KUNG FU PANDA 4 Review: Fourth Entry Falls Short of Its Predecessors

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
KUNG FU PANDA 4 Review: Fourth Entry Falls Short of Its Predecessors

While the Kung Fu Panda series has been noticeably offscreen for the better part of a decade, it’s survived and thrived via three, small-screen series, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, The Paws of Destiny, and The Dragon Knight, each, in turn, meant to keep the giant, kung fu-fighting panda and his anthropomorphic allies in the hearts and minds of old and new fans alike.

Where disinterest inevitably started to set in box office-wise, it was — and remains — a relatively smart, low-cost studio move, waiting for the right moment to resurrect a moribund franchise and return it to the now nostalgic fans.

Whether nostalgia alone or more likely, a family night out, wins the day at the box office, remains to be seen, but the fourth entry in the series, appropriately, if unimaginatively titled, Kung Fu Panda 4, brings Po (voiced by Jack Black), the Dragon Warrior who’s saved the Valley of Peace from almost certain doom multiple times, back for a new adventure, albeit a new adventure that feels both too familiar and incomplete, the latter no doubt due to the notable absence of Po’s partners in kung fu-fighting, the Furious Five.

Like the truncated running time, an animation style (or rather styles) that fall noticeably short of its predecessors in terms of world-building, Kung Fu Panda 4 seems to be the result of budgetary restrictions imposed by the studio. With a production budget roughly half of the last entry, Kung Fu Panda 4 operates somewhere between the aesthetic highs of its big-screen predecessors, the related shorts, and the made-for-streaming animated series, the Furious Five’s absence makes more sense, financially if not narratively.

With the Furious Five unavailable due to scheduling conflicts, Po, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), Mr. Ping (James Wong), and Li (Bryan Cranston) are left to fill in during their absence. They fall short of succeeding, but it’s not through lack of effort. While Master Shifu remains his curmudgeonly self, gently chastising Po for childlike naïveté or Po’s resistance to change (a major, if not the major, theme in the fourth entry), Mr. Ping and Li, Po’s adopted and biological fathers respectively, fill out a subplot that forces them to overcome their differing worldviews, join forces, and help Po even when Po doesn’t know they’re helping.

Convinced, somewhat inexplicably, that Po must leave his Dragon Warrior status behind and ascend to the position of spiritual mentor to the Valley of Peace, Master Shifu holds a public event to select Po’s successor to the title. It comically fails, leaving both Master Shifu and Po at proverbial loggerheads, and Zhen (Awkwafina), a sly, thieving fox new to the series, Po captures stealing from the central temple, to join Po on his latest quest to defeat the so-called Chameleon (Viola Davis), a shapeshifting villain with an insatiable hunger to acquire the martial arts skills of long-dead kung fu masters, expand her control over Juniper City (the first city seen in the big-screen series), and eventually taking over the world (time allowing).

The Chameleon’s motivation for power gets a one-off line about bullies, prejudice, and speciesism, but beyond that, she’s just another standard-issue villain, prone to occasional Mafia don-style monologues while she passively puts her diabolical plan into motion. The contours of that plan, the who, what, when, where, and how, eventually come into focus just as Po and Zhen, sparring partners first, allies second, get closer to the Chameleon’s conspicuous lair high above Juniper City for a battle royale involving new and old foes, shifting alliances, and an emotionally satisfying, if no less predictable, denouement for Po, Zhen, and Po’s two dads.

Along the way, Kung Fu Panda 4 alternates dialogue scenes with obligatory set pieces, each action scene more frantic and frenetic than the last. They range in shape, form, and quality from the merely passable (most of the seen-and-done-that fight scenes during the first half) to the thrillingly entertaining (a chase through Juniper City’s cramped, crowded streets, a Chaplin-inspired battle royale inside an unstable, cliffside pub).

They’re almost enough to ignore the undercooked story elements, Po’s vaguely defined journey, and a compelling rationale for another entry in a series that felt like it ended definitively eight years ago.

Kung Fu Panda 4 opens today (Friday, March 8), only in movie theaters, via DreamWorks Animation and Universal Pictures.

Kung Fu Panda 4

  • Mike Mitchell
  • Stephanie Stine
  • Jonathan Aibel
  • Glenn Berger
  • Jack Black
  • Awkwafina
  • Viola Davis
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AwkwafinaBryan CranstonJack BlackJames HongKe Huy QuanKung Fu Panda 4Mike MitchellRonny ChiengStephanie Ma StineViola DavisStephanie StineJonathan AibelGlenn BergerAnimationActionAdventure

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