‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ review: Jack Black’s butt-kicking franchise embraces change from Mashable

Kung Fu Panda 4 is all about change. Franchise hero Po (voiced by Jack Black) struggles to accept that he may not be the legendary Dragon Warrior forever, faced with handing over the prodigal title, and knowing that he’ll soon have to take on other responsibilities. Meanwhile, the film presents us with the literal embodiment of change in new villain the Chameleon (Viola Davis), a shapeshifting sorceress on a quest for world domination.

With all this focus on transformation — and with this being the fourth film in the franchise — it makes sense that Kung Fu Panda 4 switches up the formula. The Furious Five of the first three films are absent here, replaced by new sidekick Zhen (Awkwafina). Plus, Po journeys farther away from his home in the Valley of Peace than ever before.

The result of these shifts is a fun addition to the consistently enjoyable Kung Fu Panda series. It may not be totally groundbreaking or reach the highs of its predecessors, but Kung Fu Panda 4 is still a blast, especially when it comes to its action sequences.

What is Kung Fu Panda 4 about?

Dustin Hoffman voices Master Shifu and Jack Black voices Po in “Kung Fu Panda 4.”
Credit: DreamWorks Animation

Kung Fu Panda 4 opens with a major revelation: former Po adversary Tai Lung (Ian McShane) has returned! Kind of. The villainous snow leopard from Kung Fu Panda hasn’t actually escaped from the Spirit Realm. However, the scheming Chameleon has assumed the original antagonist’s form in order to send the Valley of Peace into a panic. To protect his people, Po sets out to find the Chameleon with the help of sassy, thieving fox Zhen. She’ll take him to Juniper City, a buzzing metropolis under the Chameleon’s thumb. In a sweet side story, Po’s worried fathers Ping (James Hong) and Li (Bryan Cranston) trail him to make sure he’s OK.

Yet even with the whole world in danger, Po’s got some internal conflicts to face. Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) wants Po to pick his Dragon Warrior successor so he can step into the role of Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace. The way Po sees it, he may have the Staff of Wisdom he gained in Kung Fu Panda 3, but he’s nowhere near spiritual enlightenment. Is he ready to move on? Or will he fight tooth and claw to remain Dragon Warrior forever?

Kung Fu Panda 4 brings some exciting new elements to the series.

Jack Black voices Po and Awkwafina voices Zhen in “Kung Fu Panda 4.”
Credit: DreamWorks Animation

Much of Kung Fu Panda 4 is fairly predictable — as soon as Zhen and Po square off in their first quip-ridden fight, you have a pretty clear idea of where their relationship is headed. Luckily, swift pacing keeps the film’s momentum rolling in even the most predictable of moments, and messages about accepting change and growing to correct your past mistakes make for solid themes.

Where Kung Fu Panda 4 really shines, though, is in its newer story elements. The roaring streets of Juniper City are a far cry from the rolling fields of the Valley of Peace, offering brand new environments for electrifying fights and action sequences. Particularly fun is a street chase that leads us up onto rooftops and kites before plunging down into the tunnels of the city’s Den of Thieves. There, we’ll meet thief leader Han (Everything Everywhere All At Once‘s Ke Huy Quan), a pangolin with a delightful penchant for violence.

The story’s two biggest new additions, Zhen and the Chameleon, each have their ups and downs. Kung Fu Panda 4 is quick to highlight Zhen’s conniving ways, which get her and Po into their fair share of trouble, but it’s also quick to saddle her with a clichéd abandonment backstory. Thankfully, a third act bombshell complicates Zhen and gives her room to truly shine in the final battle.

Viola Davis voices the Chameleon and Jack Black voices Po in “Kung Fu Panda 4.”
Credit: DreamWorks Animation

The Chameleon also has a fairly run-of-the-mill backstory and character motivations. However, she more than makes up for them in cool factor. For starters, she’s voiced by Davis in full scenery chewing-mode. Cold, commanding, and channeling some of her villainous performance from The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Davis is clearly having a blast playing evil. The Chameleon’s transformations are fluid and frightening as well, imbuing her with the powers of other kung fu masters. These skills create new opportunities for Kung Fu Panda‘s always-dynamic fight choreography, especially in the film’s knockout final showdown. By virtue of her abilities, the Chameleon is the most versatile foe Po has ever faced, and it shows in the lightning fast switches between forms. (Tai Lung won’t be the only familiar face you see here.)

The animation in Kung Fu Panda‘s fights is always stellar, but proof of the quality comes down to the smallest of details. For example, whenever the Chameleon assumes a new form, the animators add reptilian scales to the character design to remind us who Po is really fighting. Elsewhere, the fight scenes’ occasional use of 2D brushwork provides fun stylistic breaks in the action, or emphasizes some of the film’s most striking tableaus.

Excellent fight scenes are what we’ve come to expect from a Kung Fu Panda movie, along with dumpling jokes and an emphasis on found family and personal growth. Kung Fu Panda 4 certainly features all these ingredients, and even if it doesn’t reinvent the wheel on most of them, it still cooks them together in an enjoyable broth. Sure, it doesn’t come close to topping its predecessors, but it’s another kick-butt entry in what has proven to be a wonderfully dependable animated franchise.

Kung Fu Panda 4 hits theaters May 8.

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