Trilogy Review: Kung Fu Panda

I am not a fan of Jack Black.

In fact I tell people often that he only works best when not in a leading role. After all, we can cite plenty of films he has headlined that did not work out (Gulliver’s Travels, Year One etc)
So it always perplexes me when I really enjoy the Kung Fu Panda films! Jack Black is front and centre as Po, a Panda who through trials and humourous tribulations learns his own style of Kung Fu. But Black isn’t overriding in the role, it is written well, like any other good triple-A animation project. He just sort of… fits.

He fits the role of a fat, useless, head-over-heels Panda who is a fanboy of Kung Fu and is too cocky for his own good at times!

What with Kung Fu Panda 3 releasing this year, I wanted to review them all here. Let the awesomeness begin!

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Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Possibly my favourite Jack Black movie. Kung Fu Panda is an underrated experience.

Po the Panda is perhaps the biggest fan of the Furious Five, the five greatest martial artist warriors and their master Shifu. But the last thing he expected was to be prophesied as The Dragon Warrior, the most powerful warrior and the only one that can save the town.

Released eight years ago, Kung Fu Panda still holds up today. Especially visually; I love the character designs and the way this film moves and its stylistic fighting cinematography. The fight sequences have a fun mix of slow-motion and freeze-frame animation that makes everything super punchy and memorable.
The character designs too, of the Furious Five (Tigress, Viper, Monkey, Crane and Mantis) , Master Shifu and Master Oogway the turtle, are great! These are utilized wonderfully in the franchise’s rare moments of 2D animation, which are gorgeous.

A lot of what I like about this movie is purely aesthetic. The comedy aspect is good but at times not spectacular. There are great moments, most of Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and Po’s interactions are positively dynamite. A chopstick battle over dumplings and a exchange about where Monkey hides his favourite biscuits, are particularly good. I love the surreal humour around Po and his “father” too. It is so ridiculously obvious and yet completely ignored.

The story is quite bare bones though. We have an obvious zero-to-hero story with Jack Black’s bumbling, food-stuffing Panda, and a villain who is little more than a scorned rage machine. Oogway’s character is great, but feels painfully underused and makes Kung Fu Panda‘s short ninety minute run time all too apparent. Such a  good character shouldn’t be reduced to a plot convenience.

Overall a really solid and fun feudal adventure, really popping animation styles and character design lift it above the likes of the Shrek series in my book.

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Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

The awesome story of Po the Kung Fu Panda continues, maintaining the fun and style of the first film, but just a little darker in tone.

When a villainous Peacock named Shen wages war against the Masters and seeks to control all of China, it is up to Po and the Furious Five to stop him. But what no one realises is that Shen and Po’s fates are dangerously entwined.

Kung Fu Panda 2 does what all good sequels do, it ups the stakes and maintains the tone and themes of the series. The series continues with its beautiful art direction, now with even more 2D animated segments dotted throughout the film (don’t misunderstand, this isn’t Dreamworks cutting budget, this is a stylistic choice!) and riotous action sequences.
Po (Jack Black) having accepted being The Dragon Warrior and part of Master Shifu’s students, now must master Inner Peace, a meditative state of being… something Po inherently does not have. Especially with the burning question of where he came from, and the elephant in the room: Mr Ping, a goose, being his father??

New characters are still just as wonderfully designed as ever. Our villain, Shen (Gary Oldman) is perhaps the most insidious, insane and genocidal villain Dreamworks has ever made. I really like him. That is to say, a good villain either has some relatable aspect to our hero or once had noble intentions. Shen is certainly not noble, but his past controls and warps him into a monster, similarly how Po’s past controls and weakens his resolve. Shen even has the ideals of a mechanised tyrant; to rule the world with iron and gunpowder.

There’s plenty of dark places this film can and does go, but it is great to see The Furious Five in more active roles helping Po than in the first film. It is more like a team effort now than simply Po’s journey. It is still a comedy after all, and the humour is still good natured. I imagine this is what a lot of people distrust in the franchise from the outset (it could easily be vulgar and stupid) but honestly Kung Fu Panda has a better sense of humour than the Shrek series!
A little sad that Dustin Hoffman’s Master Shifu hasn’t as much to do here as in the first film.

Story-wise, I would argue there’s a little more to chew on; with Shen comes a great mythos behind the series. But sure, at the end of the day you can ask yourself: “Is Po going to find Inner Peace and save the day?” Probably. Is mechanical industry and guns going to win over Kung Fu?
But then, the film is so darn pretty.

A worthy sequel. I could argue it is better than the original, although some of the action sequences (a race through a city for example) felt maybe a tad too long.

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Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

Usually third parters are bad, and that is no more true than with animated trilogies (bar Toy Story) and you’d think Kung Fu Panda would finally stumble at the last hurdle. It doesn’t!

Po is well established now as the Dragon Warrior and while he leads the Furious Five he is shocked when Master Shifu announces he will step down as their trainer. Who will replace him? None other than Po himself. This times badly not only with the arrival of Po’s real father, but also a Spirit Warrior known as Kai who masters the art of Chi and seeks all the Chi of Master warriors so that he will become unstoppable!

Jack Black returns with the entire cast at his back as Po, and still, somehow, I find myself riotously enjoying the Kung Fu Panda trilogy. Impressively, the third part does none of the fopaux most of its contemporaries fall into, in fact it almost flirts with the idea… constantly.

Once again, the art style, aesthetic and animation style rules supreme here! I just love these films for their character designs!  The film opens with an awesome battle in the newly introduced ‘Spirit World’ between series mentor Oogway and villain Kai; Dreamworks clearly showing off their budget with fantastic epic scaled particle effects and lighting. It might not have been 2D animation, but it was a fantastic opening.
Not that the 2D animation is gone. Oh no. It is still here and it is still gorgeous in its oriental styling.
The film maintains its combat animation and sound mixing from the previous films really well, with slow-mo and freeze frame wonderfully returning (sadly absent in the second entry…) The humour too is still consistently strong.

Although perhaps the most worrying prospect of this third part was Po’s inevitable meeting with many more pandas, perhaps losing his individuality and the film becoming lowbrow with too much of Po’s sense of humour. But opening the scenario with Bryan Cranston’s Li, Po’s father, the friction with Po’s foster father, is perfect easing in for multiple panda… err… pandemonium?

The story doesn’t elevate itself any higher than the previous films. This isn’t anywhere near Toy Story 3‘s escalation of themes, and the franchise isn’t as good as Dreamwork’s own How to Train Your Dragon series. It is Po discovering himself and it does go through some familiar motions but ends up being quite touching, in a simple way.
It still a lot of fun. Kai is a compelling and super-powered villain who is threatening (and voiced by J.K Simmons no less!) who broadens the franchise’s universe. How Po’s two father figures is dealt with is really nice and not blown out of proportion.

It plays out really well as a third parter, making this perhaps one of my favourite movie trilogies. Yes, it is silly and pretty simple, but it looks so gosh darn gorgeous to me.

If you enjoyed the first two, you have nothing to fear!

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Additional Marshmallows: Why, why, why did Kung Fu Panda 3 need three goose guards voiced by the members of the British band The Vamps? It really stood out and felt completely unnecessary. Asides the fact that they do a cover of Kung Fu Fighting for the film…

In retrospect of all three films combined, I love the look of these animations. What they don’t have in story or gravitas they make up for in appearance, and as comedies they are all very good natured and light-hearted, without being vulgar and stupid.

What impressed me the most though was the series’ integrity and consistency. I fully expected Kung Fu Panda 3 to be a sizable step down from the first two, especially after the darker aspects of the second film, but in fact they managed it really well. The second film wasn’t a retread of the first one, and the third one didn’t jump the shark.
The films flirt with story cliches and plot conveniences, but deflects them all with well timed humour and gorgeous visual flare.

They aren’t masterpieces. I cannot put them above How to Train Your Dragon or Toy Story, but they are good solid, fun little martial art animations.

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