Kung Fu Panda 4 (2024)
Kung Fu Panda 4 (2024)

Genre: Fairy Tale and Martial Arts Running Time: 1 hr. 34 min.

Release Date: March 8th, 2024 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Mike Mitchell, Stephanie Stine Actors: Jack Black, Awkwafina, Viola Davis, Dustin Hoffman, Bryan Cranston, James Hong, Ke Huy Quan, Ian McShane, Ronny Chieng, Lori Tan Chinn

 


 

T

ai Lung (Ian McShane) has returned, and no one will stand in his way – not even the great Dragon Warrior Po (Jack Black). This, of course, is essentially the same premise as the last couple of entries into this long-running franchise, substituting out a random evildoer with city-conquering schemes. Alongside the static establishment is the serendipitous hero’s continued employment of slapstick and accidental combat success more than actual skills – though he’s basically never in any believable danger thanks to his bouncy body being an impenetrable fortress of dumplings. Falling from considerable heights is never enough to pose any damage, either. “I screwed up big time.”

He’s also still preoccupied with food and fun, which really makes him a poor choice to serve as the protector of his village, though he’s armed with the Staff of Wisdom – a magical device that offers up otherworldly powers. Sadly, every time some element of witchcraft or wizardry finds its way into the plot, it cheats the premise of martial arts talents. How can nonstop training and physical perfection stand a chance against sorcery, what with all of its undefined, unlimited capabilities? But before Po realizes that his kung fu can’t do much against the conjuring of supernatural abilities from the spirit realm, he’s tasked by Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) to choose a successor from available candidates. Much to Po’s chagrin, the portly panda is told he must give up his place as Dragon Warrior to ascend – with much less promise of excitement – to the position of Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace.

“I’m just not ready for a next step!” Like Po’s resistance to change, the story here also pushes back against mixing things up. The formula is the same as before, with the beefy buffoon making mistakes and stumbling into enemy ploys (but always attempting to do the right thing), only winning out in the end due to some supremely fortunate, unpremeditated circumstance (or the opposition stalling or failing to simply kill Po and his allies). Awkwafina lends her incredibly recognizable voice to a thieving fox named Zhen, which is somewhat more fitting than with the last several animated characters she’s played (“Raya and the Last Dragon” was the worst, “The Little Mermaid” was only slightly better), but this is also not much of an interesting additive. And the shapeshifting chameleon villainess (Viola Davis), while engagingly realized during sequences of rapid metamorphosis, doesn’t generate enough of the originality this production so desperately needed. “How bad can one evil sorceress be?”

Likewise, the animation is fine, utilizing multiple technical styles to depict present-day or flashbacks or narration; it’s appealing, as expected from a major studio, but from a visual standpoint, it’s the texturing that really excels in this series (hair, fur, and scales excel with their photorealism). Action choreography stands out too, with breakneck fights and flights like something from “The Adventures of Tintin” but with superior comedy and colorfulness. But perhaps the best new bits are the supporting characters of a pelican boat captain (perfectly voiced by Ronny Chieng), who gets many of the better laughs (99% of the gags are essentially “dad jokes”) and a pangolin ringleader (voiced by Ke Huy Quan, with a comparable recognizability to Awkwafina), both exhibiting cleverer concepts than the many reused personas of pigs and rams and bears.

Meanwhile, the “Furious Five” are away on other adventures (definitely making this picture less expensive in the casting department), which allows Po and Zhen to partner in road-trip shenanigans that present practically zero surprises – though strangely it’s dependable, consistent amusement following the exploits of these good-natured do-gooders. Despite all of the reasons “Kung Fu Panda 4” didn’t need to be made – chiefly with its safe, predictable, unchanging storytelling routines – this breezy, swift sequel is exceptionally lighthearted and easygoing. It won’t create much of an impression, but it’s pleasantly whimsical and inoffensive. “You aren’t completely useless after all.”

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10