There's essentially one joke in the Kung Fu Panda movies. A ridiculous, adorable creature executes some extravagant action-flick flourish — vaulting over roofs, dropping a bad guy, striking a poster-perfect superhero pose. Then the battle music fades and that adorable creature breaks badass character to remind us it's totally relatable, even human: It wheezes to catch its breath, it shouts “Awesome!” in disbelief at its own stunt choreography, it asks with gentle awkwardness whether all this kung-foolery is maybe a little much.
That's a sturdy gag, endearing and adaptable: Adorable Creature Oscar Isaac works a variation on it some 10 minutes into The Force Awakens, tipping us off to the welcome fact that even for Star Wars people it's presumptuous to don a cape and death-mask. But Kung Fu Panda 3, while generous in cuteness and sunset-backdrop beauty, stands as an unnecessary reminder that even the best gag probably shouldn't power three full films, even afternoon-killers for the kiddos. Almost every moment of martial-arts action is undercut by some spin on that single joke, and then every joke or moment of feeling is quickly dashed aside for another keep-us-dazzled moment of martial-arts action. The movie undercuts its own undercutting.
And as with the Shrek pictures, Kung Fu Panda 3 is cause to wonder: What's it mean when kids' first exposure to hero's-journey story beats comes from self-aware meta-adventures whose creators feel obliged, every few minutes, to let us know that they know those beats are tired and dumb? I don't quail for the children, but here's hoping that when they act out movie-like stories with their action figures they can do so earnestly, and not offer jokey half-assed apologies for being invested in something derivative.
Speaking of derivative: This time our appropriatin' panda (gamely voiced by Jack Black) has to learn to be himself so that he has a long-shot chance at defeating, through spirited fantasy violence, precisely the kind of enemies he's triumphed over in two previous movies. (Despite his track record, he's always all “Me?” when told he has to be a hero.) His master, a red panda named Master Shifu and voiced for some reason by Dustin Hoffman, charges him early on with two tasks. First, he must become the teacher/leader of his squad of mixed-animal kung-fu champs, which includes a monkey, viper and a praying mantis voiced by Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu and Seth Rogen, respectively. (Any of those characters might have inspired the writers to come up with a fresher story.)
Second, he must become a master of chi, which we learn usually involves 30 years of silent contemplation in a cave. Parents might perk up at that, but, alas, Kung Fu Panda doesn't have the patience for 30 seconds of quiet — and it turns out that chi-mastery, like martial-arts skills, can be picked up lickety-split. In studio movies, especially for children, all it takes to be great at something difficult is a good heart and a training montage. Go on, America, keep yelling at Common Core while parking your kids in front of this stuff.
The panda botches his first stab at teaching, but rest assured: Soon, he will have the chance to prove his worth through violent adventure. His master teaches him that kicking and punching is not the key to chi, but that's only technically true. In the climax, it's the love of his friends and family that awakens the spirit of chi inside him, and that makes him better at kicking and punching. Whatever overarching lesson the screenwriters are after is beyond me. If chi comes from being beloved, why does everyone else earn it through decades of solitude? And why is enlightenment pretty much just leveling up, or a gulp from Popeye's spinach can?
That said, if you don't think about it, and if you're onboard with endless variations on that one joke, Kung Fu Panda 3 is lively, well-engineered nonsense. The series' strongest quality has always been its inventive funny-animal martial-arts throw-downs, staged and animated with wit and clarity. That holds true here, especially during a lengthy brawl in a village full of pandas. These darling, pudgy fluffballs have been trained by the hero to be subordinate heroes themselves, ribbon-dancing through the battle or catapulting out of hammocks at their low-ranking counterpart enemies. Fights and training scenes get diced up with engaging split-screen, and the animators often chuck dull photorealism for the lyric and luminous: orange skies, jagged mountain backdrops, the floating cliff-islands of a gold-lit Spirit Realm.
One lesson actually seems thought through by the filmmakers, at least for a while. Our hero meets his real father, a panda voiced by Bryan Cranston, which upsets the goose who raised him. This trio soon gels into a loving and supportive two-dad, cross-species family, which is somewhat affecting — until the dads seal their bond by strapping on armor and stomping some bad guys. The only way to grow and discover who you are, in the Panda-verse, is through fighting, and your only reward for having done so is that you get better at fighting. Then you have to stand there and pant, because it's funny.