Kung Fu Panda 3

[Whereas I have an entry on the original Kung Fu Panda film in my 100 Animated Feature Films book, here’s my review of the third film for Sight & Sound magazine, published by the BFI. I also wrote an article on the film’s significance as a Chinese co-production for AllTheAnime.]

In today’s cinema of serialised fantasy epics, even Kung Fu Panda (2008) has grown to Joseph Campbell proportions. In Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), the bear hero Po learned of the destruction of his birthplace and species, but a sting ending showed his father was still alive in a secret panda valley. From that, most viewers could accurately predict the course of the third film, which centres on Po’s reunion with his long-lost father Li, voiced by Bryan Cranston, playing a far jollier patriarch than he did in TV’s Breaking Bad.

Scenes of boisterous bonding ensue, along with more poignant moments (Po’s mother, who actually rescued him, didn’t survive.) There are also Li’s inevitable clashes with Po’s adoptive father Mister Ping, who any fan of the films can tell you is an ever-fussing goose, voiced by James Hong. Equally inevitably, Po journeys to Li’s valley home deep in icy mountains, like Shangri-La from Lost Horizon (1937). “If I lived here, I wouldn’t tell anyone either,” snorts Mister Ping before the mist lifts. Of course, there’s a new villain – a yak escaped from the spirit world voiced by J.K. Simmons, though he’s not a patch on Gary Oldman’s resplendently psycho peacock in film two.

Kung Fu Panda 3 is an impressively polished franchise product, whose spectacular visuals and more hit-and-miss jokes mostly distract from the thin story and lengthy repetition of the morals we’ve heard before. None of the spiritual ‘find your real you’ lessons, delivered by Dustin Hoffman’s red panda and Randall Duk Kim’s Yoda tortoise, match the pithy climactic exchange in the original Panda. Then the gasping villain protested, “You’re just a big fat panda!” Po: “I’m not a big fat panda, I’m the big fat panda!”

The 2008 film was among the most beautiful CG cartoons when it opened; eight years on, it’s hard not to take the franchise’s spectacle for granted. It continues to play with stylised colours and images outside the norms for Hollywood animation, with some sequences harking back to both Chinese paintings and drawn animation (it’s worth staying to the end credits where many of the film’s scenes are beautifully reproduced in traditional-looking form). There are witty, dynamic split screens, while the flying battles in the spirit realm feel like beautified versions of the fantasy fights in Dragon Ball Z and similar anime series. Ironically, Teng Huatao, who directed the Chinese version of Panda (see below) stressed that he tried to remove anything if it looked not Chinese but Japanese.

The American film is co-directed by the Korean-American Jennifer Yuh Nelson (who co-directed the second Panda), together with the Italian animator Alessandro Carloni. Yuh’s continued prominence on one of animation’s most lucrative franchises is heartening in a field that still seems an all-boys holdout, especially after Pixar’s girl-power film Brave (2012) replaced director Brenda Chapman during production. Kung Fu Panda 3 may also earn progressive stars for presenting Po as a hero with two loving fathers – and the bachelor goose Mister Ping is at least as plausibly gay as the oft-queered Elsa from Disney’s Frozen (2013).

Commercially, though, the film’s lasting significance may be as an American-Chinese co-production. Reportedly, a third of Kung Fu Panda 3’s production work was done at the Oriental DreamWorks studio in Shanghai, which employed more than 200 people on the film. This gives Panda a preferential status in the Chinese market, where the second Panda was the highest-earning cartoon film ever. As mentioned above, there will be a distinct Chinese version of Panda 3 with modified animation. Hollywood already localises animated films in Asia – the Japanese Inside Out (2014) had the girl hating bell peppers rather than broccoli – but if successful, Kung Fu Panda 3 could set a gamechanging industrial precedent.