Where the first Kung Fu Panda showed us how our panda protagonist Po accepted his destiny and the second showed us his acceptance of his past, the third installment in the Kung Fu Panda franchise tells us how he accepted his panda culture and his newfound kinsmen. Like its predecessors, Kung Fu Panda 3 is a surprisingly good movie, though viewers will be confused if they haven’t seen the first Kung Fu Panda. The plot hinges on many concepts and characters that were developed in the first movie and given little explanation here. While viewers do not need to see Kung Fu Panda 2 to understand its sequel’s plot, those who have seen Kung Fu Panda 2 will enjoy some additional context to scenes involving Po’s parents.
Kung Fu Panda 3 adopts a more artistic aesthetic than its predecessors, favoring calligraphic brushstrokes over the more traditional CGI. This film is probably the most stylized of the three – the use of shadows and contrast has expanded compared to the previous two, creating an atmosphere more reminiscent of a painting than a flesh-and-blood world. This works surprisingly well with the anthropomorphic CGI characters – watching Po and pals jump from one pastel-colored cloud to the next doesn’t feel jarring at all. In fact, the added whimsy only serves to accentuate the fresh, delightful nature of the setting that has captured the hearts of viewers since the original Kung Fu Panda.
Anyone looking for action will likely be disappointed – the first Kung Fu Panda still has the best fights of the franchise – though the fight scenes in Kung Fu Panda 3 are serviceable. While the influx of supernatural powers and cute panda antics in Kung Fu Panda 3’s fights gives the film an added dose of charm, it cannot compare to the dynamism of the original’s raw, unadulterated Kung Fu.
The predominance of supernatural elements as a plot device in Kung Fu Panda 3 is largely to the film’s detriment; this film’s villain, the supernatural chi-stealing ox Kai, is by far the most superfluous of the franchise. Many of the film’s themes and subplots – Po coming to terms with his panda heritage, Po continuing his destiny as the Dragon Warrior – have already been resolved in a more satisfactory manner in the prequels. Again, Kung Fu Panda 3 is by no means a bad movie – the all-star cast has done a wonderful job reprising their roles, and the film is jam-packed with comedy, thrills, and genuine warmth – but it feels largely unnecessary. Unless you’re looking for a quick kids flick to distract the little ones while still being entertained, you’re better off watching the first two and leaving it at that.