Kung Fu Panda 4 Review: Entertaining Awesomeness

Po (Jack Black) in DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 4, directed by Mike Mitchell.
Po (Jack Black) in DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 4, directed by Mike Mitchell.
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Ska-doosh! DreamWorks is back with another Kung Fu Panda sequel. Kung Fu Panda 4 is the latest action-adventure comedy that sees Jack Black return to his iconic role as Po. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen these characters in action on the big screen. This installment sees Po teaming up with a fox named Zhen (Awkwafina) to take down a shape-shifting villain named The Chameleon (Viola Davis). This is not one of the better movies in the franchise, but even when you’re not getting great Kung Fu Panda, you’re getting watchable Kung Fu Panda.

This is a very fun, exciting movie that children will eat up. Going into this movie, I had my expectations tempered. I have the nostalgia of seeing the first Kung Fu Panda movie in theaters at a young age. It didn’t look like a good sign when DreamWorks didn’t release the trailer until less than three months before the release date. But this movie had a lot going for it. We had franchise veteran screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger returning to this project, and the film is directed by Mike Mitchell, who has proven himself to be a trustworthy animation director with his work on Trolls, The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, and Shrek Forever After. Before we knew it, Kung Fu Panda 4 entered production with the same writer/director team as Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. And their work here is much better.

Soon after, Awkwafina was added to the cast, which is good news for some and not-so-good news for others. She’s recently become a prolific voice actress with her roles in The Angry Birds Movie 2, The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run, Raya and the Last Dragon, The Bad Guys, The Little Mermaid, and Migration. She can be a polarizing figure in a movie of this type because she has a distinct schtick that she almost always sticks to. She’s hit-or-miss for me, and I think what she’s doing here works well for her character of a thieving fox. It’s easy to be reminded of her other sticky-fingered characters in Ocean’s Eight and Jumanji: The Next Level, and she doesn’t enter uncharted waters with this character, but she’s entertaining.

Black is always a wonderful presence in every movie he’s in. He’s been playing Po for 16 years and hasn’t skipped a beat. He brings so much energy and charisma to this character and immediately gets you on his side. We also have some returning cast members like Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu. He’s great as this character but doesn’t have much to do. One of the shining elements of this film is the storyline surrounding Po’s dads, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) and Mr. Ping (James Hong). Cranston and Hong are phenomenal in all their roles, from fun to serious ones. They have a subplot that almost wouldn’t work on paper, but these two actors play such lovable characters that you can’t help but smile at their antics.

That’s what this franchise has always excelled at. No matter which Kung Fu Panda movie you watch, you never beg for it to end. Some children’s movies have fallen into this pitfall, and you’d think the fourth movie in a long-running series might feel like an unnecessary cash-grab sequel. But you can see a lot of passion in these vibrant animations. The action set pieces of these films are always stellar, and Kung Fu Panda 4 does not skip a beat. The film features a fun idea surrounding a fight scene in a house about to tip over. The animators take their time with every bit of the martial arts choreography in this film.

One aspect that everyone was worried about was the fact that the Furious Five were not in the trailers. There’s an obvious reason for that: they’re not in the movie. An early scene briefly shows that they are all on missions in other places. Of course, the obvious behind-the-scenes reason is that DreamWorks wouldn’t pay the high cost of hiring Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu. Or perhaps they wanted to take the series in a new direction. Either way, there’s a large Furious Five-shaped hole in this movie that can’t always be filled by Awkwafina’s talents. It’s easy to miss the Five, especially with a character like Tigress whose backstory has so much potential. The story is mostly able to work without them, but not always.

Now, let’s talk about the villain. This is a series known for its strong villains. Davis is a perfect casting choice for this antagonist, especially since we recently saw how terrifying she can be in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. She’s giving amazing voice work here. You believe every second of her mortifying presence. It’s the script that doesn’t do her enough justice. Think about how we’re introduced to each villain in the first three movies: Tai Lung breaks out of a maximum security prison, Lord Shen commits genocide on pandas, and Kai returns from the dead using the stolen chi of kung fu masters. The Chameleon pushes someone down a flight of stairs. And to rub salt in the wound, she later threatens to push someone down another flight of stairs.

Each villain has a strong connection to a good character: Tai Lung has a past with Shifu, Lord Shen has a past with Po, and Kai has a past with Oogway. The Chameleon doesn’t have that. She’s simply a power-hungry villain. Rather than her backstory, her abilities are what makes her interesting to watch. She can shapeshift and wants to steal the kung fu from martial arts masters of the dead. We learn why she is doing this, but we don’t get too invested in it.

Elements like the villain can sometimes make Kung Fu Panda 4 feel more like a simple adventure rather than an emotionally resonant story. The film wants to delve into this theme surrounding change and the fear of it. This may be connected to how the villain is someone who can change at will and spends the whole movie searching for that change. But unfortunately, it never fully lands this theme. And when we get to our final battle, the action is fun, but there are a few characters from previous movies who show up but don’t say a word. It instantly becomes obvious that the franchise simply never hired their old voice actors because of how these characters remain uncharacteristically tight-lipped, especially because another returning character has quite a few lines.

The way that I would describe this series is that the first Kung Fu Panda is a classic hero’s journey. Kung Fu Panda 2 is a beautiful film that delves into not letting our pasts define us and overcoming our traumas. Kung Fu Panda 3 is a flawed sequel that still has its themes about becoming a leader and training the generation after us. This movie feels a bit less sophisticated and more like a fun adventure of the week. And that’s not bad. This is quite a funny, enjoyable movie. It has its issues that hold it back from being a better installment, but I can’t help but have fun with this movie with these characters. Also, the end-credits song is amazing.

SCORE: 7/10

As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 7 equates to “Good.” A successful piece of entertainment that is worth checking out, but it may not appeal to everyone.

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