powell, as Kung Fu Panda 3’s score is as energetic and fun as ever!

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As for the rest of the audio, it also packs a lot of cartoonish punch, and makes the movie’s handful of action scenes a true delight to experience, even in a kid-friendly animated movie. The audio is generally pretty fluffy, as usual, but it still gives the action sequences a great sense of fun, and is equally great when it comes to the frequent helpings of effective slapstick humour as well. There’s just as much pep and vigor behind these movies as ever, and that’s best displayed through the highly entertaining audio suite!

VISUAL EFFECTS

It should come as no surprise that Kung Fu Panda 3’s animation work is nothing short of stunning. As usual, the movie conveys a colourful blend of CG and Chinese scroll-style animation, giving it a unique look that continues to be very striking. The environments of the Spirit Realm are a particular highlight, where the combat is given a spectacular new dimension, on a battlefield where traditional physics don’t seem to apply. It’s thanks to this in particular that Kung Fu Panda 3 easily has the most awesome and exciting climax of the three current movies, though even before that, the movie is constantly lively, vibrant, and an absolute treat for the eyes!

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As you can imagine, seeing the movie in 3D makes the animation leap off of the screen even more as well. Kung Fu Panda 3 is still visually dazzling when you watch it flat in 2D, but the movie really is at its best in 3D. The wonderful flourishes of colour and action-packed light shows are at their strongest in the 3D cut, where they constantly pop and engage the audience on a higher and more satisfying sensory level. The 3D presentation is loads of fun to experience, and it definitely comes highly recommended to anyone who actively enjoys 3D movies, since that’s really the ideal way to watch Kung Fu Panda 3, even if the 2D cut still offers a lot of well-realized animation.

THE VERDICT

Despite changing the setting and yet again introducing a new villain, Kung Fu Panda 3 sticks to the well-trodden design path of its two predecessors. That said though, the franchise still hasn’t lost any steam in its third installment, which is as appealing as ever, and one of the strongest movies in the series to date!

Despite releasing in the normally dismal month of January, Kung Fu Panda 3 is 2016’s first truly great movie, and continues to uphold this Dreamworks Animation franchise’s high quality standard. Its story foundation may be familiar, but this nonetheless means that the same reliable blend of action, comedy and heart continues to work very well, for audiences of all ages. The movie feels even more fun to watch in 3D, where its cartoonish excitement most effectively grips audiences.

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Normally, January manages at least one acceptable tide-over movie, something to see while you wait for better movies to start trickling out in February and March, but this year, Kung Fu Panda 3 feels like a movie that’s more than that. It’s a movie that will still be great, even when the year is over, and while we no doubt have plenty of superb movies to look forward to throughout 2016, Kung Fu Panda 3 gets 2016 at the movies off to an earlier proper start than usual. It’s currently unknown whether the franchise will proceed beyond this point, but even if Kung Fu Panda 4 never ultimately materializes, I’d say that this is a pretty satisfying note to close things out on, even if I’m still eagerly hoping to see Po and friends continue to return to the big screen in the future.

Kung Fu Panda 3 Review
Kung Fu Panda 3, despite its release in one of the worst months of the year for movies, is the first truly great crowd-pleaser of 2016, continuing the franchise's high quality standard of fun action, energetic comedy, and potent heart.
CHARACTERS85%
PLOT85%
DIRECTION90%
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK85%
VISUAL EFFECTS95%
THE GOOD STUFF
  • Same lovable characters, with great new additions
  • Animation and action remains dazzling, especially in 3D
  • Story continues to finely balance humour and heart
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
  • Story foundation remains similar to the previous movies
88%Overall Score
Reader Rating: (3 Votes)
75%

About The Author

Senior Editor

Brent Botsford has reviewed video games, movies and television for over a decade. He is also a Twitch Affiliate at twitch.tv/venuszen , presenting new, retro and independent games as the, "Sixth-Handsomest Gamer on the Internet', VenusZen, flexing his personality with comedy, heart and just that right dose of sex appeal.

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