Kung Fu Panda 4 review | Your kids are gonna sorta, kinda like it

kung fu panda 4 review
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Jack Black’s panda-protagonist hunts for a successor in a reasonably occupying animated sequel. Here’s our Kung Fu Panda 4 review.

Every few years, a film title comes along with a marketing campaign that writes itself. In 2023, we actually had two: I don’t know how much Universal and Sony paid to design the Cocaine Bear and The Pope’s Exorcist trailers, billboards and suchlike, but it was probably too much. I was sold on both by the third syllable (I would be just as likely to pay for a film called The Pope’s Ex).

In 2004, when work began on the first movie in what would become a $2bn franchise, Kung Fu Panda was very much The Pope’s Exorcist of its day. I imagine the elevator pitch was over before anyone even got on the elevator. Those three sweet words, for a studio with a functioning animation division, have proved more valuable than a money printing license.

Four films later, Dreamworks and Universal show little sign of retiring their most reliable cash-panda. This time around, Jack Black’s Po is looking for a successor to take over as the Dragon Warrior. It’s not entirely clear why, since he shows no sign of wanting (or needing) to retire in the near future, but in any case, his recruitment drive is thrown off the rails by the appearance of a sinister new villain. Viola Davis’ “The Chameleon” wants to use Po’s Staff of Wisdom to learn the Kung Fu secrets of all the masters in the spirit realm, and only our favourite panda and a streetwise young fox called Zhen (voiced by Awkwafina) can stop her.  

You might be wondering, given the target audience for this film likely weren’t born when Kung Fu Panda 3 was in cinemas, if you or your children need to have seen the previous instalments to make head or tail of the plot. Categorically, you do not. The characters go to great lengths to deliver exposition whenever they have the chance.

In fact, they never shut up.

It’s here that the inevitable comparisons with last year’s Puss In Boots: The Last Wish prove unhelpful for Dreamworks’ sister franchise. Not only did that film prove kids are smart enough to follow a plot without explanatory commentary from its cast, it also presented them with an inventive, dangerous and really quite spooky villain in the form of Death (but shaped like a wolf).

A character able to take on the appearance and powers of any of Po’s villains to date feels like a slam-dunk, but instead of setting up fun little bait-and-switches, the film spends most of The Chameleon’s screentime explaining her powers to make sure everyone’s following along. Aside from anything else, Mike Mitchell’s film feels like it underestimates the average six-year-old’s familiarity with chameleons. Six-year-olds can’t get enough of chameleons. Trust me, they’ll get it.

Read more: Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire | The emotional story buried under a frozen lake of subplots and nostalgia

Still, most of what made Kung Fu Panda such a phenomenon can be found here. The action sequences are well-choreographed, and blend panda-friendly slapstick with plenty of impressive polygonal stunt work. A modest sprinkling of animal jokes are difficult to find fault with (Master Chipmunk’s appropriately-sized war hammer makes a welcome appearance) and the broadest strokes of the torch-passing plot roughly resemble the clichés of classic martial arts cinema. It’s these franchise staples which keep Kung Fu Panda 4 hovering in the “broadly acceptable” category of kids’ animation – though the bullet-proof premise is doing a lot of the heavy lifting here.

kung fu panda 4 po
Credit: Universal Pictures

Jack Black, too, is as committed to the role of Po as ever. So much so that he risks making the rest of the cast sound bored by comparison – Awkwafina’s streetwise young fox Zhen struggles to match the franchise veteran’s energy, and the duo’s dynamic lacks the sort of chemistry that would make a passed-torch sequel a tempting prospect. Dustin Hoffman seems as surprised as anyone that he’s still voicing red panda sensei Master Shifu, and Ian McShane’s Tai Lung delivers not-great dialogue with a not-great level of enthusiasm. Thankfully, Ke Huy Quan brings bucketloads of charm as a criminal who is either a pangolin or an armadillo (I can’t tell the difference).

When you have Jack Black voicing a fuzzy ursine warmonger, there’s a lower limit to how un-entertaining Kung Fu Panda 4 can get. But four films into the franchise, the law of diminishing returns is approaching Po with a stern look in its eye. With a money-printing premise this solid, there’s little chance Dreamworks won’t soon be looking at another sequel. After 16 years, though, it might be time for this Dragon Warrior to go into retirement.

Kung Fu Panda 4 is in UK cinemas 28th March.

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