kung fu panda 4

‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ Review: Having Your Dumplings and Eating Them Too

‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ is maybe the most guaranteed good time you’ll get in theaters this year. Fitting right alongside the three films before it, this is a worthy entry in the ‘Kung Fu Panda’ universe, as well as wonderfully intriguing promise of more to come.

For a “fourquel”, especially one releasing nearly a decade after the last entry, Kung Fu Panda 4 is about as good as anyone could have reasonably asked it to be. Jack Black returns as Po, now alongside Awkwafina (Zhen) in a franchise-first secondary lead role, searching for a worthy successor to the Dragon Warrior position. Of course, chaos ensues, and a new villain rises in the ashes of the last, distracting Po from his mission and firing up the engine of yet another adventure.

Jack Black can’t be mentioned without being commended. It isn’t saying anything to say that he’s incredible here, but how could you not? Four films in, and Black is still finding ways to grow with Po, increasing his range and overall comedic flexibility. He’s perfect, as are all the mainstays; a special shoutout to Ian McShane, who returns as Tai Lung in harmonious step, sliding right back in as if more than fifteen years haven’t gone by since his last appearance. The aforementioned Awkwafina is a subtle highlight in her turn as Zhen, who takes the spotlight in the end as perhaps the most complex character in the film. It’s rare to have a new figure introduced this far into a franchise, let alone as a main character, yet it works here on both counts. Her story is layered, with a final resolution that ensures her place alongside the crew we’ve come to know and love.

kung fu panada 4
Image Credit: DreamWorks

Viola Davis is expectedly evil across from the good guys as the Chameleon, a villain who despite some shaky writing, manages to exceed expectations thanks to her performance as well as a slithering, ominous visual presence that sets her apart. Kung Fu Panda 4 consistently finds success in its use of visual flair to set itself apart, spilling over the characters and into the environments, framing fight scenes and action sequences, too. 

With Mike Mitchell at the helm, an unfamiliar sense of sporadicity seeps from these scenes; there is a disconnect from the breakneck activity in this film as compared to the previous three, but in keeping with the wider trend of new beginnings here, it works. Mitchell and co-director Stephanie Stine often opt to strip scenes of any distractions, honing in on expressions and sweeping movements to guide the camera, as well as the color. Blues and reds are used plainly, in a positive way. This is good vs. evil, take it or leave it.

You’ll want to take it. Kung Fu Panda 4 is maybe the most guaranteed good time you’ll get in theaters this year. Like the action, the pace is rapid. There are moments of emotional depth that pump the brakes a bit, but the film still never comes to a full stop, always ready to spin back into a joke or continued sequence of relevance. It’s a tight screenplay, though it’s also a rather timid one.

The biggest issue on hand here is the relative lack of speciality. This is a good film all around, but the first three in the Kung Fu Panda trilogy were great. This fourth entry feels a little scared to mess up, adhering to a few annoying tendencies of modern family animation and thus leaving behind some needed notes of maturity and longevity that the franchise has enjoyed up to this point. It’ll certainly do, but if we’re getting more of these, a complete return to form is necessary.

kung fu panda 4
Image Credit: DreamWorks

It’s hard to complain much at all about this one, though. Kung Fu Panda 4 clearly understands the stories that came before it, as well as the importance of the one it’s telling, even if it runs a little lean. Fitting right alongside the three films before it, this is a worthy entry in the Kung Fu Panda universe, and a wonderfully intriguing promise of more to come. Grab your siblings, call the cousins, maybe even get grandma to tag along, and go catch Kung Fu Panda 4 as soon as you can. This is a textbook blast at the movies.

Kung Fu Panda 4 is NOW playing in cinemas in the US and will be released March 28 in the UK.

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