Kung Fu Panda 4

Any movie series that gets to its fourth entry needs to find some sort of fresh angle. Failure to do that means repeating the same stuff from the previous entries. Kung Fu Panda 4 does repeat many of the concepts and jokes from the three prior movies, yet it’s also smart enough to set the central character up for a transformation. Po (voiced by Jack Black) is pointed in a new direction by the end, making the film a fitting send-off for him.

As the story begins, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is encouraging Po to relinquish his Dragon Warrior title to a protegee. The panda isn’t ready to hang it up yet. He decides to take on a new adventure, seeking to track down a menacing figure known as the Chameleon (Viola Davis) with sinister plans that involve opening up the spirit world. Po joins forces with a petty thief fox named Zhen (Awkwafina) who knows where the Chameleon’s lair is. Meanwhile, adoptive father Mr. Ping (James Hong) and biological father Li (Bryan Cranston) head out to find him, fearing that he’s in over his head.

Like its predecessors, Kung Fu Panda 4 is nicely animated and imbued with a cheerful tone. Many of the movie’s bits are funny, chief among them a running gag involving a tavern that’s been precariously built on a mountain peak. Patrons have to readjust their positions if someone too heavy goes to one side of the building, thereby causing it to teeter. Similarly, a comical chase through the Chameleon’s town, Juniper City, perfectly combines the stylized animation with the comedy for one of the best sequences in the entire franchise.

The element that makes it most special is the idea that Po must learn to accept the need to move on. He wants to stay Dragon Warrior forever, and that’s just not possible. Although they never underline it, you can tell the filmmakers are talking about childhood. Growing up can be scary for kids, just like being asked to become a spiritual leader in the Valley of Peace is scary for Po. The unknown is terrifying sometimes. Running concurrent with that is a secondary theme about stepping aside to let others shine rather than trying to keep yourself in the spotlight. Young viewers may find themselves identifying with Po’s plight, even though they don’t fight a shape-shifting villain.

Jack Black is once again winning in the main role, and Viola Davis is delightfully nasty as the Chameleon. Oscar winner Ke Huy Quan is on board, too, as a Sunda pangolin who leads a gang of thieves. Clearly, the series is setting up Zhen to headline her own spinoff. As she did in Migration and Raya and the Last Dragon Awkwafina proves to be an exceptional voice actor with a gift for mixing humor and warmth. If the saga is going to continue, it’s in good hands.

Kung Fu Panda 4 is a little more scattershot and a little less rich than the first three movies, but it’s still quality family entertainment that will satisfy adults and kids alike. Plus, you get to hear Black – as part of his band Tenacious D – belting out a killer cover of Britney Spears’ “...Baby One More Time” over the end credits. That’s enough to make Po or anyone say Skadoosh!

out of four

Kung Fu Panda 4 is rated PG for martial arts action/mild violence, scary images, and some mild rude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.

© 2024 Mike McGranaghan