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‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ review: Panda and fox vs. chameleon in a frantic new sequel

By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
Published: March 10, 2024, 6:02am
3 Photos
This image released by Universal Pictures shows characters Shifu, voiced by Dustin Hoffman, left, and Po, voiced by Jack Black in a scene from DreamWorks Animation&rsquo;s &ldquo;Kung Fu Panda 4.&rdquo; (DreamWorks Animation/Universal Pictures via AP)
This image released by Universal Pictures shows characters Shifu, voiced by Dustin Hoffman, left, and Po, voiced by Jack Black in a scene from DreamWorks Animation’s “Kung Fu Panda 4.” (DreamWorks Animation/Universal Pictures via AP) Photo Gallery

“Kung Fu Panda 4” lands in the OK-fairly good range, i.e., OK-fairly good enough to entice a few million families to the movies this month. The movie world needs babysitters with easy access to concession stands and the “Kung Fu Panda” sequel presents itself as the current choice.

The question lingers, though: What did the 2008 “Kung Fu Panda” achieve that “Panda 4” manages only here and there and now and then?

A first movie in any animated franchise has the theoretical edge, of course, in presenting the world new characters and new everything. The initial “Kung Fu Panda” banked on plenty of martial arts action, but it took some time setting up the specific comic improbability of an amiable panda such as Po, voiced by Jack Black, ascending to his destiny as the Dragon Warrior, protector of all that is good in his corner of ancient China. The film mixed genuine comic invention with clever variants on live-action martial arts movies a la Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and so many others.

Eight years have flown, inched along or both, depending on your pandemic experience, since “Panda 3.” In “Panda 4,” screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger return, working with co-writer Darren Lemke and co-directors Mike Mitchell (“Shrek 4,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks 3”) and Stephanie Stine. Stine makes her feature directorial debut here. Her experience as art director includes “Raya and the Last Dragon” and a “How to Train Your Dragon” sequel, gratifying visual accomplishments both.

It always happens in franchise sequels, be they Iron Man or be they Panda: At some point the dangers of a celebrity’s ego becomes a major plot point. In “Panda 4,” Po is enjoying fame, relative fortune and unlimited dumplings at this stage of his Dragon Warrior tenure. Straight off, mentor Shifu (Dustin Hoffman returning for exasperated vocal mutterings) relays the news that Po must now appoint the next Dragon Warrior, so Po can transition into a quieter role he does not want: steward and protector of the Valley of Peace, armed with the Staff of Wisdom.

The staff has the power to crack open the spirit realm, wherein dwell the late, great kung fu masters, including the fearsome snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane). The new film’s adversary, The Chameleon (Viola Davis), has risen to the top of the underworld, extorting a piece of almost everything, like a female lizard Capone. She’s a mob boss of supreme deception, changing her appearance at will. Her evil ambitions include snagging the Staff of Wisdom for her own morally unwise reasons.

A wily fox (Awkwafina) offers her services to help Po (Jack Black) take on new adversaries in “Kung Fu Panda 4.” (Universal Pictures) This plays out as a string of perpetual near-death scenarios for Po and his frenemy of a new ally, the streetwise fox Zhen (Awkwafina). The movie rarely shuts up or calms down for more than five seconds, and while the first “Panda” sequels were getting that way, the relative rhythmic variety and verbal spice of the original feels pretty far gone now.

Many prefer their animated babysitters this way, probably — rarely a pause or a downshift. I did laugh four or five times, once for each credited writer including the “additional material” writers: Po’s meditation mantra “inner peace” gradually changing to “dinner, please” sounds just so coming from Jack Black’s mouth, for example. Also there’s a delightful bull-in-a-china-shop sight gag, executed with a wry delicacy missing from most of the rest of the movie.

Maybe the quality slippage comes down to its production budget; this one cost roughly half of what the other three “Pandas” cost. But maybe not. Maybe the pandemic has played tricks with screenwriters’ heads regarding what they think audiences want, and need, and how to finesse it. “Panda 4” feels more akin to one one of the “Ice Age” movies, laden with occasionally funny but constantly nattering snark and meanness, so that you don’t really buy the sincere bits. Black and Awkwafina and Hoffman do their jobs, but the jokes have a way of arriving like jokes, and sounding like jokes, but not quite being jokes. This is an action movie foremost, which is fine.

Or rather, OK-fairly good.

“Kung Fu Panda 4” — 2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG (for martial arts action/mild violence, scary images and some mild rude humor)

Running time: 1:34

How to watch: Iin theaters

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