Kung Fu Panda 4

Kung Fu Panda 4 Review: Obligatory Sequel Is Bland

Kung Fu Panda 4 is content, in the truest sense of the word. The CG-animated film’s best feature is being a recognizable IP: We’re amid a great Hollywood Contraction, and 2023’s dual strikes have resulted in little competition at the box office, especially for children’s media. In this market, the Jack Black-led comedy adventure is sure to draw audiences regardless of merit (not unlike its titular protagonist, bumbling through life with a mix of affability and incompetence).

Kung Fu Panda 4 continues Po’s (Jack Black) journey in the most shallow of terms. Now that he’s reached his peak celebrity status as the Dragon Warrior, he must choose a successor and become the new Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace. This process is interrupted when a new threat emerges: a mysterious Chameleon (Viola Davis) with the power to impersonate the area’s greatest villains. With the Furious Five off … doing something else (a plot contrivance), it’s up to Po and his new fox friend, Zhen (Awkwafina, doing the same voice she always does) to save the day.

There are a few issues with the conceit, which undermine the film from the get-go. For starters, the basic conflicts (Po grappling with his changing responsibilities, and a bad guy doing bad things because they can) have been done before in this franchise, arguably better. What’s more, none of these changes feel earned. Grand Master Oogway died in the first movie, so it’s never immediately clear why this role isn’t being held by Master Shifu (a very tired Dustin Hoffman—we’re there with you, bud). There’s a weak explanation set up in the previous film, but it didn’t feel satisfying then, and it certainly doesn’t now.

The plot also suffers from a general blandness that comes from playing it safe. The original film subverts the audience’s expectations for what a kung fu hero looks like,  and the second explores Po’s quest to make (inner) peace with having been put up for adoption as a cub. There are the makings of some good ideas in Kung Fu Panda 4—like Po experiencing a big city for the first time, and a villain who learned sorcery to overcome her small stature—but the story is never developed enough for the plot points to feel earned or meaningful. It’s all very obligatory—the kind of writing one would expect from a direct-to-DVD Disney sequel, as opposed to an $85 million DreamWorks film.

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Penned by Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, and Darren Lemke (three writers is rarely a good sign), Kung Fu Panda 4 feels written by a committee. The plot is formulaic to the nth degree while rehashing ideas already seen in this franchise and elsewhere. In all fairness, the writing isn’t bad per se—the motivation is almost always clear, the characters all have personal journeys, and the ideas set up in the first half are paid off in the second. The issue is more how rigid and unoriginal the end result is, as if the writers were drafting a screenplay designed to get a max score in some automated script-analysis program. Is this the bleak AI future we’ve been fearing?

Kung Fu Panda 4 is in theatres now.



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