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Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Kung Fu Panda 3.

Kung Fu Panda 3.

I once heard someone describe the first Kung Fu Panda as a nearly perfect film, and while I don't necessarily agree with that, it is fairly brilliant, and certainly one of the two gems in Dreamworks' crown (with the other, one supposes, being the How To Train Your Dragon franchise, which is in many respects Kung Fu Panda's sister franchise, with each film in each series being released along similar time frames and utilising very similar animation techniques and tones), and Kung Fu Panda 2 was, in my opinion, even better. As you might expect then, I've been pretty excited about Kung Fu Panda 3. Not excited enough to go see it in the cinema, but still fairly enthused.

Set some time after the second film, Kung Fu Panda 3 sees Kai, an ancient martial artist banished to the Spirit World by Oogway five hundred years prior, returning to the mortal world after capturing the chi of every kung fu master in the Spirit World, including Oogway himself. Forewarned that the Dragon Warrior will stop him, he sets off to find Po and steal his chi, forcing Po to travel to a hidden panda village with his biological father, in order to learn how to use his own chi. When the Jade Palace is destroyed, however, and Po discovers that his father has no idea how to use chi, he must train the village pandas into an army to face Kai.

I think this is probably my least favourite of the three films, and it's difficult to put my finger on precisely why that is. Possibly it's that the film starts off feeling quite confused and busy. Possibly it's that it doesn't really hit its stride until the third act. Maybe it's that, while the first two films were at least somewhat ensemble, this one is very clearly Po's story and Po's alone, going so far as to have Shifu and the Furious Five (sans Tigress) turned into evil jade statues.

Po's father.

We'll start off with the good things first, though: This film is beautifully animated, with an excellent soundtrack, a pitch-perfect cast of voice actors (including J.K. Simmons as Kai, although I thought it was Idris Elba for a few moments when he first appeared) and a storyline that feels like a definitive and satisfying finish to the franchise - or, at the very least, to Po's story within it.

If the story falls down anywhere, it's in its pacing. There are a lot of different plot elements trying to be fit in here: Po's conflict with his fathers and their conflict with each other, his personal struggle to truly know himself and learn to use how to use chi, his struggle with transitioning from student to teacher, and his external struggle with Kai. While those plot elements are all individually handled quite well, it's a lot of different balls to juggle simultaneously, and the result is that a lot of other elements - the supporting characters chief among them, but also the wider world - get all but abandoned.

Shifu has a much reduced role compared to the other films.

It also leads to the film feeling a bit floundering until the third act, when Po starts training the pandas (in a pretty excellent montage), because until that point several of the plotlines (Po's struggle with becoming a teacher, and his own struggle to know himself) get relegated to the sidelines in favour of hijinks in the panda village - hijinks which serve an important role in the plot, but which could have been cut down in length to a montage. Once the film hits that third act, though, it shifts into something pretty brilliant, and that's only enhanced by that third act having some of the best animated sequences in the film - including Po's fight with Kai, which is dynamic, colourful, and striking.

Kai, who is apparently a yak.

In that respect, the ending is far superior to the opening, which is a little strange, since Kung Fu Panda films have always had pretty excellent openings. This one feels a little phoned in, and it comes across as more confusing than anything, a jumble of action with very little substance behind it and almost no explanation of what's going on - and I can imagine that it would have been even more confusing if this was the first film in the franchise I'd seen. 

Still, I did really enjoy this film, even if it's a very long way from being my favourite film in the franchise. It was warm, funny, had some great action scenes, and a pretty brilliant ending. It's not a perfect film, but it's a pretty good ending to a fairly celebrated franchise - not that it necessarily even is the ending, it just very much feels like it is. A quick check on the internet shows that there's the possibility of another three films being added to the franchise, which feels like way, way too many, but sure, you do you, Dreamworks.

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