Movie Review: ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’

January 26, 2016 Updated: January 28, 2016

When “Kung Fu Panda 3” opens in China, it’ll feature something new—reanimated cartoon-mouths, that make Mandarin movements.

Why’s that interesting? Well, “Panda 3” was co-produced with Oriental Dreamworks, behind which is Shanghai Alliance Investment money. Which means Chinese Communist Party (CCP) money. Meaning possible CCP “artistic” influence.

Can one therefore observe communist ideology bleeding into this, our third  “American” Panda (which is quite excellent, by the way)? Perhaps in the slightly overabundant use of Communist-red? As in red drums, umbrellas, lampshades, ribbons, and candles? I’d like to say yes, but, truthfully—no, not really.

But Isn’t It Ironic …

The irony here, however, is that—firstly—the CCP’s bloody-red genocidal history and atheist–materialist ideology largely destroyed China’s rich, 5,000-year spiritual history.

And now—the CCP is funding a USA-originated Panda movie, loaded with depictions of things that rank among pre-communist China’s most sacred—that the CCP tried purging in the first place. 

Such as? Well, hard on the heels of “Star Wars,” “Panda 3” displays the “Force” in abundance. It’s furthermore jam-packed with profound concepts such as chi (qi) energy, kung fu masters meditating for 30 years in mountain caves, Buddha paradises, Taos, yin and yang, third eye vision, law of loss and gain, healing energy, supernormal abilities of precognition. And on and on.

Since these are all fantastic things for children (and adults) to come in contact with, I highly recommend the movie, while Chairman Mao spins in his grave.

The Story

The movie opens smack-dab in the spirit world, which is represented as a sort of asteroid field, with the occasional ancient temple or monastery drifting about.

There, giant Galapagos tortoise kung fu master Oogway (voiced by Randall Duk Kim), fights the green-eyed, double-daggers-on-chains-whiplashing, demon-bull, Kai (voiced by “Whiplash’s” J.K. Simmons).

The fearsome and power-hungry warrior Kai, voiced by J.K. Simmons in "Kung Fu Panda 3." (DreamWorks Animation/© 2015 DreamWorks Animation LLC)
The fearsome and power-hungry warrior Kai, voiced by J.K. Simmons, in “Kung Fu Panda 3.” (DreamWorks Animation/DreamWorks Animation LLC)

Master Oogway probably achieved spiritual enlightenment hundreds of millions of years ago, and Kai was his former student, whom he defeated 500 years earlier.

When the gong-fu masters appear and disappear in blinding light and heat—that’s gong.

Down through the ages though, Kai the bull vanquished many, many masters and stole their qi (life force, also known as “etheric” energy), and bottled the qi up in little jade amulets he hangs on his belt, like scalps, and can then use as additional channels to his third eye (sort of like the old, “You’re my eyes and ears.”—he sees what they see). He can dispatch them, like jade zombies, to fight his battles remotely.

Got all that? So after beating Oogway, Kai returns to the human world, to use this accumulated qi-power to do bad deeds.

Let it be noted—Master Oogway, practicing “wuwei” (nonaction), is quite unconcerned about the loss, as he has the supernormal power of precognition, and knows that a shifu (teacher/master) more powerful than himself will rectify the situation at a future date.

Dragon Warrior!

The inimitable Jack Black again voices our hero, Po the panda, who’s now reached the multiple-black-belt level of Dragon Warrior! Ski-doosh!

Jack Black as the voice of Po (Alexei Hay/© 2015 DreamWorks Animation LLC)
Jack Black as the voice of Po. (Alexei Hay/© 2015 DreamWorks Animation LLC)

Kai’s killing spree comes at a particularly bad time—Po’s just met biological panda-pop, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), who’s been on a pilgrimage to the Valley of Peace, to find his long-lost son—oh, happy reunion!

What’s a halo? Gong energy.

Which of course raises some jealousy goose-hackles in Po’s adoptive goose-dad, Mr. Ping (James Hong). But Po, like the ugly duckling he is (or in this case, ugly gosling) finally recognizing his swan, er, panda-ness, finally feels a big-belly belongingness!

(L–R) Po (voiced by Jack Black) and his long-lost panda father Li (voiced by Bryan Cranston) pose for a portrait in "Kung Fu Panda 3." (DreamWorks Animation/© 2015 DreamWorks Animation LLC)
(L–R) Po (voiced by Jack Black) and his long-lost panda father Li (voiced by Bryan Cranston) in “Kung Fu Panda 3.” (DreamWorks Animation/DreamWorks Animation LLC)


Since Kai the bull’s successfully using qi to create havoc, Po the panda’s now got to rise to the level of qi-usage to counter him. It’s revealed that the panda clan knows how to heal using qi-power. So Po must discover his roots, and return home to the mountain abode of the lost panda clan! There’d been, as we know from “Panda 2,” a panda genocide.

Po has to return to his true self to access the qi power, represented here by owning his panda roots. This is the culmination of Po’s “Hero’s Journey;” he brings the “gold” he won on his journey (becoming a kung fu master), and returns it to the village compound.

The ‘Force’ is gong. Simplistically speaking.

Which means teaching kung fu to his panda brethren, and taking (hilariously) into account—bear talents, such as massive eating, hibernating (sleeping late), rolling, and hugging stuff with cracking great bear-hugs.

Bring It On!

Finally, the Panda clan’s in shape, and ready for the showdown with the big bad bull, who, meantime, has succeeded in taking down all Po’s furry and feathered fighter friends—Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), Viper (Lucy Liu), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Crane (David Cross). They’re all little green pendants now, hanging on the Bull’s belt!

Dustin Hoffman as the voice of Shifu (John Russo/© 2015 DreamWorks Animation LLC)
Dustin Hoffman as the voice of Shifu. (John Russo/DreamWorks Animation LLC)

It’s the grand finale—will Po succumb to getting his qi drained? Will he rescue his buddies? How will Panda qi-healing be brought to bear? You must see the movie to find out!

Filthy Lucre?

Although it does feel a little like a cynical cherry-picking mish-mash of China’s ancient spiritual treasures for Hollywood’s bottom line, rather than the sincere children’s bedtime story it should be—I’m probably projecting my own cynicism. Directors Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh actually do sound quite sincere and enthusiastic.

(L–R) Directors of "Kung Fu Panda 3," Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni. (Nathaniel Chadwick/© 2016 DreamWorks Animation LLC)
Directors of “Kung Fu Panda 3” Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni. (Nathaniel Chadwick/ DreamWorks Animation LLC)

The problem is more a lack of true understanding of the concepts on display, which, jumbled together in a heap, can come across as kitschy, to connoisseurs of Eastern thought.
So—knowing a thing or two about the philosophical concepts overflowing the film, I’ll clarify a few that apparently got thrown out there, willy-nilly, for public consumption, but which are a little (or a lot) twisted from their original meanings.

The Truth About Qi

This “qi” of which they speak—it’s a tad misleading. In China, kung fu is actually “Gong Fu.” Same way the increasing popular practice of “Chi-Kung” is actually “Qigong.” Everybody knows a little about “qi” nowadays, but very few know about “gong.” Both are energy, but gong is by far the more powerful of the two, and that’s what’s being depicted in the film. Mark my words: Qigong will eventually eclipse yoga the world over, in popularity.

Angelina Jolie as the voice of Tigress (Alexai Hay/© 2015 DreamWorks Animation LLC)
Angelina Jolie as the voice of Tigress. (Alexei Hay/DreamWorks Animation LLC)

Why is this important? It’s not really. Just keep in mind, when Po, Tigress, et al, are flying around, dropping down out of the sky, and landing unscathed—that’s advanced-level gong energy, not qi.

And when the Gong-fu masters appear and disappear in blinding light and heat—that’s gong. The musical instrument that summons up the most comprehensive sound equivalent of that visually overwhelming experience—is called a what? It’s called a gong. When the Panda clan sends out healing power through their hands—that’s gong. The Force of “Star Wars”—is gong. Simplistically speaking.

Practice Versus Cultivation

Practice in martial arts is doing forms, “kata,” sparring, and working on the wing chun kung fu “wooden man” practice dummy. That’ll eventually rev up some qi. But gong only happens through inner cultivation. Cultivation of what? One’s ability to function in all situations, in a truthful, compassionate, and tolerant manner. That’s what accumulates healing gong energy above all else.

Only truly advanced masters have it. There’s a word for “master” in every language: Sensei (Japanese), Shifu (Chinese), Guru (Indian), Lama (Tibetan), Rebbe (Hebrew), and many more. You can only increase gong by having impeccably high morals. What’s a halo? Gong energy.

Lucy Liu as the voice of Viper (Jason Bush/© 2015 DreamWorks Animation LLC)
Lucy Liu as the voice of Viper. (Jason Bush/DreamWorks Animation LLC)

Which is why none of these supernormal things in the movie can normally be seen. Can’t be shown off. One must be humble. Which is why Po is powerful. Po’s a humble panda. A slob—but very genuine and sincere. Po cultivates his inner goodness. Po is good for children.

Faust’s ‘Mephisto’

Which leads us to the final irony. The Chinese Communist Party has killed between 60 million and 80 million people during its red reign of terror.

There’s a line in Goethe’s play “Faust,” where Mephisto, the red/black devil, says, “I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”

By funding “Kung Fu Panda 3” and offering the world insights into the revered mysteries of China—that function as “healing qi” for children—the CCP is an example of that power, which eternally wills evil, and eternally works good—in spite of itself.

“Kung Fu Panda 3″

Directors: Alessandro Carloni, Jennifer Yuh
Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, James Hong, Kate Hudson, J.K. Simmons
Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Rating: PG

Release Date: Jan. 29

3.5 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch