In the spirit of full disclosure, I was a kung fu consultant on the original Kung Fu Panda. Seems a crew member had seen my San Diego Comic Con Superhero Kung Fu Extravaganza (for which the Comedy Film Nerds have served as co-hosts the past few years) and suggested to the producer that I give them a private seminar on what kung fu is (and maybe more importantly, what it isn’t).
Upon my arrival I asked if they had already done some research. “Well, we saw The Seven Samurai,” I was told. I replied, “Ladies and gents, you’re making a baseball movie and you watched a football film.” Naturally, what was planned as a ninety-minute casual chat turned into a four-hour intensive workout.
More to the point, I also consulted on the Nickelodeon Kung Fu Panda TV series, Legends of Awesomeness. I mention this, not just to salve my ego, but because I also invited the Kung Fu Panda 2 crew to attend the seminar I was giving at the DreamWorks screening room (since the Nickelodeon screening room proved too small for the turn-out). Not a single member, even friends from the previous film, attended. That was my first clue that KFP2 might be a little less “precise” than the original.
That’s putting it mildly. The film should have been called Martial Arts Panda since there was not a moment of actual kung fu in it. To put it simplistically, if it’s fist, kick, muscle, and anger driven, it’s probably martial arts. If it’s open-handed, open-minded, open-hearted, love and chi driven, it’s more than likely true, elevated, kung fu. Even more simplistically, if it’s fighting, it’s martial arts. If it’s internal, external, mind, body, martial and healing, it’s kung fu.
But I digress. In any case, Kung Fu Panda 2’s plot was predicated on the concept that a cannon could “destroy” kung fu, and the climax squandered when the writers and director misunderstood Po the Panda’s catchphrase “skadoosh” as something physical (catching a cannonball and SPOILER ALERT letting the villain die) rather than a sign of, as original co-director John Stevenson said, another step toward enlightenment (simply dodging the cannonball and showing his enemy the error of his ways).
Anyway, all this ado is the reason I approached Kung Fu Panda 3 with trepidation bordering on despair. Kung Fu Panda 2’s director, Jennifer Yuh, was now a co-director with Alessandro Carloni, who had been promoted from the animation department, and the film was a co-production between DreamWorks L.A., DreamWorks China, and DreamWorks India. But that only added to my concern since China, who have always had an “interesting” relationship with kung fu, seemed to be trying to marginalize it in favor of wushu (martial arts) in their other recent films.
I shouldn’t have worried. Everything Kung Fu Panda 2 got wrong, Kung Fu Panda 3 got right — in abundance. Not only did it play like the true sequel to the original, it also seemed like a dazzlingly conceived mea culpa for the second installment. When the wise master tortoise named Oogway (voiced by Randall Duk Kim) is the first (and last) thing seen on screen, it was a great sign – a signal that paid off with every passing moment. For you plot fans, the silly cannons of part two are replaced with “chi” in part three – that inner energy that powers you and every living thing (and probably originally inspired Star Wars’ “The Force” [metachlorians not withstanding]).
Kai (J.K. Simmons), a literally bull-headed past friend of Oogway, now wants to prove his superiority by possessing the chi of every kung fu master, turning each of his vanquished opponents into jade power amulets or zombies to do his bidding. Oogway is unperturbed by his ego-driven aggressor’s selfish desires, having made Po the “Dragon Warrior” for a good reason. Po (Jack Black), however, is facing the double challenge of his Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) making him the teacher of the Furious Five (Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, David Cross, and Seth Rogan) – a position he feels vastly unprepared for – and finding his birth father (Bryan Cranston), who wishes to reunite him with his extended family … much to the distrust and displeasure of his adoptive goose father (James Hong).
Upon this structure, Yuh, Carloni, kung fu choreographer Rodolphe Guenoden, head of story Philip Craven, and scripters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger have hung a consistently surprising, clever, and delightful cornucopia of involving details that run the gamut from subtly awakening Tigress’ maternal instinct to adding a vastly important new word to the kung fu vocabulary: “hugs.” Perhaps most importantly, not only are the healing aspects of kung fu not ignored (as in a certain previous installment), they are made integral to the involving, exciting, satisfying story.
I will say no more, other than to urge anyone who hasn’t seen this yet to see it, and anyone who has, to see it again. Not only is it entertaining and beautiful, it joins the original film as one of the best true kung fu films ever made in America (and now China and India).
RIC MEYERS is the author of Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie Book, screenwriter of Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie Movie, contributor to the up-coming Severin Films DVD release Kung Fu Trailers of Fury, and, for reasons that still defy any reason, NOT the writer of the “martial arts movies” chapter in The Comedy Film Nerds Guide to Movies.