For my 5-year old son, Kung Fu Panda 3 wasn’t just a movie: it was an interactive experience. When Po karate chopped, Tate’s hands sliced through the air; when Po clasped his hands to summon chi, power pulsed through Tate as he clutched his fingers; when Po raised his hands above his head in an epic spiritual battle, well, Tate probably obstructed the view of the people behind him as he copied the Dragon Warrior’s every move.
Of the other three young boys who occupied our row: one also physically engaged with the skadooshing, another fell asleep, and another was sniffing back tears. In other words, Kung Fu Panda 3 evoked a different reaction from each young viewer, and that couldn’t be more appropriate for this film: it’s all about appreciating each person’s unique characteristics.
Po (voiced once again by the ebullient Jack Black) is confident in his skills as a kung fu master and able to protect the land from just about any threat alongside the “Furious Five,” team of martial arts experts. However, when his beloved teacher, Master Shifu, asks Po to step up and teach his colleagues, Po thinks he’s being set up to fail. Master Shifu replies – in what turns out to be the theme of the film – “I’m not trying to make you be me, I’m trying to make you be you.”
This sets off a bit of an identity crisis for Po, especially when his birth father, Li, shows up looking for him. No story tricks, Li is really his dad and is a super awesome guy who has been living in a secret location for safety purposes. Po and Li enjoy discovering each other and all they have in common, while Po’s adoptive goose father, Mr. Ping, feels left out and resentful of Li waltzing back into Po’s life after more than 20 years.
This lands on my one and only warning about the film: I fear this storyline may trigger a personal reaction among some children whose birth parents are no longer a part of their lives. If this applies to your family, I highly recommend you see the film first.
As for the rest of the story, when the powerful and immortal bad guy Kai emerges from the spirit world bent on capturing the students of the late master Oogway, Po has to put his daddy issues aside and figure out a way to fight an enemy stronger and more skilled than any he has faced before.
The film resolves all three of these plotlines beautifully, all coming under the umbrella that no one should expect to be, behave, or perform like “everyone else.” Instead, it's shown that personal power comes from an individual’s unique personality and skill set. This concept is executed in a really wonderful way that, I believe, will stick with young viewers.
As is becoming the norm for today's family films, there’s a lesson for parents, too. Po’s two dads realize they serve their boy much better if they get along and work together. Pretty common sense stuff, but how many separated parents do you know who don’t behave that way?
The real genius, though, is demonstrating that what “makes you, you” is a mix of nature and nurture. Some qualities are inherited, others develop under the “wing” of whoever raises them (Mr. Ping pun, couldn’t help myself). And some of what makes you, you … is just you.
I couldn’t get my teenager to go see this film with us, but if your middle or high schooler is up for it, I recommend you take them. No age group is working harder to figure out their own identity. As for my little guy, I’m certain we’ll be back to see Kung Fu Panda 3 a few more times while it’s still in the theater. Look for us in the back row, where we won’t block anyone’s view.