‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ Review: A Nonstop Ballet of Cartoon Violence

The latest installment of this DreamWorks Animation franchise offers visual and kinetic pleasure, but not a whole lot more.

Po (voiced by Jack Black) and Zhen (voiced by Awkwafina) in Kung Fu Panda 4. DreamWorks Animation

In the eight years since the release of the last Kung Fu Panda movie, the world has faced the (first) Trump administration, a global pandemic, an attempted insurrection, a war in Europe, and a war in Gaza. The current leadership of China, where the franchise is presumably set, has raised the possibility of that country overtaking the United States as the world’s largest economy by the middle of the next decade. 

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KUNG FU PANDA 4 ★★1/2 (2.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Mike Mitchell
Written by: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Darren Lemke
Starring: Jack Black, Awkwafina, Viola Davis, Dustin Hoffman, James Hong, Ke Huy Quan, Bryan Cranston, Ronny Chieng
Running time: 94 mins.

Meanwhile back at home, consolidation has hit the movie industry hard: Kung Fu Panda 4 is set to be the penultimate film produced at DreamWorks Animation’s soon-to-be-shuttered Glendale campus, a once-vaunted enterprise constructed when the upstart studio was viewed as a potential rival and perhaps usurper of the Disney animation throne. (The studio that released the previous installment, 20th Century Fox, was subsumed by the Mouse House back in 2017; this time out, Universal serves as distributor.) 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, few of these seismic shifts are evident in Kung Fu Panda 4—despite the film’s central messaging around the importance of accepting and embracing change, even when it’s scary. 

Sure, there’s been a noticeable scaling back—there’s much less emphasis on verbal gags, and the previous iteration’s Furious Five are all “out on missions” (read: lost to budget cuts). But this dumpling and rocket-fueled contraption continues to employ the same seemingly unstoppable one-two punch: a steady drubbing of painterly and balletic cartoon violence and the unbounded—and increasingly turned out—enthusiasm of the series’ resident Zeus of Skadoosh, star Jack Black.

The Chameleon (voiced by Viola Davis) and Tai Lung (voiced by Ian McShane) in Kung Fu Panda 4. DreamWorks Animation

Things kick off with Black’s giant panda Po—coasting on his celebrity as the Dragon Master—being told by the cranky Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), that it is time to choose his successor, hang up his Spirit Staff, and become a docile, meditative spiritual leader. But before that can happen, Po must defy his master, team up with a wanted criminal fox named Zhen (Awkwafina) and venture to Juniper City, an overstuffed metropolis where every resident appears to be a hardened criminal. (The film’s conception of urban life was apparently inspired by the last Republican convention.)

The intellectual exhaustion of the endeavor can be witnessed in several places, most notably Viola Davis’ sorceress villain. She doesn’t even get a real name—she’s a chameleon named the Chameleon—and spends a lot of time monologuing like a cut-rate Bond villain. Still, the icy regality of her bearing, even as she calls for world domination, does provide the phrenetic film some moments of needed calm, a task that Angelina Jolie’s steely taskmaster Tigress took on in the previous three films. 

The way the Chameleon pulls Po’s past nemeses from the spirit realm—including Ian McShane’s snow leopard Tai Lung from the first installment—and robs them of their kung fu prowess with her ballistic tongue reminds you of malware nabbing our social security numbers during a data breach. The Chameleon’s glowing and overstretching organ is a further illustration that pretty much all of Kung Fu Panda 4’s pleasures are visual and kinetic rather than cerebral. 

The film has an all-hands-on-deck quality that is confirmed by the credits list. 

First time series director Mike Mitchell takes the helm with the help of co-director Stephanie Ma Stine; they join forces with longtime Kung Fu scribes Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who are in turn aided by Darren Lemke. (Mitchell, Aibel and Berger previously worked together on 2011’s Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked.) This Furious Five never allow more than a couple of minutes to go by without some kind of action sequence. It is a credit to the animators’ inventiveness—sometimes they show the fight scenes in shadow and other times with a background of boldly colored brushstrokes—that this nonstop exertion doesn’t feel more tedious.     


Tenacious B! 🐼

♬ original sound – Jack Black

Speaking of which, only the protective barriers of the recording studio keeps Jack Black’s sweat off the first rows of the audience. The star’s high effort excitement can come off as genuinely joyful but also can feel like an overzealous ER doctor trying to defibrillate a patient well after they passed. 

By the time the closing credits play beneath his band Tenacious D’s already viral cover of Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time,” you feel like collapsing with exhaustion on his behalf. Perhaps none of this is necessary, but if Black really wants to put this much of himself into these projects, maybe we should all just go along with it. 

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ Review: A Nonstop Ballet of Cartoon Violence