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‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ Brings Back its Baddies

film still from kung fu panda 4
Dreamworks Animation

There’s no denying Jack Black’s charisma. One half of Tenacious D and more often than not the stand-out performer in any project he’s in, Black gets by on his infectious exuberance, unique comedic persona, and a ton of musical talent. As the star of the Kung Fu Panda franchise, he has turned a warm-hearted, dumpling-loving giant panda into a much-beloved, butt-kicking, comedy-action hero. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.


Luckily, Black is back in full force for the newest film in the series. Kung Fu Panda 4 has the titular panda tasked by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) to find the successor to the Dragon Warrior title that Po has held for three films (and several television shows, shorts, and specials). Reluctant to move on from his precious role, Po instead heads to a faraway land to confront a new threat: The Chameleon (Viola Davis), a power-hungry, shape-shifting enchantress. He is aided by a crafty corsac fox named Zhen (Awkwafina) and along the way they encounter other new characters — including a glittering pangolin voiced by Ke Huy Quan.


Noticeably absent from the cast is the Furious Five: Tigress, Mantis, Viper, Crane, and Monkey. The film explains that the characters are off having their own adventures, but the lack of their dynamic teamwork is conspicuously felt, as are their missing voice actors (Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, and Jackie Chan). They do make a brief but dialogue-free appearance at the end, however.


Fortunately, Ian McShane is brought back as Tai Lung, the haughty antagonistic snow leopard and martial arts master from the first Kung Fu Panda. We also get to see other bad guys, like Lord Shen, the evil white peacock, in the film. James Hong and Bryan Cranston return as Po’s anxious goose father, Mr. Ping, and Po’s affable panda father, Li Shan, respectively. Additionally, a new batch of characters provides fresh delights, particularly with Davis’ performance as the formidable villain. And it is always a delight to hear Quan’s piping voice. 


The film still generates lots of laughs and enjoyment from rapid-fire jokes and visual gags. There is even a brief scene that plays on the bull-in-a-china-shop idiom. Side characters include a trio of chaos-causing rabbit children who go feral and chant, “Violence!” on occasion, which isn’t exactly funny, but little ones in the theatre really seemed to like it. A few other jokes fall flat, as does the B-plot, which finds Po’s two dads trailing after him out of worry, even though he is literally the Dragon Warrior and has overcome countless dangers before.


Any messaging or morals aimed at kids may not have landed very strongly by the end of the film, but it’s no doubt plenty entertaining. The story zips along nicely, and the inevitable plot twists and emotional turns hit their marks. The wuxia-style action, which is part and parcel of the franchise, is still exhilarating to watch, thanks to fluid animation and inventive use of props and magic powers. And the chimerical climax will almost certainly leave young viewers gasping and cheering. But do we need more sequels in the franchise? Probably not.

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