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When Dreamworks Animation released the first Kung Fu Panda back in 2008, I really had no expectations. There just didn’t seem to be a lot of potential in the idea of a panda bear who learned kung fu. Thanks to some perfect voice casting, an incredibly clever script, and creative directing techniques, they took a logline sounding like a rejected SNL skit and turned it into one of the best films in their catalog. After the second film failed to live up to the high standards set by the first one, I was a little apprehensive going into this third film in the franchise. There was no need for worry, as they somehow made a film that is at least as good, if not better, than the original.
These films work in large part thanks to the expanding mythology of the universe that the filmmakers have created. The mysticism behind the Kung Fu in this world creates a supernatural backdrop that elevates the film beyond a “Karate Kid” of the animal world. Opening in the spirit world, we are quickly introduced to the idea that this story is going to reach far beyond the Earthly confines one would expect. There, a supernatural battle breaks out that is far greater in scope than anything these films have presented before. Because this is in another realm, the rules of physics don’t apply, and it’s sequences such as these that make animation such a breathtaking medium.
It isn’t just the scope of the world that makes these films so strong. The scope of the characters is equally important. Po, the Dragon Warrior Panda (expertly voiced by Jack Black), is a perfect example of this. Having begun the series as a bumbling, perpetually hungry, buffoonish stereotype, they have expertly pushed his character forward so that he has retained the simplistic trademarks of the character, while evolving him towards his ultimate destiny as a Kung-Fu leader. With the assistance of a series of other kung fu masters, he is able to embrace his true calling and, as required in any children’s film such as this, save the world.
Having been raised by a stork, Po has naively believed that this was his birth father. With seemingly no other pandas in the world, Po has had no way of knowing that he wasn’t simply one of a kind. With the arrival of another panda claiming to be Po’s biological father, we are introduced to an entirely new corner of this world; a secret Panda village. This is where the film is elevated beyond the others. While there is an epic supernatural battle brewing, there is also this very personal, character-driven piece of mythology that changes the context of everything we have come to know before. As it is revealed that these two plot threads are destined to converge together, the stakes become elevated in a way not usually seen in children’s films such as this.
Considering the scale of the film, it’s all presented in a very lighthearted way, with constant humor, both visually and verbally. The audience I saw the film with was completely on-board, laughing and cheering throughout. My 3-year old daughter was engrossed, occasionally scared, and always entertained. This is big entertainment, both exciting and funny. With beautiful animation that cleverly blends multiple styles and techniques, along with truly innovative directing, Dreamworks Animation continues to push themselves in exciting ways.