Reel Talk: Classic franchise’s newest film mediocre, disappointingly black and white


As someone who grew up watching the previous movies in the franchise, I was cautiously curious as to what to expect when I heard DreamWorks Animation was producing “Kung Fu Panda 4” as the newest theatrical installment in the series. Would “Kung Fu Panda 4” be a uniquely entertaining film in the series, or would it end up being yet another forgettable Hollywood cash grab? I had to find out for myself.

The film, along with “Dune: Part Two,” is one of two major March blockbuster flicks available for movie lovers at the College of William and Mary, but while the latter focuses on being a more serious science fiction spectacle, “Kung Fu Panda 4” seeks to be a more lighthearted and fun adventure (although it would be very concerning for more than a couple reasons if the inverse were to be true). The movie sees the titular panda Po, once again voiced by Jack Black, paired with Zhen, a gray fox-thief voiced by Awkwafina, travel to Juniper City to challenge a shapeshifting sorceress simply named the Chameleon, voiced by Viola Davis. 

Noticeably absent from the film, though, are the members of the “Furious Five,” who were major characters in the previous three movies’ supporting cast. Although they do make a very brief voiceless cameo during the end credits, their absence is definitely noticeable. The beginning of “Kung Fu Panda 4” does address this, though, by saying the five are away doing individual escapades, with there even being a quick scene containing cardboard cutouts of the group, in one of the film’s, admittedly, more funny gags.

Another noticeable absence from “Kung Fu Panda 4” is in its variety of locations as the plot goes on. While I mentioned that the two main characters Po and Zhen travel to a new region called Juniper City, the movie’s primary setting, what quickly becomes apparent is that after the first 15 minutes or so, this also becomes the film’s only setting if you don’t include the final few scenes. While the town includes enough to keep the viewing interesting, such as an underground network of criminals and the fortress of the main antagonist, it nevertheless gives “Kung Fu Panda 4” a jarringly self-contained feel.

For their parts, Black, Awkwafina and Davis themselves all give great performances as the voices of the main characters, although the writing of the characters themselves can leave a lot to be desired. Now, while I definitely didn’t expect “Kung Fu Panda 4” to shatter and reconstruct my entire worldview in a way akin to a Shakespearean tragedy, I still found myself scratching my head at its writing a few times. Po is probably the most cohesive of the three main characters, as he changes very little from his previous three theatrical appearances. His main arc this time is around working to become a so-called “spiritual leader,” which is a title above the “Dragon Warrior” moniker the previous installments gave him. The movie tries to push this home by having Po seeking to solve problems nonviolently, which is an interesting idea in theory, but it only happens one time throughout the film. 

Another thing that “Kung Fu Panda 4” focuses on is Po trying to find a successor “Dragon Warrior,” as it’s stated he can’t have both roles at the same time. Awkwafina’s character of Zhen, who within thirty seconds of being introduced can be plainly deduced as the person the movie will set up as the next “Dragon Warrior,” has the arc of starting the film as a distrusting and deceitful street thief but slowly becoming a better person by spending time with some of the main characters. While I thought the idea was well executed for the most part, one gripe is about how quickly the character switch comes in the movie. Without delving into too many specific spoilers, Zhen sheds her other more nefarious allegiances at an extremely alarming rate, especially considering the backstory the film sets up for her. 

The writing of the Chameleon, however, is where most people would find complaints — specifically in regards to her motivation. While I never expected to be completely blown away by the motivation for the main villain in “Kung Fu Panda 4,” I was expecting it to be something a little better than… being short? I mean, I’m a little short, and I’ve never tried to launch a hostile takeover of China before. To go into more detail, the Chameleon was denied from several kung fu schools and academies due to her height and perceived lack of talent, so she decided to study shapeshifting sorcery as a means of revenge. However, aside from the height thing being, let’s be honest, a little ridiculous, this premise is undercut by the existence of the aforementioned “Furious Five,” as one of the members of the group is a literal praying mantis (named Mantis). Maybe that’s why they weren’t shown in the movie?

On top of this, though, this character’s shapeshifting powers are woefully underutilized. There are only two scenes in the movie of the Chameleon actually using the ability for imaginative deception and only one of those is relevant to the plot. And during the final fight, once again, without delving into too many spoilers, the villain shapeshifts into a variety of past characters and creatures in a legitimately interesting action sequence, only to unexplainably not use the transformation power at the tail end of the scene when the protagonists are working to get the upper hand.

However, the visuals on not just the Chameleon and her transformations, but the rest of the movie, are definitely a key positive aspect. While it is undeniably pretty risk-averse with its art direction, with no shots that will “wow” you like last year’s animated flick “Across the Spider-Verse,” the film’s action sequences are still very well animated. There are a few other parts of the film that stood out as well, such as Po’s biological father and adopted father, voiced by Bryan Cranston and James Hong respectively, teaming up to travel to Juniper City. However, aside from some comic relief scenes, the duo only has a minimal impact on the overarching storyline, and it feels a little disharmonious whenever the movie cuts away to the two.

At the end of the day, my main takeaways and thoughts from “Kung Fu Panda 4” could probably best be summed up by this: it is the absolute best afterthought, direct-to-DVD sequel you’ve ever seen. The movie is enjoyable, with good visuals, voice acting and general pacing. However, the bizarre, self-contained and isolated nature of the film, with the absence of several franchise staple characters and the various holes and nitpicks with the characters and plot, can begin to add up. So, was it just another forgettable Hollywood cash grab? Well, I’ve seen worse.


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