Friday, 6 May 2016

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) - Movie Review

While How To Train Your Dragon serves as a lot of people’s evidence that Dreamworks is far better than we give them credit for, the Kung Fu Panda films are also an example of the studio at their best. Admittedly, the entire franchise started on a rather ill-fitting note by casting Jack Black as the main character, and sure his mannerisms were quite grating to start out with, but it had a sense of excitement and fun that a lot of other recent family films were lacking. The animation was high-energy and very well-crafted, leading to probably some of the best fight scenes of any film series of the last several years, the acting was top-notch with an all-star cast that contained some real martial arts legends like Jackie Chan and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Oh, and the writing took the standard “be yourself” theme of a lot of family-friendly fare and executed it so well that it managed to break the mould of its kind and surpass the genre clich├ęs. You can imagine, with a pedigree like this, that this third film would have some rather high expectations. For reasons I will get into with the review proper, I was really not looking forward to this. But hey, after the weaksauce family offerings of the last long while, I’m still positive that this will be a decent watch. How decent is the question, though.

The plot: Centuries after his defeat at the hands of Master Oogway, spirit warrior Kai (J.K. Simmons) has returned to the mortal realm using the stolen chi of the other masters in the Spirit Realm. The Dragon Warrior Po (Jack Black), who has just been reunited with his biological father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), has arrived in a secluded panda village and rediscovered his own people. However, Kai plans to steal the chi of the Dragon Warrior and gain ultimate power and it’s up to Po to train the village in the ways of kung-fu in preparation for the attack.

Given how the advertising for this film made this element fairly obvious, and the sooner I get it out of the way the less likely I am to start making Mists Of Pandaria jokes, we might as well start off the most prominent thing about this film: The pandas. Now, as is usual for an awful lot of Jack Black-starring roles, his portrayal of Po did take a little while to get used to. Hell, even in this film after so much familiarity with the role, his fanboy dude-isms can still be a bit much at times. So, in keeping with a long running history of thought when it comes to popular comic relief characters (which, let’s face, Po still is despite all that has happened to him), the filmmakers decided to multiply him in an attempt to multiply the funny.

The core problem with that idea is that it is one of the single dumbest moves for any production to take. It continues the mishandled notion that just because one character is funny, then that means we’ll perfectly fine with dozens and dozens of them, and it is here that Po’s initial character irritants come back by the truckload. Up until a very brushed-aside plot twist that most should be able to see coming a mile off, Po (and in turn, the audience) is meant to find comfort in the fact that Po found his own people at last. This would be fine if they didn’t unload all of their obnoxiousness at once, making roughly a quarter of the film a bit of a pain to sit through. I’d call it too much of a good thing, except they seem to only embody the bad things about the character; such is the case with most films who try this idea.

After seeing how well the last two films handled their characters, gotta admit, this is a real let-down. The fact that Po is still spinning his wheels in terms of ‘who he truly is’ is manageable because personal identity is kind of a big cog in the series’ machine. No, I’m more referring to the fact that, of the characters that return for this film, he is literally the only one who is given anything to do. Second to him is Tigress, and even then she mainly gets reduced to a baby panda’s plaything in more ways than one. Before you take that statement in the wrong light, kindly remember this is a PG-rated film not written by hacks; you’ll understand if you watch the film. Other than those two, everyone else is basically reduced to one or two lines of dialogue and made into even bigger damsels in distress than they already were in the second film. Well, everyone else save for Mr. Ping, whose initial parental overbearing reaches near-My Big Fat Greek Wedding levels. It probably doesn’t help that the entire subplot involving him, Po and Li Shan completely negates the ending of the second film with where it left Po and Ping’s relationship. That said, weirdly enough, I really liked how they handled the whole two fathers aspect and the conclusion that its reaches; seriously, after the still-lingering nightmare of Daddy’s Home, it’s nice seeing a film with actual brains at work.

But let’s get to the worst example of character handling in this film, and overall the biggest issue with the film as a whole: Kai. Now, don’t get me wrong, Simmons’ acting is perfectly fine. Hell, even with how their characters get muddled in areas, all the acting still holds up to the series standard. I especially liked Cranston in his paternal role, but then again I expected good from a guy who actually has a seldom-known history of voice acting. If you’ve ever watched the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, you’ve heard this guy do voice work at some point. But anyway, getting back on topic, Kai just doesn’t have the push to him that made Tai Lung and Lord Shen work so well. Tai Lung might be one of the most complex antagonists I’ve seen in any family film, and while Shen didn’t have quite the same nurtured background to build him up, his own backstory combined with his almost Greek tragedy-level hubris made him work as well. That, and Gary Oldman is always good as the villain. Kai has some traces of drive when it comes how he is remembered, but otherwise he lacks of a lot of narrative power to balance out his physical power. And while we’re talking about physical power, and seeing as how I’ve already brought the Greeks into this, I can’t be the only one who was thinking Kratos when this guy first appeared.

Much like with Hotel Transylvania, the Kung Fu Panda films so far have been great showcases for very skilled and energetic CGI. Except where Hotel Transylvania was all manic and Tex Avery, these films operated a lot like Po himself: A lot more graceful than you’d give it credit for. Not only that, the art style might well be one of the most striking of just about any franchise film of late with how it keeps finding new ways to bend traditional line animation around the computer animation. Also much like Hotel Transylvania, this latest instalment doesn’t have quite the same punch to it that it used to. The fight scenes are still good and Po’s extremely rubbery face is intact, but this feels like a lot more work was put into the editing than to the animation. Rather than trying to craft large, sweeping frames, this film does a lot of segmenting and splintering of the frame into different sections during quite a few of the fight scenes. It’s really just a stylistic change-up and it isn’t inherently bad; it’s just that there is definitely something lost without that sense of scope that was previously shown.

All in all, even with all of its issues, this was still an entertaining watch. The acting is still stellar, the animation may be more toned down but it’s still showing the high quality that Dreamworks should be better known for, and the way the story builds on the previous instalments honestly makes this a nice closer to the trilogy. If they end up making more of these films, I’m not opposed to the idea; I just hope that they find a stronger foundation than the one they went with this time.

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