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Movie Review: “Kung Fu Panda 4”

By Bob Garver


Movie Review: “Kung Fu Panda 4”

            Since Po (Jack Black), the main character of the “Kung Fu Panda” movies, is known for his corpulent eating habits, it makes sense to compare the animated franchise to a sort of comfort food. These movies aren’t exactly “healthy” choices that send the imagination soaring, but they aren’t “junk” that people outside the target audience are likely to detest. They’re agreeable, but not spectacular. Fortunately for “Kung Fu Panda 4,” it’s arriving at a time when kids haven’t had a decent movie for a while. Even though it coasts on preexisting goodwill at times, it’s not the painful, phoned-in effort it could have been.


            At the start of the movie, Po is basking in his fame as the legendary Dragon Warrior. He does his job well, fulfilling all his duties as protector of his village, but he’s also become complacent, using his standing in the community to endorse the noodle restaurant run by his adoptive goose father Ping (James Hong) and biological panda father Li (Bryan Cranston). His mentor, red panda Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tells him his time as Dragon Warrior is coming to an end and he needs to pick a successor, but all he wants to do is continue to be the Dragon Warrior. And eat, of course, be the Dragon Warrior and eat.


            One day Po catches a fox named Zhen (Awkwafina) stealing artifacts from his temple. He battles her and she holds her own, but ultimately he wins and throws her in prison. But it turns out she may know something about a series of attacks that have been going on in nearby Juniper City. It seems Po’s old nemesis, the snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) has returned from the Spirit Realm and is seeking to regain power. Zhen knows to put emphasis on the “seems” part, because it’s really shapeshifting villain Chameleon (Viola Davis) plotting to steal power from the entire Spirit Realm. Zhen agrees to help Po in exchange for a lighter sentence, and the two reluctantly set out on a mission to save the village.


            I’m not going to pretend that the movie aspires to be anything more than standard “reluctant buddies road trip” fare. As a matter of fact, it’s two “reluctant buddies road trip” movies in one because Ping and Li set out on their own mission soon after Po and Zhen leave. But the Po/Zhen story has all the twists and turns you expect. Of course the too-trusting Po will have hard time navigating the city’s criminal underbelly and need the streetwise Zhen to bail him out. Of course Zhen’s duplicitous nature will get the two of them in trouble (my favorite sequence of the movie sees Po try to return money stolen by Zhen while simultaneously fighting the victims). Of course Po’s good-heartedness will rub off on Zhen. Of course there’s a secret that makes things complicated. And of course Po will eat everything he can along the way.


            But as unambitious as “Kung Fu Panda 4” is in its storytelling, it’s ambitious in its humor. What can I say – the jokes just hit. Black’s energy is infectious as always (he sings a new take on a pop song that might just be more earworm-y than the original), and everyone else manages to steal at least a few scenes. The visual gags work too, and it’s hard not to have your heart stolen by some psychotic bunnies. As an overall effort this movie may be just as complacent as Po is in the first act, but the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise knows what brings audiences comfort. The concession stand can handle the food.

Grade: B-

“Kung Fu Panda 4” is rated PG for martial arts action/mild violence, scary images and some mild rude humor. Its running time is 94 minutes.

Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu






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