Kung Fu Panda 4 – Film Review

One night, a quarry is attacked by a horrible evil. From out of the shadows comes the dreaded snow leopard martial arts master Tai Lung (Ian McShane). Tai Lung destroys the quarry and steals their stock of iron for a mysterious purpose. But how was this possible? Tai Lung was banished to the Spirit Realm years ago by the Dragon Warrior, a giant panda named Po (Jack Black).

At his home village in the Valley of Peace, Po has been living the life of a hero. Protecting his people from all kinds of fiendish villains, he has earned the adoration of his people and the respect of his Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). He also has the love of his two dads, his adoptive father Mr Ping (James Hong) and his biological father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston). Master Shifu declares Po must nominate a successor as Dragon Warrior so he may reach the next level of enlightenment as spiritual leader of the Valley of Peace. But who could be awesome enough to replace the great Po?

As Po investigates the situation at the quarry, he meets a fox named Zhen (Awkwafina), a thief with a disturbing story to tell. Zhen warns him of The Chameleon (Viola Davis), a shape shifting sorceress of devastating power. Able to change into any Kung Fu master she desires, The Chameleon was behind the quarry attack and has already become ruler of the distant Juniper City. Po enlists Zhen‘s help and sets out to bring The Chameleon to justice. But against powers never seen before, has everyone’s favourite giant panda finally met his match?

In 2008, DreamWorks Animation set the world on fire again with the release of Kung Fu Panda. While not reaching quite the prestige as Shrek, the story of a panda proving himself as a master of martial arts has become hugely successful with audiences young and old. With various spin-offs and sequels, we now see the release of the fourth feature film in the series.

I’ve always been fond of Kung Fu Panda, coming into the series as a massive fan of its star, Jack Black. The series has up until now been more focused on an ensemble cast with the “Furious Five” including such talents as Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan and Seth Rogan. This latest instalment however focuses much more on the character of Po alone, with these supporting characters absent for the first time.

Travelling beyond his borders to a city where the “Dragon Warrior” is completely unknown, this direction gives Kung Fu Panda 4 a true fish out of water feel. Director Mike Mitchell (Shrek 4, Trolls, The Lego Movie 2) brings his years of experience in animated comedies to present a fast paced and hilarious experience. While the story here is definitely weaker compared to previous films in the franchise, it remains an entertaining ride for the film’s entire runtime.

A lot of this is thanks to the obvious talent of Jack Black as a gifted performer. As always, the showman’s larger than life personality fills Po with life and character that radiates off the screen. Joined here by Awkwafina, herself no stranger to voice acting roles, the character of Zhen often steals the show, giving Black a run for his money. The duo have excellent chemistry together which helps push the story forward.

As a villain, unfortunately The Chameleon feels underwhelming, especially considering the character’s immense power and Viola Davis delivering a commendable performance. Kung Fu Panda 4’s lack of returning cast members is also noticeable with more focus put on McShane, Hong and Cranston as a result. But to be fair, it has been 8 years since the release of Kung Fu Panda 3. As such, I doubt the film’s young target audience were even around back then, let alone care about the absence of voice acting artists. To that end, the children at the screening I attended were glued to their seats, fully engaged in Po’s exciting hijinks and slapstick humour.

With a subpar villain and a weaker story, Kung Fu Panda 4 may not be the franchise’s defining moment. But with strong performances from Awkwafina, Jack Black and other returning actors, they collectively help to elevate a high energy, exciting and funny adventure, making Kung Fu Panda 4 still a fine addition to the series and one for the whole family to enjoy.

Kung Fu Panda 4 comes to Australian cinemas from March 28.

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