Movies

‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ Review

The Big Picture

  • Despite its long run, the
    Kung Fu Panda
    movies remain entertaining, relying on strong characters and humor.
  • Kung Fu Panda 4
    brings fresh energy with a focus on Po and Zhen, expanding the world while maintaining core elements.
  • The film introduces new characters and a compelling villain, setting up potential future developments for the series.


While animated movie series can often fall prey to franchise bloat, Kung Fu Panda has remained consistently solid, despite running since 2008 and now featuring four movies, and far more television specials, short films, and television series than you’re probably aware of. In a world full of possibilities, vibrant characters, and a sense of humor that rarely relies on pop culture or current trend jokes like most animated films, the Kung Fu Panda movies are always reliable fun.


The last film in the franchise, 2016’s Kung Fu Panda 3, felt like a decent conclusion for the adventures of Po (voiced by Jack Black), as he accepted his position and truly became the Dragon Warrior. With the third installment also rehashing some of the same ideas from the first two films, it felt like maybe it was time for Po and the Kung Fu Panda films to head into the sunset while it was still on top. But eight years later, Po returns with Kung Fu Panda 4 and proves that there’s still plenty of juice left in these movies. It provides another fitting ending for this series, but also opens up the opportunity for a new beginning.



What Is ‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ About?

Kung Fu Panda 4 begins with Po finally comfortable in his placement as the Dragon Warrior. While the rest of the Furious Five are off on their own adventures, Po is maintaining the peace and protecting those in need all on his own. This is why it comes as a shock when Po is told by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) that it’s time for Po to become the Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace and that he must pick his replacement as the new Dragon Warrior. Given his newfound comfort in the position, Po is hesitant about losing the title he’s worked so hard to achieve. Even with great potential replacements, Po is uninspired by his options.


While Po is struggling with this decision, he encounters a fox named Zhen (Awkwafina) who is attempting to rob the temple. After putting her behind bars, Po learns of a new enemy known as The Chameleon (Viola Davis) who can shape-shift into anyone and is attempting to conjure villains from the past to steal their kung fu powers. When he discovers that Zhen might have information on how he can find The Chameleon, Po teams up with this fox. The unlikely pair must then try to stop this new power-stealing enemy.

‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ Moves Away From What Previously Worked and Successfully Tries Something New

Image via DreamWorks

The Kung Fu Panda movies have always been about Po working with the ensemble of the Furious Five, and as the series continued, the supporting cast grew more important, even hinting that they’d be capable of handling their own plots. But if the rest of this series has been ensemble action films, Kung Fu Panda 4 moves away from that to turn this latest installment into a buddy film between Po and Zhen. Even though it may seem odd for these movies to move away from what was still working for them, it’s a smart choice to shake things up—especially considering how the third film was starting to show they might be showing their age.


But the dynamic between Black and Awkwafina is strong, as we previously saw in Jumanji: The Next Level, and by shifting this world away from the tried-and-true characters, Po becomes the master trying to teach an unruly kid with potential—bringing us back to the beginnings of this series where the student has truly become the master. Black’s performance is still silly in the way it needs to be, showing a bit more maturity than when we first met him, whereas Awkwafina has become a reliable voice actor in recent years, as there’s been a big improvement from 2019’s Raya and the Last Dragon to her work in DreamWorks’ The Bad Guys and now this. Awkwafina finds an energy that matches Black’s but with her own twist on it.

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“Turns out all we needed was a little more of this.”


Writers Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Burger (both of whom have worked on this series since the beginning), and Darren Lemke make the correct decision in expanding this world by paring it down to these two while also giving us a fresh take on this universe’s possibilities. Again, this is a series that relies on jokes within its universe, and it rarely falls into the tropes of modern references that often age animated films rapidly. Aibel, Berger, and Lemke manage to make these films funny and entertaining thanks to the characters and the situations, rather than just making easy topical jokes. The most modern reference you’ll find in Kung Fu Panda 4 is an instrumental version of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.” Both director Mike Mitchell (The Lego Movie 2, Trolls) and co-director Stephanie Ma Stine are new to this franchise, but excel at finding that perfect mixture of humor, pathos, and action that it needs. It’s also a gorgeous film to look at, from cherry trees shedding their leaves, and a bustling city filled with characters, to just the fur of Po that looks incredibly soft on the screen. Mitchell and Stine may be dipping their toes into this franchise, but they find the right balance to make this fourth installment work.


‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ Gives Time to New Dynamics and an Excellent New Villain

Yet even though Kung Fu Panda 4 mostly focuses on Po and Zheng, there’s time to build a new collection of intriguing characters and charming team-ups. Leading the B-plot here is Po’s adopted father, Mr. Ping (a great James Hong), and his real father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), who was discovered in the third film. These two have almost become a couple since we last saw them, knowing each other’s every move and bickering like an old married pair. Hong’s Mr. Ping always deserved more of a focus in these movies and Kung Fu Panda 4 allows for it. Plus, Cranston is having a ball as the older panda partner. In terms of new characters, Kung Fu Panda 4 introduces Han (Ke Huy Quan), an armadillo working in the underworld. Quan unfortunately doesn’t have much to do, but he is an important part of this world that Zheng came from, which makes him integral in the second half of the film.


But the real showstopper here is Viola Davis as The Chameleon, adding to her recent run of incredibly fun villains like Amanda Waller and Dr. Volumnia Gaul in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. While many of the villains in the Kung Fu Pandaverse have just been a MacGuffin for Po to eventually fight, The Chameleon becomes a much stronger part of the narrative overall, as we get time to explore who she is, and how similar her origins are to Po’s beginnings as a warrior. As The Chameleon can change into whoever she wants, Davis is able to flex her voice acting skills, and having a great time doing it. The Chameleon easily becomes the Kung Fu Panda world’s most enjoyable villain, full of possibilities and led by a great Davis performance.


Kung Fu Panda 4 isn’t without its faults, however. The back half of the film, as Po and Zheng finally close in on the Chameleon, does feel like it’s spinning its wheels at times, and not making full use of the exciting new city we’re introduced to. Instead, the latter part of this film revolves around Po and Zheng getting caught, learning some new truth, escaping, repeat, and while it’s mostly enjoyable, it does seem as though more could be done with this massive location that we’re introduced to. But the Kung Fu Panda movies have always been good at setting up the next steps years before we see them in action, and it seems entirely likely that’s what’s happening here as well.

‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ Could Have Done More With Past Characters

Ian McShane as Tai Lung, a cheetah on all fours looking ready to fight, in 'Kung Fu Panda 4'
Image via Dreamworks Animation


While it is probably smart that Kung Fu Panda 4 does move away from relying too much on the Furious Five, it is a shame that the film does bring them back for little more than a dialogue-free cameo that doesn’t add up to much. Surely, audiences would be unhappy if they didn’t appear at all, but it feels like too little too late, especially considering how important they were in the first three films. Similarly, Kung Fu Panda 4 does also find a way to bring back all of the previous villains, and again, it seems like a cool opportunity that’s somewhat wasted. It makes sense thematically for where the story goes, and The Chameleon is enough of a great villain in her own right to not make this addition feel egregious. But like with The Furious Five, it’s sort of like the filmmakers checking a box to bring these characters back, rather than having their appearance truly feel essential.


Yet one of the greatest strengths of Kung Fu Panda as a franchise is how, unlike so many other animated series, this one continues to push forward, evolve, and try new things. Again, Kung Fu Panda 4 could’ve easily brought back those old villains, turning this into the “ultimate test” for Po, rehashing some of the characters we’ve already seen get defeated. But Kung Fu Panda 4, like the other films in this series, doesn’t rest on its laurels. Instead, it tries to find new ways to expand the story of Po that never feel like this franchise is simply doing the same thing over again. So many animated franchises can end up doing the same thing over and over, knowing that the money will keep coming in despite the story, but Kung Fu Panda 4 at least attempts to break the mold and experiment with this world and these characters—even though we might want to see some of the old favorites return.

Kung Fu Panda 4 continues this panda’s adventures and the franchise’s placement as one of the most consistently enjoyable animated series around today. Kung Fu Panda 4 is a film all about deciding to not do the easy thing of remaining stagnant and comfortable, but rather, trying something new and hopefully finding the greatness in the new opportunity. Kung Fu Panda 4 similarly does this, attempting a new approach to this world and mostly finding success, while also potentially setting up the future of where this series could go.


Kung Fu Panda 4 Film Poster

REVIEW

Kung Fu Panda 4

Kung Fu Panda 4 continues Po’s adventures as one of the most consistent animated franchises, while also testing new grounds for the series and setting up for the future.

Pros

  • Kung Fu Panda 4 finds new ways to shake up a formula that was in danger of becoming stale.
  • Viola Davis becomes a fun addition to the cast, with her character The Chameleon becoming the series’ best villain.
  • Kung Fu Panda 4 continues the series trend of strong writing, exciting action, and gorgeous animation.
Cons

  • The second half of the film can get a bit repetitive.
  • This new direction mostly leaves established supporting characters in the dust.

Kung Fu Panda 4 is available to stream on Peacock in the U.S. starting June 21.

WATCH ON PEACOCK


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