Review: ‘Kung Fu Panda 4’

Flimsy And Unnecessary Sequel Proves This Dojo Is Fresh Out Of New Moves

Eight years have passed since Dreamworks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 3, but the franchise hasn’t sat dormant in the least. There have been multiple television series and various specials that have kept Jack Black’s joyful, bulbous panda warrior Po quite busy. I love these movies and think they are the best animated franchise Dreamworks has to offer, and at their best they not only pack tons of martial arts action but just as much humor that makes the most of Black’s oversized personality. Unfortunately, Kung Fu Panda 4 is not this franchise at its best, not even close.

Kung Fu Panda 4 feels like it started life as a season of television, not as the fourth movie in a billion-dollar big-screen franchise. The animation isn’t as crisp, some of the A-list voice cast are absent, and the story feels like it was cobbled together by unused plots from previous films. While there’s still a lot of fun to be had watching Po punch and eat his way to victory and spiritual enlightenment, the same mojo just isn’t there.

Years have passed since the events of Kung Fu Panda 3, and fans of the TV shows know that Po has been on many adventures during that time. But now Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) has told Po it’s time to relinquish the role of Dragon Warrior, y’know, that thing he spent all of that time fighting to earn, and to pass the mantle to a successor. Po would instead elevate to become the new Spiritual Master of the region, similar to Master Oogway before him. But Po, not wanting to give up punching people for a living, doesn’t like this idea.

A potential candidate emerges in Zhen (Awkwafina), a sly ninja fox and thief who, after battling Po to a slim defeat, warns him of the arrival of Chameleon (Viola Davis), a shapeshifting sorceress who has begun amassing power by defeating other powerful rivals. She and Po are on a collision course, and it’s in question whether he will live to see the title of Dragon Warrior passed to another.

First of all, Chameleon isn’t the most inspiring of villains for Kung Fu Panda, which generally has pretty good enemies for Po to battle against. The best rivals are like two sides of the same coin, and one of the great things about these movies is that Po would grow and learn more about himself along the way. But it felt like his story had reached full circle already, and there was nothing new that this fight could teach him. It also doesn’t make sense that Po would be forced to retire from being the Dragon Warrior so soon, and it felt like a needless plot device. Why can’t they just give us Po stuffing his face, embarrassing his Masters, and yelling Skadoosh!! as he jumpkicks some animal clown into oblivion? It’s not complicated. Jack Black is clearly still game for voicing Po, and the fit couldn’t be more perfect. Even as he’s belting out his own rendition of Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” over the closing credits, we’re game to rock out with him.

The film is also missing the blockbuster scale given to the previous films by director Jennifer Yuh Nelson. In previous interviews, she has said she always saw Po’s story as a trilogy, and she was right to feel that way. Kung Fu Panda 4 feels small by comparison, and less exciting without the presence of the Furious Five superteam, which featured undoubtedly expensive voice talent such as Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, and Jackie Chan. They are a big part of taking the kung fu action up a notch by representing all of the major “animal styles” of Hung Ga, but there’s a greater emphasis on the comical side represented by Po. It’s not necessarily bad, but Kung Fu Panda was better for blending intensity and silliness in equal measure. Incoming director Mike Mitchell has been successful in animation, but he’s also the guy who has directed some pretty awful sequels such as Shrek Forever AfterAlvin & the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, and The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part.

Fifteen years since Po first burst onto the scene, the jolly martial arts master has finally found a foe he can’t defeat: franchise fatigue. Kung Fu Panda 4 tries and fails to hold onto the kung fu magic that has made it a beloved box office giant and frequent award winner, and perhaps it’s time to shut down the dojo for good.

Kung Fu Panda 4 opens in theaters on March 8th.


Kung Fu Panda 4
Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-kung-fu-panda-4Eight years have passed since Dreamworks Animation's Kung Fu Panda 3, but the franchise hasn't sat dormant in the least. There have been multiple television series and various specials that have kept Jack Black's joyful, bulbous panda warrior Po quite busy. I love these movies...