New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Review: ‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ lacks what made its predecessors so charming

DreamWorks Animation’s latest addition to the decade-long series lacks the ingenuity and emotional core of its predecessors.
“Kung Fu Panda 4” released on March 8, 2024. (Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

Once again, our favorite animated panda is back. The first “Kung Fu Panda” film released in 2008, winning the hearts and minds of critics and audiences alike, making it one of DreamWorks Animation’s household titles. While other DreamWorks franchises such as “How to Train Your Dragon” or “Shrek” faltered in both their quality and box office success with their later installments, “Kung Fu Panda” was able to renovate their characters and storylines with its sequels. However, the new addition to this decade-long series seems to lack the wit and depth that its predecessors had.

“Kung Fu Panda 4,” directed by Michael Mitchell, follows Po (Jack Black) as he must reluctantly pass on the title of the Dragon Warrior and become the spiritual leader of the Valley of Peace. All the while, in the distant lands of Juniper City, a new villain known as The Chameleon (Viola Davis) arises. With the help of wanted corsac fox Zhen (Awkwafina), he must defeat the shape-shifting sorceress who can morph into the Dragon Warrior’s past enemies.

The animation is the film’s strongest feat and its saving grace, with the action sequences still thrilling and energetic as ever. The animators attribute creative movements for each new animal character, from a gyrating fish living in a pelican’s mouth to a pangolin that rolls into its enemies. Black’s voice acting keeps the energy level up, with Awkwafina perfecting comedic beats alongside him — but this is where the film’s strengths end.

The problem with the film’s storytelling is that it tries to cover too much ground. Without the series’ beloved supporting ensemble, the Furious Five, “Kung Fu Panda 4” sets up an all-new setting and story arc for its protagonist. The film is a jumble of jokes and plot points that are hurriedly glossed over, which hinders the moral depth the fans so loved in its previous installments. It seems to have forgotten what made the series so charming in the first place.

Despite all the character development the previous three films have accomplished, Po still feels like the immature child he was in the first installment. Black’s is as vibrant as ever, but the audience can’t help but feel a sense of a tedious deja vu when he is repeating the same emotional beats. While the film tries to introduce new characters to rejuvenate the setting, they are nowhere nearly as likable as the Furious Five.

“Kung Fu Panda 4” had the opportunity to pay tribute to the characters of a long-cherished franchise, but it doesn’t care to show respect to its past characters. While Tai Lung (Ian McShane) is a fan-favorite villain, he is reduced to a plot prop used only to show how powerful The Chameleon is. Lord Shen, previously voiced by Gary Oldman, gets the same treatment and doesn’t even have a line in the film.

If the film’s new villain was as charismatic as its predecessors, the movie would not have needed to bring back the franchise’s old cast of foes. Unfortunately, The Chameleon is not fleshed out as a compelling villain. The film is unable to justify the reason behind The Chameleon’s contempt toward the world of kung fu, making her just another generic, cold-hearted villain. While a strong antagonistic presence was the key to its former films, “Kung Fu Panda 4” forgets what made the stories so compelling.

In the end, you can’t help but feel that “Kung Fu Panda 4” is an unwanted addition to a story that ended with its previous installments. The top-tier animation and the voice acting seem to be the most motivating aspects of this film.

Contact Tony Jaeyeong Jeong at [email protected].

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