“If you only do what you can do, you’ll never be better than what you are. ”
Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger
So…I went to see Kung Fu Panda 3 at the cinema on Saturday evening. By choice.
I mean, there’s nothing I can say that will make that fact any better. The first two films were pretty good, though.
In the third film of the franchise, Our Hero’s biological panda father turns up and offers to take him to a secret panda village in the mountains, making Po’s adopted duck father jealous. Meanwhile, an evil spirit named Kai escapes the spirit world and rampages through China.
The film introduces the concept of chi, a force strongly reminiscent of, well, the Force. Everyone, it seems, has chi, and Kai’s idea in rampaging through China is essentially to steal everyone’s chi, as it makes him more powerful. Po, it is revealed by his Jedi master kung fu teacher Yoda Shifu, must learn to wield chi in order to defeat Kai. Coincidentally, an old scroll informs us that the only place in the whole of China Po can learn this is in the secret panda village.
So…off we all go to the secret panda village, I guess.
There are almost certainly some issues of cultural appropriation around all of the fact that this is a Western film about a fictionalised (fantasised) China; I don’t know enough to comment on them, but it is worth noting that the films have been welcomed in China, and that while the film’s director is Korean, it does also feature a number of Chinese and Chinese-American actors and musicians. (This blog post offers an interesting redemptive reading of the first film from a Chinese perspective.)
So: from my perspective (which is Western), Kung Fu Panda 3 is, visually, an utterly beautiful film. Which is, admittedly, a strange thing to say about a children’s animation; but I defy you to watch the film’s opening sequences, set in a vast and strange spirit world of midair battles and abandoned temples, and not be impressed. Unlike many films of its type, this one is well worth seeing in 3D: it’s at its best when revelling in itself as film, as a visual and aural art form that doesn’t necessarily need any semantic content. The soundtrack is fantastic (Kai’s theme is particularly catchy, and reminds me almost of a gunslinger’s theme from a Clint Eastwood film), and the facial animation has a nuance I wasn’t expecting from a children’s animation: the expressions of the characters manage to capture some quite complex emotions utterly perfectly.
Where the film falls down is in its overt ideological content. Kung Fu Panda 3 wants to be a story about Po Finding Himself, realising who he is beyond all the kung-fuing and bravado; it wants to be a story in which an entire community finds who they are meant to be as people. Unfortunately, this noble objective rather clashes with the fact that, in a film called Kung Fu Panda, audiences do expect a certain amount of kung fu and epic (if sanitised) violence. The result of this clash is a certain superficiality to the plot of the film: Po’s plan for defending the secret panda village from Kai’s inevitable arrival is to capitalise on what the villagers most love doing. So ribbon dancers find themselves wielding numchuks, huggers find themselves crushing tree trunks, keeper-uppers wield firecrackers. (What they did with all the writers and readers and thinkers I don’t know.) Apparently this has helped the villagers find out who they truly are, which feels like an impoverished way of looking at personal fulfilment; were none of these hitherto peaceable pandas pacifists? And the communal aspect of the film, the element that asks us to see success and fulfilment as constituted by communities rather than individuals, is underserved by the genre’s need to present us with a climactic battle between individuals. Po’s success at becoming a master of chi, at winning the film, feels unearned, failing to recognise the role that the secret panda villagers have had in his transcendence.
That the conceit of the film is creaking at the edges isn’t really a surprise: while “panda who knows kung fu” is a great idea, it is only one idea, which is not very much to spread out over three films. Kung Fu Panda 3‘s thinness, in other words, is a sign that the franchise probably needs to end here, and that doesn’t need to be a bad thing.
Of course, ending is always a bad thing in Hollywood, so inevitably we will be getting another six sequels, with a once-original franchise paling into indifference.