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MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ stands on its own and opens new possibilities for future sequels

There are some very interesting new developments in the story and in the characters that it makes ‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ not feel like a tired franchise trying to go for a quick cash grab.

Funnily enough, I have a soft spot for both ‘Kung Fu Panda’ and ‘Kung Fu Panda 2.’ I am a fan of Jack Black and his humor and I’m a sucker for the world of kung fu and martial arts. I’ve come to appreciate the characters from both films so it’s so funny to me that I remember watching ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ but as I was stepping into the cinema to watch the latest installment, I could not for the life of me remember a single detail of ‘Kung Fu Panda 3.’ I don’t remember the villain. I don’t remember any fight scenes. I just know that Po (voiced by Jack Black) meets up with his family.

Luckily, I didn’t need to see the third movie to understand the fourth. Po is still the Dragon Warrior and he has not lost any of his fighting skills, his humor, his down-to-earth character, nor his appetite. He now has two dads – Mr. Ping, his adoptive goose father (James Hong), and Li Shan, his biological father (Bryan Cranston) – while Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is still frustrated with him despite not questioning or diminishing Po’s stature and position. It’s a welcome dynamic that is familiar and yet honest. There is growth in Po and he has risen to the task of becoming the Dragon Warrior.

Po (Jack Black) in DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 4, directed by Mike Mitchell.

But as ‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ opens, we discover that he must now find a suitable successor to the role while stepping up as a spiritual leader for the Valley of Peace. This is a role Po does not feel ready for, especially since he loves being the Dragon Warrior. He’s not ready for change and this becomes the central theme of this movie.

(Center) Chameleon (Viola Davis) in Kung Fu Panda 4 directed by Mike Mitchell.

Ironically, the villain that comes to threaten peace and order is The Chameleon (voiced by the formidable Viola Davis). A sorceress with the ability to shape-shift, The Chameleon has climbed up the ranks to become a powerful criminal force and seeks to rule and plunder with an iron hand. Po must venture out of the Valley of Peace to the city where The Chameleon has her stronghold to stop her. Leading him to the fortress is a fox called Zhen (voiced by Awkwafina). Zhen is a petty thief and is the type to get under your skin and push buttons. Zhen constantly questions Po’s intentions and moral center and effectively becomes a foil for Po. Both are orphans and yet Po turned out moral because he was adopted by Mr. Ping while Zhen grew up amoral because she was raised in the streets and had to fend for herself.

(from left) Po (Jack Black) and Zhen (Awkwafina) in Kung Fu Panda 4 directed by Mike Mitchell.

As the story unfolds, it’s very clear what is transpiring in the film. Narratively, it’s pretty predictable if you’ve seen enough fantasy and adventure stories. The twists and turns are nothing new. There’s a lot of physical and visual comedy, though, and some rambunctious fight scenes spread out through the film to keep it enjoyable and fast-paced.

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There’s a really funny fight scene in a bar situated precariously at the edge of a cliff. The physical comedy on this fight alone is quite entertaining. The banter between Black and Awkwafina as Po and Zhen can get dry and overdrawn sometimes, but there’s a purpose to it as the film slowly sets up its pieces to create dynamics that are reminiscent to the first film. You can see the set-up miles away but there’s an earnestness and sincerity that carries it through.

(from left) The Chameleon (Viola Davis), (right) Tai Lung (Ian McShane) in Kung Fu Panda 4 directed by Mike Mitchell.

Interestingly enough, when Po and The Chameleon finally face off, we discover another layer of comparisons that are made – this time between the hero and the villain – and the theme of change and growth are finally fully realized. Like Zhen, Po and the Chameleon also have similar backgrounds and we see how the two are the opposite sides of the same coin.

Three bunnies in DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 4, directed by Mike Mitchell.
Po (Jack Black) in Kung Fu Panda 4 directed by Mike Mitchell.

There are some very interesting new developments in the story and in the characters that it makes ‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ not feel like a tired franchise trying to go for a quick cash grab. While there is a glimpse (the description is apt) of the Furious Five in the movie, their absence is really felt (they were in other missions). A lot of the jokes land, there are a good deal of fight scenes that are fun to watch, and the story is set to push the franchise to new possibilities (as the producers have said they can extend the characters and narratives by two more films, completing the whole set at six). It’s a solid release that can stand on its own – I don’t remember the third film at all, but it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of this one – though it isn’t a grand slam and reinvents the wheel.

My Rating:


Kung Fu Panda 4 is now showing. Check screening times and buy tickets here.

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Movie Info

Kung Fu Panda 4
Action, Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family

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