In Kung Fu Panda 3, Master Shifu tells our protagonist Po, “If you only do what you can do, you’ll never be better than what you are.” Honest words, ones that could very well apply to the Kung Fu Panda trilogy itself. Like Po, this franchise has found new ways to reinvent itself, it continuously surprises us with latent depth and endless variations of comedic and dramatic appeal. While the Kung Fu Panda trilogy isn’t without its flaws, it can still very well be one of the strongest cinematic examples on how to effectively evolve an original trilogy. Kung Fu Panda is a big budget action-comedy whose narrative qualities are not muted by its technical achievements, nor does its childish flamboyancy overpower the underlying maturity of its themes.
Recurring motifs and thematic material are surprisingly common among trilogies, holding a place even among the best of them. Kung Fu Panda has been frivolously criticized by some for this very reason—and for the most part, these accusations are true. Each Kung Fu Panda film shares a recurring theme of Po being in conflict with himself as much as he is with the film’s antagonist; he is unsure of his own abilities and is either unwilling or unable to accomplish his primary objective without first reflecting upon his own psychology. These criticisms may be accurate to an extent, but they don’t account for how these themes vary. How each one stands out enough to sustain its own unique, meaningful narrative.
The best way to distinguish the three Kung Fu Panda movies is to look at their villains, each particularly unique in their motives, artistic design and, most importantly, their relationship to the protagonist. In the first movie, Po is declared the “Dragon Warrior,” something that he, nor anyone else (aside from Oogway) believe he is capable of living up to—the film is about Po accepting his path, despite such reservations. The villain, Tai Lung, plays as an aggressive foil to Po, an individual whose path was carved since childhood, only to have it denied of him. Po’s relationship with Tai Lung is defined by their similarities, unlike Po however, Tai Lung refuses to accept his path—making him the applicable villain, not only to Po, but to the film’s philosophical groundwork. The path made for Po, in a way, mirrors a path that the first Kung Fu Panda has established for the trilogy.
In the second movie, Po faces a second adversary, Lord Shen, who plays a tragic role in Po’s past, a memory which he suppresses. Po’s character arch is different, his abilities are fully realized and his technique well utilized, yet his setbacks have become more nuanced. His inability to defeat Shen does not come from his lack of confidence, as it did with Tai Lung, but his reluctance to tap into a painful memory. Of course, he defeats Lord Shen, not before realizing that the pains of his past are not vices holding him back from his abilities, but a source in which he derives his ability. This is manifested in the climactic sequence, in which Po uses Shen’s firearms against him, using the exact same technique he used to unlock and harness his repressed memories.
In their final confrontation, Po tells Shen, “You’ve got to let go of that stuff from the past because it just doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what you choose to be now.”
In Kung Fu Panda 3, the villain is deceptively simple. Like a traditional ‘final movie’ antagonist, Kai is bigger and badder, and adding to that he’s the first supernatural villain to appear in the trilogy. He introduces himself in the opening sequence, defeating Grand Master Oogway with an ease that instantly reminded me of Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader’s confrontation in Star Wars (1977).
Chi in Kung Fu Panda 3 is very much symbolic for individuality, accentuated through the idiosyncratic personalities who inhabit the film. Po’s journey to find chi in this film is really every character’s journey, even Kai whose own journey to collect chi is more like a conquest. The moment in which the side characters unleash their chi, by defining their relationship for Po, acts as a perfect thematic resolve for a protagonist who spent the previous two movies trying to define his relationship with the world around him.
A sad fact is that most trilogies, or any film franchise for that matter, are conceived based on the idea that multiple films can earn a studio two or three times as much as a single film. Because of this, most trilogies aren’t nearly as interested in carrying ideas into their sequels, their artistic potential never employed. Instead, these trilogies seem more resolute with accomplishing the bare minimum, the presence of vague plot progression and character retreads; where a first and second film are not meaningfully connected so much as they are mechanically attached. This isn’t the case with all trilogies. I’m positive that a Kung Fu Panda trilogy, due to its commercial success, was likely founded on the idea that it would make more money. However, the same cannot be said by the artists working behind the camera.
Unlike its cash-grab counterparts, there’s a real sense of identity present in the Kung Fu Panda movies, a real purpose to the multiple films. As I stated earlier, Kung Fu Panda may be one of the strongest examples of how to evolve an original franchise. Its diverse and unique spin on the wuxia and martial arts subgenre consistently remind us ultimately what we love about the trilogy, while never failing to surprise us, its new spin on old tropes. This is a great trilogy not because it consists of three individually great films, but because these films hold just as much purpose as a sole entity as they do apart. To strip the movies of its recurring themes, including its ideals on identity and self-worth, would be to tear the pulsating heart out of Kung Fu Panda, the very lifeblood of the trilogy.