Kung Fu Panda 4 (2024, dir. Mike Mitchell)

by | Mar 29, 2024

Certificate: PG

Running Time: 94 mins

UK Distributor: Universal Pictures

UK Release Date: 28 March 2024

WHO’S IN KUNG FU PANDA 4?

Jack Black, Awkwafina, Viola Davis, Dustin Hoffman, James Hong, Bryan Cranston, Ian McShane, Ke Huy Quan, Lori Tan Chinn, Ronny Chieng

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Mike Mitchell (director), Jonathan Aibel ad Glenn Berger (writers), Rebecca Huntley (producer), Steve Mazzaro and Hans Zimmer (composers), Christopher Knights (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Po (Black) sets out to find his successor while battling a new foe (Davis)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON KUNG FU PANDA 4?

DreamWorks Animation has had a long history of surprising everyone with the longevity of projects that sound as though they should be dead on arrival. Who would’ve thought, for instance, that there would be more than one movie or even a TV spin-off in the Boss Baby universe? Or that a jukebox musical inspired by the Trolls toy line would become a top-grossing industry in and of itself?

Then, there’s Kung Fu Panda, a concept that was met with ridicule as soon as it was announced from that silly title alone, but of course the film in which Jack Black voices the titular martial arts-infused mammal not only earned critical and financial success, but also spawned its own long-running franchise including theatrical sequels, TV spin-offs, theme park attractions and even arena shows.

Part of the reason that Kung Fu Panda has long outlived the cynicism of audiences is that it is both fun and engaging family entertainment, and isn’t afraid to get deep with some of its more mystical and even complex themes and ideas. The latest film in the series, Kung Fu Panda 4, certainly nails that first attribute, but those hoping that this fourth entry will retain the strong storytelling and dazzling style of the previous three won’t exactly get that here.

The film begins as Po (Black) is thriving as the revered Dragon Warrior, the guardian of the Valley of Peace, but is disheartened to learn from red panda Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) that in order to transcend to the next step of his journey – which is to become a spiritual leader – he must relinquish his Dragon Warrior title to a worthy new disciple. Po is somewhat relieved, then, when news breaks that his old foe Tai Lung (Ian McShane) has somehow returned from the Spirit Realm, prompting him to spring into action once more.

Lung’s return, however, is an orchestrated ploy by a villainous sorceress known as The Chameleon (Viola Davis), who has the ability to transform into anything or anyone she so pleases, and naturally has sinister plans to disrupt the balance between the spiritual and mortal realms. In order to find The Chameleon, Po enlists the help of Zhen (Awkwafina), a corsac fox thief who brings him to the lively Juniper City where his new foe is said to have taken refuge, and also gets some unexpected assistance from his two fathers, biological (Bryan Cranston’s panda Li Shan) and adoptive (James Hong’s goose Mr. Ping).

Aesthetically, there’s nothing all that wrong with Kung Fu Panda 4. The animation continues to be dazzling, and appropriately hyperactive whenever it gets into some of its fast-paced action, to where you can still make out everything that’s happening despite it all happening at break-neck speed. Some of the character designs, especially the various forms that The Chameleon takes, are simply fascinating to watch, as there’s plenty of little details like jerky skin that almost make them look like stop-motion animation, which in a way give such characters a more intimidating physical presence.

It’s also got plenty of funny gags to keep the little ones amused, there are some fun characters both old and new to keep the momentum alive, and when it gets more heartfelt the moments land well enough, partially because of the healthy mixture of strong animation and engaged voice acting. With all of that in its corner, Kung Fu Panda 4 is consistent enough fun for families to enjoy, as it has been since the beginning of this series.

However, if there’s anything that’s gotten a downgrade, it is the storytelling. The plot is a lot more simplistic this time round, which makes it much easier to predict where certain things are going (it’s far from a mystery, for example, who it is that Po ends up choosing as his successor, since it’s obvious from the moment they are first introduced). There are some good morals about dealing with life changes, but they are not nearly as profound or spiritual as the ones that formed the emotional centre of the other films; by comparison, this one feels like a standard after-school special. Furthermore, as likeable and enjoyable as the main characters are, their arcs are not as strong in this film, with some of their later decisions and reveals coming in and out of the plot as required, leaving them less defined here than they have been in previous entries.

There is also a major shift in directorial style, with Mike Mitchell – who previously directed Shrek Forever After and the first Trolls movie for DreamWorks, not to mention The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part over at Warner Bros – taking over from Jennifer Yuh Nelson after she did the two previous films, and the change is more than noticeable. Whereas Nelson employed a much more stylish and at times quite profound vision that emphasised the character drama as well as the wuxia-inspired action, Mitchell’s approach is a lot more contemporary, with set pieces that benefit greatly from the colourful and fast-paced animation, but otherwise are nowhere near as visually stimulating as what came before.

In addition, the director is closely following a more traditional DreamWorks Animation formula, one that pits two mismatched souls on a journey together where they overcome their differences through logic and slapstick. It’s a formula so reliable that even Pixar has often used it in their own films, but in a film series like Kung Fu Panda that has up to this point done perfectly well by not falling into those conventional trappings, it seems slightly regressive to go this route, especially after doing so well with plot and characters in the other films.

For families, none of that will probably matter, so long as the film is entertaining for both kids and adults, and it just about succeeds on that front. While it is the weakest in the series thus far, at least from a storytelling and even styling standpoint, Kung Fu Panda 4 gives audiences most of what they want to see, which should generate enough inner peace with anyone who goes to check it out.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Kung Fu Panda 4 is an enjoyable new entry in the ongoing franchise, with its level of giggle-inducing slapstick and colourful animation set to greatly please audiences young and old, though its more conventional storytelling and a directorial vision that isn’t nearly as stylish as what came before ultimately leave it the weakest in the series to date.

Three out of five stars

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