So, my housemates and I hurried along to see the new Kung Fu Panda film. Being a house of high brow intellectuals, we were the first ones there on opening night, much to the chagrin of my fellow film students. Here are my thoughts on the finale (?) of the Kung Fu Panda trilogy…
In this film, Po (Jack Black) now comfortable in his role as the Dragon Warrior becomes united with his fellow Pandas, and must go on a quest to find who he truly is… (moral heavy – handedness ahead folks, it is a children’s film…). Meanwhile, Master Oogway’s (Randall Duk Kim) former partner Kai (J.K Simmons) returns from the underworld to steal all of the powers (chi) from the Kung Fu Masters in China. Po must master his chi, and discover who he is, within this 95-minute film, in order to defeat him and save China… will he fulfill the prophecy?
The major problem with this film, is its abruptness. The previous film set up a really interesting plot line with the discovery of Po’s past, leading to the need to rediscover the Pandas. However, I was surprised when Po’s father appeared (apropos of nothing) alarmingly early in the film. Li (voiced by Bryan Cranston, who seems to have returned back to his comedy work after a brief interlude as a drug lord) magically appears to Po in the noodle shop after the universe has called him there. Whilst it is suggested that we should laugh at this “universe mail”, I found it disappointing that there wasn’t more focus on Po ‘finding himself’ in reuniting with this father (as, perhaps, in traditional Kung Fu stories) and instead this potential narrative is removed entirely – it almost feels like I am deprived something as a spectator by not being allowed to share in Po’s rediscovery of his family in a satisfying and cathartic manner. The reunion is glossed over, and we move on.
As always in Childen’s film, there is a moral. The moral stance of the film, is, as always, to be yourself. Fine. And this message, as expected comes from Po’s need to reconcile all aspects of himself. Also fine. nothing groundbreaking, aid on with a trowel, as expected, but perfectly acceptable. The only irritation I found was that the story of the Pandas, which was set up so well in the last film was not explored (maybe it didn’t need to be after the last film? I haven’t watched it in a while). The Panda segments were enjoyable, and the baby pandas were FRICKEN ADORABLE ICAN’TEVEN but rather than being a central plot point, the pandas are kind of irrelevant until the end, which is a shame.
The film does explore the tension between Po’s adopted father and Po’s biological father. A homage to the ‘new’ modern family, which, though obvious is not unwelcome and I am glad that kids film has finally addressed it. I do find this plot line a little unnecessary, and I wish they had focused more on Po’s journey in the way I feel like they implied (going out to discover the Panda’s and eventually reconciling) rather than the focus on the fathers in a ‘let’s all get along’ type of way, but it serves its purpose. On a side note, Mr Ping (James Hong, Po’s adopted goose father) is probably my favourite character in the series.
|Mr Ping, the real hero… ❤|
Po’s reconciliation (which does happen – just not in the way I was anticipating) and fight with Kai, features a genuinely moving moment where his fellow Pandas help him, and they too, rediscover their chi. My housemates laughed at me, but I did think this moment was effective and I enjoyed it as a moment of catharsis in the film. The following fight sequence with Po as his ‘ultimate self’ was also well done. Cliche (obviously) but an interesting and satisfying climax narratively, and in terms of the art techniques deployed throughout the film (more on this later).
Kai, as a villain, was quite good. I though he looked cool (as silly as that sounds) although the film wasn’t really about him – he was necessary so as to provide an antagonist. One of my housemate’s though it would have been more impressive if there would have been visible changes with each chi he took – so, for example, you would be able to see what powers he had gained. I take his point, but you do see that once he has the powers he utilises each new chi in his army of ‘Jombies’ (Jade zombies) – which were pretty cool. Kai is hardly a ‘Claudius’ to Po’s ‘Hamlet’ but again, he serves his purpose. On the whole, I think Shen (the Gary Oldman Peacock) was a better villain because he was just pure evil.
The art style in the film was the most experimental it has been in any of the trilogy. As in the second film, the use of the ‘animated scroll’ was reinstated to talk about Po and Master Oogway’s pasts, and about the Pandas, which helped create some narrative continuity – and also beautiful to watch. The filmmakers also used some interesting experiments with aspect ratio and split screen, in a very Tarantino-esque way, which was really interesting to watch and only served to further the intertextuality the films show with other traditional Kung Fu/Fighting films. These are the sort of techniques which you can simply watch and enjoy,or make connections with other references and enjoy all the more. As the film reaches the climax, and Po does fulfill the prophecy there’s a wonderful moment where the normal art style of the film shifts to the 2D and sharp shadows of the prophecy segments in the previous films, and it is a really wonderful visual moment of completion which, although more subtle, I think rivals the change made in The Wizard of Oz with the movement from monochrome to technicolor. It is a fantastic use of film form to signify change. The art in all of the Kung Fu Panda’s has been really good, and this one was no exception – perhaps a little too much experimentation with form? But that’s a weak criticism, and its always so nice to see someone actually do something a little different, even if it is a pastiche, that I won’t complain.
A criticism I will bring up is that I feel this was the least funny of the trilogy. The characters/actors seemed too settled into their roles, to the point where they have become stereotypes of themselves rather than stereotypes of others. This resulted in a few of the jokes and quips coming across as flat and forced. There was nothing that made me truly laugh but I did chuckle all the way through. The guy behind me, however, thought it was hysterical – so, it’s all a matter of opinion. (Note: I recall in the second film, Po attempting to do a speech to Shen, and the gag was that he was too far away to hear. I remember crying with laughter over this, and there was nothing that made me do that in the third one. See below.).
Finally, the film concludes with a musical number, (I now have ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ stuck in my head). A nice way to end the series and a true reminder that for all of my criticisms, this is a children’s film, and I do think it will be enjoyed. The narrative seems fairly well rounded off, so I wonder if there will be another sequel in the works, or if it will now be relegated to a Netflix spin-off series. I hope they leave it as it is, Po’s story arc is complete, though it may have been a little lacklustre in places. Please, DreamWorks, leave it be…
Overall, it was a fun film, if not as good as it’s predecessors – the curse of all sequels. I would give it 7/10 for general enjoyment.
Now, we await the new Ice Age (groan)….