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Kung Fu Panda 4 Review

March 8, 2024 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Kung Fu Panda 4 - Po still Image Credit: DreamWorks Animation
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Kung Fu Panda 4 Review  

Directed By: Mike Mitchell and Stephanie Ma Stine
Written By: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, and Darren Lemke
Runtime: 94 minutes
MPA Rating: Rated PG for martial arts action/mild violence, scary images, and some mild rude humor.

Jack Black – Po
Viola Davis – Chameleon
Awkwafina – Zhen
Dustin Hoffman – Master Shifu
James Hong – Mr. Ping
Bryan Cranston – Li Shan
Ke Huy Quan – Han
Ian McShane – Tai Lung
Ronny Chieng – Captain Fish

Po the Panda is back in his first big-screen adventure in over eight years for Kung Fu Panda 4. The wait for the sequel has been relatively long, but star Jack Black has not lost an ounce of his lovable, underdog charm as the idiosyncratic Kung Fu master and Dragon Warrior. In Kung Fu Panda 4, Po faces a significant crossroads in his life and career, but he learns in his newest journey that change is not always a bad thing. Kung Fu Panda 4 follows some very predictable plot beats, but co-directors Mike Mitchell and Stephanie Ma Stine fill the experience with entertaining energy, fast-paced action, and witty comedy, making this a worthy franchise follow-up.

Kung Fu Panda 4 operates from the premise that the time has come for Po to relinquish his coveted title of Dragon Warrior and choose a successor so Po can ascend to a new role as the Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace. However, Po is loathe to let go of his dream role despite the disapproval of his mentor, Master Shifu (Hoffman). Po grants a temporary stay of his career execution when a new threat emerges in the form of a master sorceress and crime lord, the Chameleon (Davis). Chameleon can shapeshift into any form and seeks to unlock the power of previous Kung Fu masters to take over the world.

During his journey, Po recruits the assistance of the skilled thief, Zhen (Awkwafina), a streetwise corsac fox well acquainted with Juniper City, a sprawling urban hub where Chameleon sits atop all the other crime lords. Chameleon wants the power of the Staff of Wisdom that Po possesses to unlock the power of the Spirit Realm. It’s now time for Po to summon his courage and every last Skadoosh to save the world, yet again.

The main drawback of Kung Fu Panda 4 is its inclination to hammer the moral messages. The script, co-written by Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, and Darren Lemke, tends to hold the audience’s hand through its breakthroughs. At the same time, the hopeful optimism that permeates the story through Po’s perspective and faith in individuals carries its own appeal. Kung Fu Panda 4 rejects cynicism and embraces the intrinsic goodness within others, a refreshing element during these turbulent times.

Black has not lost a step in his vocal performance with Po, and the writers wisely put Po in a situation where he mentors a protégé. Dustin Hoffman has always been a standout performer in this franchise in his role as Shifu, and this story is no exception. Po’s adopted father, Ping (Hong), and Po’s biological panda father, Li Shan (Cranston), also join the adventure this time, opting to shadow Po and Zhen to Juniper City to offer their assistance. Hong’s Mister Ping has been the franchise’s secret weapon since the beginning, and the 95-year-old James Hong still brings such delightful exuberance and fatherly warmth with his vocal performance.

Viola Davis is fantastic as the mysterious, slithery Chameleon. Her menacing voice pairs perfectly with her rather unassuming, diminutive figure. The DreamWorks Animation team and Davis’ vocal work imbue Chameleon with an intimidating presence. The plot wisely builds to the moment that she reveals her true form, and it’s all the more striking when Chameleon turns out to be incredibly tiny but no less of a threat.

Zhen’s characterization works well from a conceptual standpoint. Considering the franchise hasn’t featured too many fox characters, she presents a uniquely fresh character design for the franchise. The problem is that Zhen is missing something. Awkwafina’s vocal delivery plays too unusually stiff. The voice and character design don’t quite mesh as well as they should. If the franchise continues, hopefully, Awkwafina can grow into the role further down the line. Fans hoping to see more of the Furious Five will be disappointed to know they take a backseat in this installment, but generally, the Furious Five have always been throwaway characters for this franchise. If the franchise does continue, it would be nice if the Furious Five could finally come into their own as characters, but DreamWorks Animation’s budget was likely limited to accommodate the big stars who could return for this installment.

Most importantly, Ian McShane makes a surprising, welcome return as Tai Lung. The unexpected way he returns to the fold is fascinating, granting much-needed closure for the character. McShane’s unique, oily, booming performance as Tai Lunch is still fantastic.

Kung Fu Panda 4 delivers heavily with fun, fast-paced action, which continues to be one of the franchise’s strong suits. Mitchell and Ma Stine manage to stage multiple elaborate fight scenes during the film, including an elaborate chase sequence throughout Juniper City, set to a cover of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” and performed with a style consistent with the franchise’s score. Multiple action beats unfold in long, elaborate shots, so it’s nice the animators are not content to go through the motions and rehash previous material.

Despite a fourth entry and a rather understated marketing campaign, Kung Fu Panda 4 proves that Po still has a few trump cards left in his fur. It’s hard not to have fun and enjoy the experience of listening to Jack Black belt out a classic pop song during the closing credits. Adults and kids will watch the film and have a good time together.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Kung Fu Panda 4 doesn't quite reach the previous heights of the franchise, but it still provides a fun, entertaining, and exciting adventure for Po as he seeks to come to terms with the next steps in his life. The action sequences look impressive, the comedy has its witty moments, and Jack Black's Po is just as charming and lovable as ever. It's hard to believe the first installment of this franchise came out 16 years ago, with the last theatrical entry released eight years ago. Despite the extended break, this animated adventure was relatively worthwhile. Jack Black plays Po so well and has so much fun with the franchise that it's hard to say no to the prospect of more Kung Fu Panda.