About eight to ten years ago, DreamWorks studios were at full throttle. 3D animation was “the thing”, and in many respects it still is. However, their competition was stiff. The Pixar-Disney power duo was cranking out blockbuster after blockbuster with heavyweights like Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Up and a score of others competing for the box office, and with some dubious production choices such as Shark Tale and Bee Movie (really inspired names, guys, good job!) plus a few others which cut it waaay too close to the profit margin, DreamWorks had to come up with something fresh. Sure, they had the Shrek franchise (which I have to say I never really “got”) pouring in the dough, but simultaneously dropping in ratings like an unfunny ogre down a mineshaft. Something had to be done.
Enter Kung Fu Panda. Quick-witted, smart, touching and funny in all the right places, it came about as a more than pleasant surprise. It was very well thought out for its intended audience, and Po’s gushing yells of “Awesome!” and “Whoa!” not only identified with the younger crowd whose go-to word for anything was “epic”, but would have also made 80s Keanu Reeves proud! Its sequel even defied the downward slope that follow-ups usually take after a successful and fresh movie idea. And now here we are in 2016, with the third installment in our collective lap. Following a strangely staggered release schedule, Kung Fu Panda 3 hits Norway almost two months after being screened in the US or China, but setting all that aside, let’s see if it’s up to par.
I’ve always appreciated the franchise’s visual style. The first two movies had excellently styled intros, which grabbed you and let you know exactly what to expect in terms of tone and setting. While the first movie did not insist too much on chromatic symbolism, the second clearly left a mark with its red-black-white palette which permeated into both story and characters. Kung Fu Panda 3 keeps this tendency, but this time contrasting the lovely jade green theme of evil with the warm peach tones of good. It works very well, and gives the animators the chance to shine when it comes to making a visual impact. CG animation gives us so many possibilities that it’s nice to see that studios use them in a truly artistic way, not just by ramping up the polygons and dusting off the textures.
Since I’ve mentioned evil, I will say that the main antagonist is not as interesting or tragic as Lord Shen of the second movie, but then neither was Tai Lung. He is not as one-dimensional as the latter (this is a pun, but you’ll only get it after seeing the movie, hohoho!) and his slightly humorous air makes a good case for him but ultimately fails to make him a worthy enemy. The Furious Five recede into the background even more (Lucy Liu’s recording session must have taken thirty seconds at most, but at least they gave Jackie Chan a few more lines this time) as new characters show up, many of them nameless but adorable due to their dopey behavior. I sensed a love story that was probably abandoned midway during production, but honestly I think it may be better that way. There’s only one thing Po loves, and that’s food.
What’s even better is the cast. The stable lineup is already well known, but they’ve really gone all out for this one and brought in some big names for the new characters. Brian Cranston is in the house, y’all, not to mention the amazing JK Simmons, with whose voice I fell in love ever since he was berating me in Portal 2. Kate Hudson joins the all-star cast as well, and if you look over the full list online, you’ll find a few Easter eggs in there.
All these things combine with a good sense of pacing, which doesn’t create any downtime. The movie knows when to be silly and when to tone it down so that sadness and loss can tug at your heartstrings. You’ll see ridiculous action scenes worthy of an over-the-top Kung Fu movie, you’ll see moments of glorious power, but don’t get too comfy because a food joke is never too far away. Speaking of, this movie is literally full of hundreds of dumplings and no one will judge you if you walk out of the cinema and head straight for some Asian cuisine.
Kung Fu Panda would have been a great trilogy if it ended here, but there are plans for up to three more sequels. I haven’t seen the TV show, but things must be going well over at Camp DreamWorks if they’re so confident that they can keep this franchise going. I for one am a little skeptical. I believe less is more, and many franchises would have been better off quitting while they were ahead. Yes, I’m looking at you, Pirates of the Caribbean! And you, Terminator! Regardless, it is a very satisfying movie and I can hardly fault it for some minor predictability since the lackluster moments are easily forgotten. Go see it, but bring dumplings!
Text: George Stoica