KUNG FU PANDA 4 Continues Streak of Unique Chapters in an Overall Character Arc

Po’s fourth outing feels like a deliberate and natural culmination in the charming and resilient franchise.


The Kung Fu Panda franchise has always felt like a bit of an outlier in the world of CG animated fare. While many of its studio brethren (led by an ogre that rhymes with “dreck”) trade in cheap laughs and annoying snark, that stink of faux-hip lameness never rubbed off here – mainly because the hipness and laughs are genuine, firmly rooted by the inimitable charm of Jack Black as Po, the eponymous martial arts ursid.

A fourth film in any franchise may set off warning bells of rote productization (and make no mistake, Kung Fu Panda is a product), but this franchise has kept its cool and taken it slow, continuing its story with engaging new chapters and taking increasingly more time between each subsequent sequel. Various TV series spinoffs notwithstanding, the last movie was in 2016 (for a little perspective, since that time Dreamworks has released three Trolls movies).

With Kung Fu Panda, the tale seems to be winding to a natural close. Po, now having served and protected his people as the legendary “Dragon Warrior” for many years, is entering a new chapter in his career. He’s tasked to find a Dragon Warrior successor so that he can graduate to the role of an elder.


But word of a new threat tasks him with one last mission – The Chameleon (Viola Davis), a sorceress and gangster with shapeshifting capabilities, is amassing power and needs to be stopped. Armed with his magic staff and paired with an unlikely partner, he sets out for one possibly last adventure.

That partner is Zhen (Awkwafina), a fox and thief whom Po caught pilfering the temple and dutifully jailed. However the foreigner’s criminal connections and knowledge (she’s from the same city as The Chameleon) make her a valuable ally and the pair agree to join forces.


A respectable aspect of this franchise is that it doesn’t repeat itself. Each chapter has told a unique and different story contributing to the overall narrative: The orphan Po raised by stepdad Ping (James Hong) and facing his destiny to become the Dragon Warrior, fending off an attack by invaders armed with artillery (riffing on a theme common in martial arts films such as Once Upon a Time in China), and finding his biological father (Bryan Cranston) and panda family.

That trend continues in this chapter, but it also has some fun with playing the hits. Po’s two dads team up to help out, sharing a competitive but ultimately loving rivalry. But in an even bigger treat for longtime fans, The Chameleon’s diabolical plan (basically identical to Dr. Strange’s villainous arc from What If?) is to resurrect the spirits of fallen warriors in order to steal their powers, including a rogues gallery from Kung Fu Panda films past. Most notably, Ian McShane reprises his role as the villainous Tai Lung, now positioned as something more of an ally than antagonist.


Viola Davis is a tremendous award-winning actress with many extraordinary credits – and it’s with all seriousness that I say that I think this may be one of her most impressive performances. While watching the film I was trying to place the character’s voice and thought that perhaps it was Michele Yeoh, who has appeared as a different character elsewhere in the franchise. I was astonished when the credits rolled; she truly disappeared into the role (chameleon pun acknowledged).

Visually, the film doesn’t take any big swings like the stylishly rendered and kinetic animation of 2022’s Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, but we do see a little of that influence come through. There are several moments when the camera steps back to show stunning vistas which employ a similarly painterly effect, not unlike classic Hollywood backdrop matte paintings.

Kung Fu Panda 4 is predictable and silly, but that shouldn’t come as as surprise to anyone. It also continues the series trend of being great fun and having a meaningful and ongoing emotional core, anchored by the chemistry of Jack Black and Awkafina as a duo of unlikely allies.

Be sure to stay for the credits long enough to take in Tenacious D’s brilliant cover of Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time”.

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