Movie Review: Kung Fu Panda III – by Fussy Tongue – Beware Spoilers
Having seen the two previous Kung Fu Panda movies, there was in me the mixture of an apprehensive “can they truly do it again??” and the exciting anticipation of a new adventure for Po, our favourite panda, on his journey to discovering there is more to him than lazing about (wishful thinking for the species or inspirational message for humans… or both?) and that he too, against all odds, could not only touch his dream but also live it every day with the fulfilled hope of a daily new challenge: not only is there a dream but there are no limits in its realisation and every day is only an amazing step in this thrilling journey.
The cinema was quasi-empty. The prices we pay these days certainly include the free seats and as much as we get used to the fees rising slowly but surely, it is evident that cinema has become a luxury. I used to go sometimes by curiosity, now I have to make sure (and maybe that is why they are creating more than one trailers these days, Kung Fu Panda 3 alone had 3, or maybe it was just a play on the numbers? Okay, focusing back), I have to make really sure that I do want to see the movie I have chosen. Mistakes like going to see Mirror, Mirror rather than the first Snow White and the Huntsman canNOT be repeated ever again (May I just say before focusing back on the film at hand that it could have really worked out better if Mirror, Mirror was not created and its Snow White actress played in Snow White and The Huntsman… but I definitely digress!).
Let me summarise the Kung Fu Panda 3 movie before getting into to the details: it was aMAZing! Well, as usual. It was not just another sequel, it was a movie all on its own. The action was great, the entertainment was right up there and the whole thing was infused with an Asian mystical and wise essence with an American accent, not just through its martial arts but through its melodies, careful instrumentation and arrangements, its landscape details and a lot more. Yet, of course, there were some things that even a one-time watch made evident and, even barely, stained its greatness.
What sucked me in is the Chinese input which was quite evident. Maybe it was so for me, as I watch Chinese and to generalise (and it is a generalisation), Asian movies probably more than American movies. The mysterious mystics, as in the unexplained and kind of traditionally kept secret to the unadept, was more blunt. One of these did not quite add up in my view and kind of broke the film continuity for a bit: the way that the long-lost ancient art of mastering Chi was suddenly reacquired by Po’s father, then the whole circle of friends and family, then Po himself, uniquely based on illustrations, was baffling. The film did not present enough evidence to substantiate their understanding and mastering of the Chi. It made clear that the father had neither previous mystical knowledge in the art, nor a propension for the philosophy or even practice of martial arts, not even an understanding or vague study of Chi, which might all separately or in some combination have justified that sudden turn. And please don’t tell me it was awoken by the fact his son had gone into the spirit world because I could not convince myself of that one, and I can find reasons when I love a movie!
Every story so far has been based on some mystical deciphering of the secrets of life that spiritually fed Po into understanding himself and propelling his martial arts into the next philosophical and fighting level. In the previous stories, the dragon scroll was deciphered once Po understood about the secret ingredient in the soup of his chef of a father, a concept which was developed throughout the film and culminated with our hero figuring out of the martial practice of the Wushi finger hold. In the second version, the search for inner peace was suggested by his training and forced by the circumstances: starting with the help and guidance of a goat seer and the wish to understand what had happened to him and why his parents abandoned him, and continuing with the threat on his friends, it ended with Po mastering inner peace to the point of manipulating not just a drop of water but a canon ball on fire. This time, as much as the idea of using his father the panda and everyone else to restore his Chi and help him get there, the link between their acquiring the knowledge and it suddenly being used was far too weak.
As much as I love my Chinese movies and a bit of mysticism, my American movies and a bit of their emotional righteousness, I must admit that I can only take them in small doses and preferably not at the same time and that bit did throw me out of that circle of friends and family for a bit. Movies, and in particular animations, do make us dream but there is so much in the building of Kung Fu Panda that gives a realistic inspiration, in spite of the knowledge of an animated drawing of talking animals led by a martial artist panda, that there has to be a measured dose of rational cause and effect too, especially in fatidic moments such as mastering Chi, which is the culminating part of this particular story.
Of course, creative individuals all over the world will think of a better way to do anything that has already been done, and I guess even more so for a film like this one, because it is that inspiring and provides such a solid base for more: it is that dot that was not perfect in the whole film that we need to clean up. However, rather than wanting to redo a great film, these comments are merely aimed at pointing out those parts of the movie that might have been a little weak in the continuity of a solid story and a meaningful character plot.
Continuing with the cleaning up of the very few stains, East and West do come together many times, for better or for worse, especially in the sacrificial, when Po in the end decides to take his own life through the use of his now renowned Wushi hold (recalled through the onomatopoeia “Skadoosh!”) to take the villain back to the spirit world he had escaped. There is darkness in this, no matter how beautiful the cherry tree petals are, in their colours, lightness, twirling and shining and whether the act is called killing or taking to the spirit world in true Asian manner (or African if one looks into this further). This is a growing theme in such animations where the writer no longer hides the hero behind some convoluted and predictable sense of self-defence to perform a kill that was all the same premeditated. Removing that hypocrisy surely removes the nonsensical patronising. As to whether we want to think killing a being is a solution, in fact, as presented, the only solution, especially in what in effect is still a children’s movie, I reserve the right to not be ok or casual with it. At this point, I must say, I really profoundly missed the buddhist take of Avatar Aang, once the last airbender: because he respected all life, and therefore so wanted to find an alternative solution to killing, he did.
Good points? Well, I will say watch the film, because there are so many of them, I WILL run out of space here, but then again it IS a review, so I’ll pack as many as I can, here and now.
Any film that evidently believes that family is about more than looking the same has already won me over. Yet the animation equally acknowledges and really well plays the need to physically have a kind in order that uniqueness does not make one feel to lonely, and that questions that an individual might have about their peculiarity (fur/hair), their genetical habits can find an outlet for answers and sharing. “You look like me but older”, “you look like me but younger” and so on are some of the first excited words that come out of Po’s mouth when he reaches the secret village of his long lost panda relatives, after having lived all his life till then never have encountered anyone like him. With individuals around the world and across ages seeking a unique identity at the same time as to belong in a similar-minded group, this acknowledgement of a human desire to also seek physical likeness is a subtle way to make the watcher feel less alone or weird to some extent.
Po retains his child-like personality which is refreshing because it is the whole foundation of the story. It is that view of the world that allowed him to dream as big as being a martial artist in spite of being a (fat but would this not be redundant) panda, and that enabled him in his everyday kung-fu life to see every step he needs to master with an untainted perspective, not through lessons but through natural instincts and experience-based understanding of the world, because the philosophy of martial arts is basically a philosophy of life. This is not about saying to children not to study though: Po knows his martial arts history like no one else and can recognise anyone by name and any objects on sight as shown multiple times for example in the sacred hall of warriors. He speaks of elements of history not like a senseless recitation of a meaningless list memorised for the sake of show or exams. He has them not just in his mind, he has them in his heart. He has grasped through his passion that it was not just history, it was his story too, as he was making himself part of it. His naivety does not prevent him from having a keen sense of critical thinking and deduction which allowed him to decipher the “emptiness” of the first movie’s scroll, unlike his nemesis Tai-Lung, find inner peace in the second installment unlike his enemy Shen, and eventually master Chi in this movie, to the great dismay of his rival Kai, and all in a very short time which teases some mild form of envious annoyance from his own master Shifu.
The interactions between Po’s adoptive and biological fathers and their son and the discovery of Po’s kind are very clever and even better articulated. The blood father seems at first to be useless, lying about his ability to help, and yet his helping Po to know what pandas are about while Po is mastering what it is to be himself, is inspired. The way Po learns to be a teacher is so conducive to learning styles and individual preferences that it is a whole lesson for modern and traditional education. But even before that, it would have been so good to acknowledge that everything that Po had brought to the otherwise rather uptight Furious Fives and Shifu was involuntary but effective teaching of life including fun and enjoyment by the best but most difficult method of all: by example and by inspiration.
The film has an energy like no other, thanks to his characters and their dynamics, its reasonably hyperactive leading character especially his fascination and complete reveration for every kung fu discovery and movement, its fighting choreographies, its beautiful photography, particularly the colours (which arguably and somehow controversially almost make the darkness attractive, painting shining lights over it like a glittery call of evil) and the work with the authentic landscapes and feel of China, its fast pace only slowed down for a quick breath, and the perfect synergy with its musical orchestration.
The music is beautiful, marrying the talents of Hans Zimmer with the wonderful skills of the performing Asian musicians. I love the way that you are right in China and the piano does a great work of it, spacious and expressive as if it were taking you through the landscape one heartbeat at a time. At other times, the faster pace moves us right into the action, a wonderful transition at times and a backing soundtrack at others. Chinese pianist Lang Lang’s fingers extract the essence of each type of song to present them equally well, turning the music into a character of its own. Nothing makes up the authentic Chinese feel as well as the mix of that piano and the talents of the Chinese cellist Jian Wang and Erhu musician Guo Gan. Familiar face (for me at least) Jay Chou, participator in all-matters of performing arts in China, is part of the Chinese version (sings and voices Monkey) which goes beyond “simple” dubbing to properly adapt the work to the language and culture. Canadian Taiwanese pop singer and songwriter Patrick Brasca, apparently Jay Chou’s apprentice, interprets the theme song in this American version, injecting youth and contemporary sound as do British pop rock band The Vamps when they reprise Carl Douglas’ Kung Fu’s Western anthem Kung Fu Fighting. You will also be given to enjoy a celebratory version of this latter number performed by the Shanghai Roxi Musical Studio Choirs and Metro Voices, London and produced by Al Clay. And that is just some of the pieces to be heard!
This third movie has turned into a family affair more than literally through its story development but also through the actors themselves. Four of Angelina Jolie’s six children, Pax, 12, Zahara, 10, Shiloh, 9, and Knox, 7, have some lines on the film along with Dustin Hoffman’s 11-year old grandson Gus and of course Jack Black’s son Sammy, 9.
In spite of the (true yet humbler than suggested) awesomeness of Po, the dual fierceness and softness of Tiger, the fun of father panda, the depth of Shifu, the new and cheeky Mei Mei ably voiced by Kate Hudson taking over from incapacitated actress Rebel Wilson, and more great finely created characters, my favourite character throughout the 3 movies is still Mr Ping, Po’s goose father, so skillfully and edgily played by (would anyone believe it, 87 year-totally-young) James Hong.
The man, or rather the goose has perfect comic timing and he is unaware of it or rather never stops to wallow in it if ever he know it, which makes it even better. Po and his noodles restaurant business (possibly the other way around) are the most important things to him and his parental worries and his commercial sense combine to make the best laughs and we laugh WITH him. What he has taught Po while allowing him to be himself is invaluable and the foundation to what Po can do: Po is truly HIS son in spite of a natural need to see someone who looks like him (biological father and family). Interestingly, Jackie Chan plays this great character in the Chinese version, a more suited position for this rather versatile and experienced actor (as shown, to cite only one film, in the new Karate Kid) and a kindling of my curiosity as to his take on that great character.
I do still wish they would do justice to Jackie Chan in the American version though: I cannot truly see, as for Tigress and Snake, what his personality is. I know that Mr Chang is playing the part all the same, but this movie’s overdue on a real personality for Monkey not just for the sake of one of the greatest martial artists and martial art actors of ALL time but at least for character development! Now, if anyone watches the side spin-offs, Monkey is indeed a bit of a comedian, but not everyone has the time and the money (or the cable as they call it here) to watch both the movie and the series.
It is a pleasure to see Oogway again and a number of other events or references quench the nostalgia built by a franchise of movies that have truly made a comfortable place in the hearts of its viewers, equally the young and the older as long as they are keeping the child within alive and kicking.
South Korean American Jennifer Yuh Nelson directs this epic Chinese American production together with Alessandro Carloni. There are zombies (albeit a Chinese jade-like version that first surprises but has its appeal), the taunt of a female interest for Po (I do hope not though) turned funny teaser, there are a lot of children, a lot of cuddly, even hugging pandas, some football action, some rolling, twirling, dancing, fighting, journey across China, journey to the spirit world and back, a wink back at some unforgettable characters such as Oogway, and basically solid and meaningful entertainment. Minus some somber notes and weak links, it is still a solid 9 out of 10.