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Kung Fu Panda 4 Review: Jack Black Shines In This Withering Franchise

EDITORS' RATING : 7.5 / 10
  • Many of the fight scenes are inventive and lively
  • The heart and humor are well balanced
  • Jack Black is still a delight
  • The franchise's formula hasn't gotten stale yet, but it's getting close

Of the many ongoing animated franchises Dreamworks juggles, the "Kung Fu Panda" films often feel the easiest to warm up to. Maybe it's the familiar charm of seeing anthropomorphized jungle creatures performing martial arts or the sincerity with which the films' aspirational morality plays unfold. It might just be how nourished the soul feels whenever Jack Black's titular bear Po shouts his goofy but lovable battle cry "Skadoosh!" Formulas work until they don't, and while the fourth entry is usually when a series tips over into existing purely for commerce, "Kung Fu Panda 4" has yet to exhaust the goodwill earned by its predecessors. 

Throughout the picture, it seems like the filmmakers are aware they may be reaching deep into the well for one of the last times. They don't nuke the concept or drastically alter what has worked thus far. But there's a pervasive energy throughout echoing necessary thoughts about the importance of change and growth that seem less like the franchise's usual aphorisms for the youth and more like a tacit acknowledgment of the series' predicament. 

Luckily, even four films in, Po and his adventures don't feel as though they've overstayed their welcome. "Kung Fu Panda 4" offers enough hilarity, heart, and colorful, choreographed combat to keep the series alive.

Change is necessary

When the film begins, Po (Jack Black) is enjoying the same status quo from when we last saw him. He's still the Dragon Warrior and still wielding the staff Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) gifted him from the spirit world. But when Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tells him it's time to find and train his successor so he can ascend to the higher role Oogway has chosen him for, Po wants to stay The Dragon Warrior. He would rather run around solving problems with his fists and enjoying the fame his standing brings him than start yet another journey leveling up into something new. Tai Lung (Ian McShane), the villain from the first film, returns, setting the stage for some kind of full circle revisiting Po's origins. But all is not what it seems.

Instead, Po ends up on an adventure with Zhen (Awkwafina), a con artist fox who offers to help him find a shapeshifting sorcerer called The Chameleon (Viola Davis) in exchange for a reduced jail sentence. In typical "Kung Fu Panda" valuable lesson fashion, Po is forced to face the fact that he cannot keep reliving variations of the same journey forever. Not just because the viewers at home are starting to see the seams on this particular tapestry, but because people should never settle when they still have untapped potential to explore. 

Black remains the series' greatest strength. His exuberance and malleability give Po an innate lovability that makes him easy to follow anywhere the franchise wants to take us. But his chemistry with a blaccent-less Awkwafina proves to be the real heart of the film, as her redemption arc serves to highlight how far Po has come since his first outing. Rather than struggle to find things for the rest of the Furious Five to do (and having to assemble even more big-name performers into the vocal booth), most of the supporting cast is sidelined this time out, save for a subplot with Po's two dads Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) and Mr. Ping (James Hong). 

Of the acting talent on display, Davis gets to have the most fun. She taps into a scenery-chewing villainess role far more over the top than her usual live-action fare. It's a testament to the balancing act these films do tonally that so many recognizable actors show up and deliver touching, memorable work rather than sounding like they're here to collect a paycheck.

Passing the torch

Plus, we can't forget the action! "Kung Fu Panda 4" has a high bar to clear given the series' singular dedication to using the medium of animation to pay homage to the wuxia genre. The fights here are clever and weaved into the film's many comedic gags quite well. The first time Po and Zhen cross paths, the ensuing battle is staged so shrewdly, using Awkafina's verbal pattern as punctuation for the fight's many Chaplin-esque bits of physical comedy. And outside of one experimentally stylized fight in the second act, very little of the film follows the recent trend of broadly aping the styles popularized by the "Spider-Verse" films

"Kung Fu Panda 4" is an efficient and sweet little picture. Kids are obviously going to love it, but so will the parents and the assorted childless adults who at this point have grown up with Po. In that way, it's admirable to see a hero change and evolve alongside the youths who first adored his exploits. This film honors its forebears and gives the distinct feeling they might be able to pull off a fifth flick, too. Maybe even a sixth, if they don't push it.

"Kung Fu Panda 4" hits theaters on March 8.