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 ten 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 Shrek, 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 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.