Kung Fu Panda 4 Review

“Do we really need a Kung Fu Panda 4” are the exact words I muttered as the lights dimmed on Dreamworks latest animated adventure in the Panda series. After a near-perfect trilogy before it, the franchise has long lay dormant for 6 years, with no signs of a resurrection till last year’s surprise announcement and trailer. It wasn’t with a complete set of skeptical eyes that I went into this, their previous film Puss in Boots : The Last Wish, another film that nobody seemingly asked for that surprised by becoming a massive hit at the box office and an incredibly beautiful and well-structured film that appealed to all ages. While we may not need another Kung Fu Panda film, the fourth instalment presents us with some beautifully updated animation that isn’t afraid to take some risks, it does fall short when it comes to its story, it does however do enough to satisfy its primary audience as kids will love the fun and adventure as Po furthers his search for the next dragon warrior. 

Po (Jack Back) is maintaining his status as Dragon Warrior and teacher, as well as protector of the Valley of Peace. He still helps out in his first dad Mr Ping’s noodle shop. Po’s panda dad Li, who we met in the last film has moved to the valley officially giving Po two dads (something that the film does not shy away from). A new villain Chameleon (Viola Davis) wants to steal Po’s staff of wisdom to access the spirit realm and steal all the abilities of the previous masters in the spirit realm. If you think this sounds familiar, it is because it is awfully close to the motivations of the third film villain Kai, that aside, Po is also tasked with finding the next Dragon Warrior (again why?) as Po sets off on his quest he is guided by Zhen, a fox voiced by Awkwafina who continues her voice acting career as a pickpocketing animal. 

The two must travel outside of the Valley to Juniper City, a busy city, similar to modern-day China, the bustling streets and crowds are a welcome contract from the Valley of Peace. They enlist the help of Han (Ke Huy Quan) the leader of the underground to show them the way into the Chameleon’s tower. What’s missing here is the presence of the Furious Five who are all off on solo adventures according to Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). The Five and Po had a perfect blend of humour and action, and this is what feels missing in this outing. While they are definitely pushing for Zhen to be Po’s new partner in adventures, the chemistry between the two of them is way too zippy to create any kind of lasting impression. 

The directing team of Mike Mitchell and Stephanie Stine are steering the series into a new direction. The previous films had that inner peace pace, allowing the humour and heart to linger. Here, everything moves at such a rapid pace, it does feel like things could have breathed a little more to deliver the emotional resonance that the previous films had. Where the new directors thrive is the risks they take in the animation style. While it is still 3D CGI animation, there is a scene where the floor falls out and there is an intense fight shrouded in cloud and dust, harkening back to martial arts from the 1950’s which looks spectacular in this movie. There are also some great moments with the Chameleon being able to become any character and any animal that can keep the audience on their toes. 

Black is still spectacular as Po, he plays the character with a lot more confidence this time around and being thrust into the unknown with a new city and playing the fish out of water is a lot of fun to watch. Awkwafina feels like a combination of previously animated characters she has voiced over the last several years. While this may not be a big issue for the film’s intended audience, it would have been good to see something different here. Bryan Cranston and James Hong who voice Li and Mr Ping are the standouts here. The consistent reference to Po’s 2 dads and their complementary relationship pulls into full swing when the two set out to follow Po and make sure he is safe is the highlight of the film. 

There is so much to love about the Kung Fu Panda series. The rich characters who inhabit the lush and beautiful world, are often complex and represent the yin and yang in all of us, regrettably, that notion seems to be pushed to the side in this film and this, unfortunately forces the film to have less heart which greatly reduces the stakes and the impact of the villain. As far as villains go, Chameleon is definitely the weakest of the four, with no real backstory to attempt to understand her plight or why she wants to collect all of these powers. Fortunately, Black’s comedic timing and some great animation are enough to keep this franchise afloat; while the Kung Fu Panda series may be re-inventing itself for a brand new generation, perhaps next time, it can be allowed to stew for just a little longer to take the series back to deliver something truly special. 

Kung Fu Panda 4 is showing in cinemas March 28.

Kung Fu Panda 4 Review

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