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Film review: ‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ ends iconic franchise with a feeble kick

Jack Black and Awkwafina voice Po (left) and Zhen (right), respectively, in “Kung Fu Panda 4.” Directed by Mike Mitchell and Stephanie Stine, the fourth installment of the DreamWorks Animation franchise released in theaters Friday. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Kung Fu Panda 4”

Directed by Mike Mitchell and Stephanie Stine

DreamWorks Animation

March 8

By Gavin Meichelbock

March 8, 2024 1:54 p.m.

This post was updated March 10 at 8:17 p.m.

“Kung Fu Panda 4” is nothing more than the final fart joke of a once-great franchise.

Directors Mike Mitchell and Stephanie Stine deliver the newest installment of the “Kung Fu Panda” series, which released in theaters Friday. In “Kung Fu Panda 4,” Po’s (Jack Black) identity as the Dragon Warrior is challenged as he must now take the next step and ascend to the role of Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace. He is tasked with not only choosing his successor to be the next Dragon Warrior but also stopping an evil sorcerer, The Chameleon (Viola Davis), who threatens to take over the world. To stop her, Po must team up with Zhen (Awkwafina), a generic street rat with a heart of gold, on a completely predictable and rushed adventure. Primarily due to its terrible character work, the entire film feels artificial, almost as if it is an episode of the non-canon Nickelodeon series “Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness” and not a continuation of the beloved franchise.

One of the biggest flaws of “Kung Fu Panda 4” is that it does nothing to advance Po’s character. All three previous films in the franchise have a heartfelt message and something meaningful to say about Po as a character, which this installment sorely lacks. After three brilliantly crafted stories of Po finding self-worth, discovering family in unlikely places and getting over trauma, “Kung Fu Panda 4” feels like the thrown-together script of a 30-minute television show that got egregiously extended to fill a theatrical runtime.

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In the film, Po does not use the lessons he has gained over the course of the series to grow into his role as the Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace that Master Oogway chose him to be, nor does he find a rewarding and clever subversion of it. Instead, Po spends the whole movie making unfunny jokes about terrible words of wisdom that undermine the importance of the new role he is supposed to assume. The film also spends its short 94-minute runtime reaffirming how much good Po can do as the Dragon Warrior. This muddles his arc even further as the audience cannot support the journey Po is supposed to go on, since he never embarks on it.

Not only is the story sloppy at best, but Black and Awkwafina also feel like they are phoning in their entire vocal performances. There is a complete absence of chemistry between the two of them, and it sounds as though all of their lines were recorded in 10 minutes. Almost every piece of dialogue in the movie consists of the pair making terrible quips at each other. Black is continuously spewing gibberish sounds and nonsense, and Awkwafina’s constant yelling fails to provide the humor she thinks it does. Black was able to balance comedy with drama to make Po a compelling character previously in the series, so to see all of that development get thrown away and replaced with bad jokes is a disservice to a once-exceptional character and franchise.

Another mistreatment of once-beloved characters damaged the iconic Furious Five. The first two movies were fully devoted to building up this legendary group of kung fu warriors. They not only provided dynamic action scenes and fantastic Happy Meal toys, but grounded Po by surrounding him by his newfound family. The Furious Five should have been in this film to help Po accept the change of becoming the Spiritual Leader the same way they helped him become the Dragon Warrior. “Kung Fu Panda 4” deserved to be the last hurrah for these significant characters, but instead, the film unjustly writes them off and brings them back as a throwaway cameo during the credits – in which they sadly don’t even have dialogue.

One of the few positives of the movie is the genuinely terrifying performance Davis gives as the shape-shifting Chameleon. Her voice commands such power it makes her intimidating and come off as a threat worthy of the Dragon Warrior. Unfortunately, the voice work is where the positives with her character end. Despite her cool appearance and abilities, The Chameleon is nothing more than your generic villain of the week. The other antagonists in the series were so memorable because they were properly developed and tied to one of the heroes in some important way. The Chameleon has no interesting motivation or compelling backstory – she is simply evil because she is evil. The film exacerbates this fact even further by bringing back a phenomenal villain in Tai Lung (Ian McShane). He is unfortunately given nothing to do other than one small character moment for Po, but his mere cameo is enough to remind audiences of the highs this series is capable of.

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Fortunately, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), Mr. Ping (James Hong) and Li (Bryan Cranston) are also in the film, and provide most of its best moments. Mr. Ping delivers the few good jokes in the movie, and his relationship with Li is incredibly wholesome and a joy to watch. Ke Huy Quan also has a small but very fun and memorable role as the adorably violent Han.

Ultimately, DreamWorks Animation is a talented studio that has delivered some incredibly mature and heartfelt animated films over the past decades. To see one of their preeminent franchises deliver such a pitiful excuse of a film is a disservice to not only the studio, but also the fans who grew up on the “Kung Fu Panda” series.

Overall, “Kung Fu Panda 4” is a weak conclusion to a once-great trilogy that fans should skip out on.

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Gavin Meichelbock
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