‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ Review: Jack Black’s Awesomeness Ages Well

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Kung Fu Panda 4, which once again features Jack Black as Po the Dragon Warrior, who must combine forces with a thief to stop another powerful foe in this fun and colorful martial arts comedy-adventure.
User Rating: 7

When you look at enduring animated properties, I believe part of what helps is the sheer joy you can continue to hear from the performers involved. At this point, I’m sure some of the filmmakers behind the scenes of Kung Fu Panda 4 have grown up to some degree with the animated movies that began in 2008. So, the sheer joy of working on one is already something presenting both a unique opportunity and a challenge to find new avenues into one of DreamWorks Animation’s prized properties. With that said, just hearing Jack Black voicing Po again, you can still feel a sense of delight coming from the attitude he must bring to this part. As a result, while not shining as high as the first couple of entries, there’s still plenty of fun to be had watching the Dragon Warrior commit to his self-proclaimed awesomeness.

While it’s been 8 years since Kung Fu Panda 3, if you’re a kid who likes the series, there may not have been much time spent away from Po. Much like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Dragon Master & the Furious Five have had multiple animated series to keep it relatively alive in the public consciousness, at least when it comes to a younger audience who can’t wait to see more martial arts battles involving pandas, monkeys, cranes, and more. With that in mind, while I can’t speak to the plots of those shows and whether they’ve advanced the characters in the same way the How to Train Your Dragon animated shows evolved theirs, this film does have an interesting core concept. How does one prepare to move on?

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Po has been a true hero to the people as the Dragon Warrior, who has never let ego get in the way of doing what’s right. However, he’s now being informed by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) that he must choose a successor. Meanwhile, a shapeshifting foe called the Chameleon (Viola Davis) is absorbing the abilities of other fighters, including those who have since passed on into the Spirit Realm, so she can become an all-powerful conqueror. It will be up to Po and his newly forged connection to a thief, Zhen (Awkwafina voicing a corsac fox), to stop this ruinous reptile and once again keep the peace in the lands he watches over.

It’s the idea of choosing a successor that gives value to this story, as the Chameleon, effectively voiced as she is by Oscar-winner Davis, does have a “villain of the week” vibe that never quite makes her feel as challenging as Ian McShane’s Tai Lung (who returns for this film) or Gary Oldman’s Lord Shen (he doesn’t). On top of that, the Furious Five are nowhere to be found (perhaps it costs a bit too much these days to bring in Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen, and David Cross), which also makes the Po’s mission not seem too dire. In lieu of all that, however, bringing in new blood with actual purpose helps.

Awkwafina, who seems to have as many voice roles as Chris Pratt these days, makes for a fine foil to Po. She exists in the moral grey area of the world, compared to Po’s sense of optimism and good guy heroics. Were the outcome of this story not so obvious, that perhaps could have made for a more emotional push that would have it sit closer in spirit to the first two films. With that said, the third film, which introduced Po’s father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston, who returns here), was not bad either, even if it didn’t manage to go full Pixar and push hard on trying to make adults sob next to their children in theaters.

Directed by Mike Mitchell (The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part), there’s an evident reverence for the first film here. From Tai Lung’s return to how it brings a new character into the experience of becoming a possible Dragon Warrior, I’m not going to say this is a legacy sequel, but there is a sense of bringing old and new ideas together for the sake of this story. Calling back to the previous films by way of their villains is a neat touch, as is finding new backstories that expand upon why certain characters act or fight the way they do.

Given some of the recent DreamWorks Animation films, specifically The Bad Guys and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, which are more action-focused, I was curious if Kung Fu Panda 4 would also follow through with its evolved animation style. From what I could tell, it was a blend of things. We get the familiar look we are used to with this particular world, but the action and some flashback sequences are making deliberate choices. To be fair, Kung Fu Panda has always utilized interesting animation techniques in their stories to accompany the 3D animation style. With that said, this is a far more anime-influenced feature than before. That somewhat robs scenes of having more cool martial arts sequences akin to how it all started, but I can’t argue with what plays out as far as the many fun fights and major set pieces are concerned.

At its core, Kung Fu Panda 4 does not forget how heartfelt this series has always been. As much as it rides on Black’s tremendous energy propelling the comedy and its martial arts-informed inspirations as a means to show off this genre in an animated format, this movie doesn’t lack a sense of caring for its characters. The film still has plenty of jokes, fights, and splendid visual moments, but it does feel like a proper entry to this series. Whether or not we leave things off here or should prepare to see more adventures with Po, Zhen, Master Shifu, and whoever else, time will tell. For now, enjoy the inner peace being delivered here in highly colorful fashion.

Kung Fu Panda 4 opens in theaters on March 8, 2024.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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