With the latest Kung Fu Panda movie, DreamWorks Animation’s house visual style enters its flowery rococo stage, blooming into intensified colors, multi-panel split-screens, and smatterings of traditional animation. But though the rubbery DreamWorks look has gotten a lot more idiosyncratic and artistically ambitious since the days of Bee Movie and Shark Tale, the studio remains addicted to the formulae and be-your-self-isms of generic kiddie fare. (The recent Madagascar sequels seem like an exception, but only because their irreverent weirdness negates their family-sitcom life lessons.) Given that Kung Fu Panda’s premise is right there in the title, perhaps it’s just smart business to approach another sequel with an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, like a game studio polishing a hit with new features and updated graphics. Co-produced with the state-run China Film Group Corporation, Kung Fu Panda 3 is Kung Fu Panda minus a dramatic arc, but with way more pandas.
Despite its roster of famous voices, the Kung Fu Panda series has always been the most palatable of DreamWorks’ six—count ’em, six—ongoing franchises, peddling kid-friendly funny animal martial arts, free of any manic mugging, references, or montages set to pop hits. (Madagascar 3 managed to elevate the latter into neon abstraction.) On an aesthetic level, it’s also the most accomplished. Jennifer Yuh, who directed the original film’s opening sequence and was put at the creative helm with the sequel, has made intricate Chinese-influenced environments and blended animation styles the focus of the series. But while both Kung Fu Panda 2 and this film are visually dynamic—elastic alternatives to the perfectionism of Pixar—their characters and stories remain stuck in the first film. Once you’ve made one movie about a tubby, noodle-sucking ursid who finds his inner wuxia hero, you can’t just start over from scratch.
DreamWorks is a studio that never does anything twice when it can be done in perpetuity, through sequels, spin-offs, and TV series. For Kung Fu Panda, that means a self-discovery journey of diminishing returns. Here, this entails Po (Jack Black) meeting his biological father (Bryan Cranston), who leads him to a secret mountain community of pandas, with Po’s adoptive goose dad, Mr. Ping (James Hong, still perfectly cast), in tow. Again, there’s a generic bad guy threatening Po’s Valley Of Peace—a bull named Kai (J.K. Simmons), who escaped from the spirit realm to steal the qi of kung fu masters and now has the power to call up statue-like “jade zombies,” which move with the stutter of stop-motion figures. Again, the key to defeating said bad guy lies in Po accepting a part of himself—though, seeing as he’s now basically a superhero who can glide off mountain tops, one can’t help but imagine that there aren’t many parts left.
Co-directed by Yuh and fellow DreamWorks veteran Alessandro Carloni, and designed in a palette heavy on eye-popping shades of green, Kung Fu Panda 3 is often inspired as animation, and tired as everything else. It’s hampered by an excess of characters, which grow and grow on later DreamWorks sequels like tree gall; Po’s buddies in the Furious Five are effectively useless, but damn if they’re ever going away, and the addition of a dozen interchangeable roly-poly pandas doesn’t help things. Even the blaring score sounds overworked. (John Powell sat out this film, leaving co-composer Hans Zimmer to do what Hans Zimmer does: re-orchestrate the same themes with his army of assistants.) For a movie that pays lip service to values of balance and harmony, Kung Fu Panda 3 could use some of its own.