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Thursday, May 23, 2024
photo courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures/Universal Studios

‘Kung Fu Panda 4’: An attempt at something new falls short in many aspects

“Kung Fu Panda 4” is missing what made the previous movies so loveable and magical.

The review contains spoilers for “Kung Fu Panda 4.” 

“Kung Fu Panda 4” lacks the creativity, originality and unique characters that made the original trilogy well-loved. 

Directed by Mike Mitchell, the fourth installment in the DreamWorks franchise serves as a sequel to 2016’s “Kung Fu Panda 3.”

The original trilogy came to a seemingly satisfying end when Dragon Warrior Po (Jack Black) finally learned what it means to be a hero. He saved the people he loved and protected the Valley of Peace from an array of animal villains, and he earned the respect of his mentor Master Shifu and the Furious Five. Po finally felt as though he could enjoy the admiration of both his adoptive and biological fathers. 

“Kung Fu Panda 4” undid a lot of the character development and worldbuilding seen in the original trilogy and at times felt repetitive and disconnected from the previous films. 

The villain of this film feels familiar. The Chameleon (Viola Davis), a shapeshifting sorceress, wants to steal Po’s Staff of Wisdom to collect the abilities of the Spirit Realm’s Kung Fu masters, mirroring the intentions of Kai, the villain in “Kung Fu Panda 3.”

In “Kung Fu Panda 4,” Po recruits Zhen (Awkwafina), a witty and clever Fox, to help stop The Chameleon. The movie primarily takes place in Juniper City, and we find out Zhen is part of an underground street thieves group. The Chameleon has complete control over the city and plans to take over the Valley of Peace after stealing the Kung Fu of previous Kung Fu masters. 

In their encounter with The Chameleon, the audience discovers Zhen was a double agent working for The Chameleon, who ends up acquiring the Staff of Wisdom. This plot point was bland and uninspiring. 

Unlike the first three films, the pacing of “Kung Fu Panda 4” felt rushed and didn’t give viewers a chance to stop and think about the movie beyond a surface level. One reason why the previous movies were so successful was because it centered around the intricacies of the characters. “Kung Fu Panda 4” just didn’t have what made the other films so special. 

For example, the first movie’s success was partially due to its villain. Tai Lung’s emotional backstory and his persistent effort to defeat the Dragon Warrior is what made him such an interesting character. He wants approval from his old master and wants revenge on a society that wronged him despite how hard he worked. 

“Kung Fu Panda 2” worked well because of the focus on inner peace. Much of the film followed Po and his journey towards finding inner peace despite having a troubling and horrific childhood. Thinking he lost all of his family, Po has issues in the present trying to find peace within a world where he has to be the hero and was able to recall the enjoyable moments from his childhood and the happiness he felt after being adopted by Mr. Ping. Po was able to find inner peace after finding out who he truly was. 

Finally, “Kung Fu Panda 3” focused mostly on Po becoming the teacher and bringing out the best of the unique qualities within others. He used what both Master Oogway and Shifu taught him. Thanks to the help of the pandas, he was able to ultimately get the better of Kai and return from the Spirit Realm. 

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“Kung Fu Panda 4” has none of these focuses or aspects. The Chameleon has no other motivations other than to have as much power as she can, and the notion of inner peace was missing here.

Po himself just didn’t seem like the Dragon Warrior and Kung Fu master he was in the previous three movies, and his usual comedy didn’t hit in part due to the script’s lack of creativity. This movie seemed to disregard Po’s character development, and the Dragon Warrior appears to be outmatched in many of the action sequences. 

Another plot point that disregards the previous movies is when Master Shifu tells Po that he must find a successor to be the next Dragon Warrior and advance to become a spiritual leader. By the end of “Kung Fu Panda 3,” Po completed his journey of becoming a fully-realized Dragon Warrior, so having him move on so fast doesn’t seem to be the next logical step in Po’s journey. 

While there is much to be said about how “Kung Fu Panda 4” tried to accomplish something new through introducing a new hero and in a new city, the chemistry between Po and Zhen is weak and unconvincing at best. Po’s status as protector of the Valley of Peace and Zhen’s obnoxious behavior and knack for getting them into unfortunate situations makes the duo uninteresting and dull. There isn’t a heart-to-heart moment between the two, and most of the movie centers around Po getting the duo out of the trouble Zhen puts them in. Additionally, Po forgiving Zhen so quickly before Zhen easily turns her back on The Chameleon seems unrealistic. 

Despite it being hard to find the positives in a film with many flaws, one good thing about this movie is the chemistry between Po’s two dads. With some great deliveries from Bryan Cranston and James Hong, it was fun watching this side quest play out, and it provided viewers with some comedic interactions and a break from an otherwise rushed plot. 

One of the best scenes in “Kung Fu Panda 4” wasn’t even in the actual film itself. After the credits roll, viewers get a glimpse at the beginning of Zhen’s Kung Fu training with the Furious Five, while Jack Black’s rendition of “Baby One More Time” plays in the background. It is worthwhile to note that this is the only time the Furious Five makes an appearance in the film. 

Despite DreamWorks finding recent success with “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” which received praise and admiration for its unique animation style and complex yet beautifully written screenplay, “Kung Fu Panda 4” accomplished nothing new on top of falling short of the original trilogy. Sometimes trilogies should remain just that.

“Kung Fu Panda 4” is now playing in theaters. 

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