‘Kung Fu Panda 4’: Dreamworks Franchise Delivers a Serviceable New Adventure 

As far as animated heroes go, Po of the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise has always been genuinely likable because he is eternally insecure. The whole premise of the original 2008 movie gained steam on how you’re not supposed to imagine a puffy panda doing martial arts. But kick butt he could. And, here we are 16 years later with a fourth installment that no one asked for. Because the characters carry enough charm and the visuals are nice and funny, “Kung Fu Panda 4” just barely justifies itself. It helps that these combat epics deal a lot with masters passing on the torch. The plot this time deals with the idea that it is indeed the season for Po to move on to another level.

Still voiced by Jack Black, Po is now facing another milestone. For a while he’s been the Dragon Warrior defending the Valley of Peace with the Furious Five (who are all conveniently away with other commitments). His mentor, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) informs Po that it is now time for him to train a new Dragon Warrior, so he may ascend to become the Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace, the title once held by the late Grand Master Oogway. Po is reluctant since he likes going on adventures and beating up villains. You may recall Oogway gave Po the Staff of Wisdom in “Kung Fu Panda 3” in the spirit realm, but it’s now clear that the point was for the panda to replace the wise old turtle. Ah, but there is a threat looming. The Chameleon (Viola Davis), a shape-shifting sorceress, seeks the Staff of Wisdom in order to grab the kung fu abilities of every past villain Po has battled. Po’s best chance to find the Chameleon is to team up with Zhen (Awkwafina), a thieving fox on the run. 

You can’t really say this is the last “Kung Fu Panda” since the box office determines everything, though by the end there is a new Dragon Warrior in training. It is certainly the least satisfying of this series, recycling old plot points about stealing powers out of the spirit world and not even featuring the Furious Five. One can easily imagine Dreamworks just didn’t want to cover the salaries for voices like Angelina Jolie and Jackie Chan again. But directors Mike Mitchell and Stephanie Stine still sustain enough energy in the story and lively visuals to ensure younger audiences might be thoroughly entertained. The “Kung Fu Panda” movies have always carried an impressive visual majesty, winking at classic martial arts movies and combat epics. Po’s first standoff with Zhen is a cheeky fight worthy of a classic Jackie Chan thriller with one or two subtle nods at “Kill Bill.” Later, Po squares off with the Chameleon’s reptile henchmen in a cave where we only see the silhouettes. If you’re going to rehash a franchise, it’s good to do so with enthusiasm.

The gags throughout keep the movie moving forward. To find the big villain, Zhen leads Po to Juniper City, where the panda is shocked to learn that in the fast-moving metropolis, no one has heard of his exploits (“are my adventures really that regional?”). The Chameleon, voiced with perfect menace by Viola Davis in her first animated film role, holds a Godfather-style meeting with local thugs who get thoroughly humbled by her power to turn into anything. There’s also a little side adventure thrown in for Po’s two dads, adoptive father Mr. Ping (James Hong) and his biological one, who we met in the last movie, Li (Bryan Cranston). Full of parental worry, they go off together to find Po when they learn he’s planning to battle a sorceress. For kids, there are some decent lessons here when Li admits he’s more scared than he would like to admit. You can look tough on the outside while trembling within. Zhen is also a refreshingly flawed addition to the roster. She’s a street kid who has no qualms about being a thief and introduces Po to unsavory underworld types like Han (Ke Huy Quan), a snarky pangolin. 

Terrified dads and brawls in bunny-owned taverns are nice detours in what builds to a standard climax. The Chameleon’s scheme involves bringing back familiar villains from the previous films, in particular Tai Lung (Ian McShane), the ruthless snow leopard from the first movie. This can be a rather curious miscalculation since he reminds us how the current villain pales in comparison. Yet, overall “Kung Fu Panda 4” is not a waste of time for younger viewers, for whom the movie is made anyway. Adults can chuckle at the movie winks or even the weight jokes Zhen throws around at Po. But for the intended audiences, it’s not a vapid effort even if the franchise really needs to find fresher gimmicks if there’s another entry. As with the previous three, this “Kung Fu Panda” still offers fine lessons in moving forward and self-esteem. That makes it just likable enough.

Kung Fu Panda 4” releases March 8 in theaters nationwide.