“The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner; now, I am the master.”
— Darth Vader, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
Watching Kung Fu Panda 3, I couldn’t help but think of this line. Of course, the student-turned-master is not an evil Sith Lord, but the well-intentioned, big-hearted, and delightfully clumsy Po (Jack Black), panda-turned-Dragon Warrior. Aided by a wonderful story, a delightful script, and astounding animation, Kung Fu Panda 3 feels like the most complete and best film of the series. This is no ordinary, throwaway sequel; Kung Fu Panda 3 is just as much a furthering of Po’s natural progression as a person as it is an emotional deepening of the series’ core.
Over the last two Kung Fu Panda films, he’s experienced a lot of growth as a kung fu student and as a person, and now it’s time to put it to good use – Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is leaving Po in charge of his adopted kung fu family, in essence pushing Po into adulthood. A lot gets thrown his way, all of which he has to deal with as both the Dragon Warrior and son of swan goose Mr. Ping (James Hong), but he also has to deal with it on his own level through his usual comedic simplification. As one of the staples of the Kung Fu Panda series, it’s a trait of Po’s that hasn’t grown any more endearing, but never more annoying, either. His own ways of learning his path are a lot like a child’s, complete with his awe at the world and what it holds.
With the arrival of Kai (J. K. Simmons), one of the film’s villains, we get a little bit of the original Kung Fu Panda film being turned upon itself. Using his powers to rob the chi of all living or dead masters of martial arts, he literally turns four of the Furious Five – Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Crane (David Cross) – and Master Shifu himself against Po, leaving Tigress (Angelina Jolie) as the only one of Po’s allies able to help him. It’s a perversion of the original film, as they’re not just against Po because Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) chose him to be the Dragon Warrior; they’re out to literally destroy him due to Kai’s influence.
Tugging Po in a different direction is the discovery of his biological father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston). His role? Teaching Po to be a panda and guiding him away from his life with Mr. Ping, who also has to come to grips with Li Shan being in Po’s life. A lot of social commentary is to be had here: nature vs. nurture, two fathers (which could either be a lesson in step-parenting or an encouraging, solid example of same-sex couples), and empathy. Right or wrong, both Mr. Ping and Li Shan are there for Po, which results in a struggle with coming to terms with who he is and what both parents mean to him. This conflict takes up the bulk of Kung Fu Panda 3, essentially becoming another villain for Po to fight in addition to Kai.
Kung Fu Panda 3 is all of the dreams and reality of the original Kung Fu Panda coming true. We find out exactly what it means to be the Dragon Warrior, and hoo boy, it ain’t just a title. Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger’s script pushes Po’s original dreams into being, a culmination of the lessons and hard work this unassuming, goofy panda endured to get to this point. It’s an innocence guided by directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni (click here to listen to DC Filmdom’s interview with them), whose vision has resulted in one of the best-animated films in recent memory, even more engaging and striking in its native 3D.
The first Kung Fu Panda established the rules and our heroes, content to be a comedy with some emotional depth; Kung Fu Panda 2 gave Po even more emotional depth and wisdom. Now, with Kung Fu Panda 3, Po gets to let it all hang out and give some of it back. What I like about this series is that none of the films are mere retreads and not happy with just being junk fodder for kids. There are actual issues at stake with every film, and the Kung Fu Panda series deals with all of it with a surprisingly mature immaturity, being not just enjoyable for families, but having good messages to go along with them as well. Should Kung Fu Panda 3 serve as the final entry for Po and his adventures, they’ll have capped the series off with a very satisfying and captivating film.