Animated films are often built around concepts to help viewers understand, accept and cope with things they may encounter in their lives. Fittingly, the movies about a seemingly clumsy bear have generally offered messages about self-confidence and achieving one’s potential via the protagonist, while encouraging tolerance and not judging anyone based on their appearance through the other characters. But once a picture has endeared audiences to its personalities, it has the opportunity to expand its sphere. In the sequel, they must conquer their fears and work together to face overwhelming odds. Now, in Kung Fu Panda 3, the characters tackle the more complex idea of nature vs. nurture and what constitutes family.
After events in the first sequel and Po’s (Jack Black) triumphs as dragon warrior, his latest task at the temple is to become a teacher. However, as most things Po-related, that’s easier said than done. In addition to struggling with more responsibilities, he’s having a crisis of self. Learning his mother was murdered and Mr. Ping (James Hong) is his adoptive father has raised questions about from where he came. But having sensed his son’s existence at the end of the last film, Li Shun (Bryan Cranston) comes to find him. In the meantime, a new evil arrives from the spirit realm hell bent on destroying Oogway’s (Randall Duk Kim) legacy. As Kai (J.K. Simmons) absorbs the souls of every martial arts expert, the Furious Five discover the only way to defeat him is to study the panda secret and become a Master of Chi. But Po’s quest for self-actualization is predictably complicated.
When Po’s biological father arrives, Mr. Ping feels threatened by their immediate comradery. Having never met, they still appear to have so much in common with Po inheriting his father’s looks, appetite and “pandasthma.” Po is excited to learn about his ancestry, which becomes integral to the story, but he is obviously also the product of the goose that raised him and who he still refers to as “Dad” (together, they are “dads”). The depiction of this untraditional family structure is even more important in a world of adoption and two fathers, no matter how that unit may be connected. It’s a commendable aspect of the movie and one that was not especially difficult to incorporate.
With the exception of Tigress, the female presence in these films has not been strong. Here, she maintains a prominent role in the narrative and is still key to the eventual resolution; though due to the nature of the story, she is always second to Po. This time her character may be more reflective of voice actress Angelina Jolie‘s maternal side rather than the tougher personalities she’s portrayed previously as Tigress is compelled to protect a young panda that becomes inseparable from the “stripy lady.” Kate Hudson also lends her voice as a ribbon dancer who vies for Po’s attention and proves pretty competent with nunchucks.
Overall this story is comparable to the first sequel, while neither would achieve the greatness of the original. However, this enemy is more frightening than is typical of a children’s film with Kai appearing surprisingly intimidating in certain scenes. But the darkness is balanced with the amusing antics of Po and his dads, as well as a stunning, effervescent display in the final battle.