Confusing Panda, Syncretistic Dragon

“Confusing Panda, Syncretistic Dragon”
A Review of Kung Fu Panda 3 by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Two Reels            

            Right from the beginning, this installment of the Kung Fu Panda franchise commits a cardinal sin by violating its own Universe, creating a world full of contradictory and confusing ideas that backtrack on its surprisingly sophisticated processors. It invents nothing new, bringing in a villain without a good motivation and relying on puns from the previous films. Everything good about this third venture came from the first two, and everything bad is its own fault.
            The villain is Kai (J.K. Simmons), a knife wielding ox, who descends from the spirit realm to collect the “chi” from all great kung fu masters in an attempt to rule the mortal world. The best way to describe chi is the life force that surrounds and penetrates everything, like the Force but without any of the cool stuff like levitation or mind reading. Meanwhile, Po, “the kung fu panda,” (Jack Black) has been assigned by Master Shifu as the new teacher of the Furious Five, a task for which he is woefully unprepared. As promised from the cliffhanger from the previous film, Po’s biological father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) finds his long lost son, much to the dismay of the adopted father. Fortunately for the plot, pandas are masters of chi, and Li brings Po back to the secret panda village to master this new art and defeat Kai.
            One of the things that made the original film so fresh and rewarding was how it employed the Chinese philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism in its storytelling without pretending these lessons are universal. This means that Christians must take its message with a grain of salt, but it’s a good way to introduce older children to another culture. Here, syncretism not only rears its ugly head but cuts through any positive meaning that might come through a fruitful understanding of the differences between Eastern and Western thought. For example, the filmmakers add an additional “spirit world” reminiscent of the Greek concept of Shoel and try to somehow connect it with chi. The spiritual laws of the film keep changing and have no underlying consistency. Worst of all, there is a new layer of New Age thinking where characters are encouraged to just “be themselves.” If this is true, why can’t Kai take over the world if that’s what he really wants?
            Besides the beautiful animation, everything is unbearably flat. The writers constantly recycle old jokes that lose luster well after the 27th time; there are only so many times sitting on someone is funny. Most of the previous characters, especially the Furious Five, are relegated to the background to make room for a host of uninspired new ones, like the girl panda who tries to seduce Po with…ribbons? The final showdown is contrived and, if you think harder than one ought, involves Po committing suicide then being raised from the dead. Days later, it still doesn’t make sense.

            If this review seems overly harsh, it’s probably because the first two were so good. Kung Fu Panda 3 is entertaining enough, but as Shifu says, “if you only do what you can do, you'll never be better than what you are.” This time, Po only gave the audience what they expected and nothing more. At least it’s the last one – I hope.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on February 3rd, 2016.