‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ Review: Jack Black Is Back As Lovable Dragon Warrior On A New Mission In This Winning DreamWorks Sequel

Since its debut in 2008, DreamWorks’ kickass charmer Po, aka Kung Fu Panda, has racked up nearly $2 billion at the global box office over the course of three films, the most recent being eight years ago. A lot has changed in the world of animation in that time as well as in the life of Po, as witnessed by the storyline screenwriters have cooked up for this rich and energetic fourth entry into the franchise. Visually, this one tops them all, and pound for pound the whole movie from director Mike Mitchell, taking the helm of the KFP series for the first time, is another winner bound to add to the impressive legacy of this lovable Chinese bear.

Plotwise, Po (again voiced by the inimitable Jack Black) has been content to be a successful Dragon Warrior vanquishing villains and seemingly with no further ambition. However, when Kung Fu Master Shifa (Dustin Hoffman slyly returning to the role) commands him to become Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace succeeding Oogway, he also instructs Po to name his own replacement, something that fills him with angst. So too does the emergence of a new villain, perhaps the most imposing he has ever faced even if it is a tiny lizard known as The Chameleon (Viola Davis), who can shape-shift into some pretty frightening forms making this maniacal creature a real threat to deal with. Her goal is to secure Po’s Staff of Wisdom and return all the dead bad guys Po has put away in past films.

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For Po this is all too much, especially since it takes this country bumpkin to the big city for the first time in his life, a raging metropolis called Juniper City that is a sort of Chinese NYC. This is where he teams with the slippery Corsac Fox, Zhen (Awkwafina), who though a thief by trade turns out to be the rock Po needs in his quixotic quest to foil The Chameleon. Zhen leads our would-be hero into a series of adventures in and eventually to a confrontation once again with the first villain he defeated in the initial movie, Tai Lung (Ian Mc Shane). After losing that battle to Po, this proud leopard has lived quietly and on his own spiritual journey until The Chameleon decides she has some use for him.

Juniper City, filled with some fabulous sights to behold, is a great getaway for the franchise and serves these characters, new and old, perfectly even as the place is full of all sorts of other various living creature citizenry making it all look like something out of a Ridley Scott epic. Cast-wise, the voice work could not be better including Black, who brings humor, confusion and emotion to Po making him as likeable as ever. Awkwafina, coming off a fine turn as the streetwise pigeon in Migration, once again earns street cred as Zhen, a crafty and complex fox who isn’t always such an upstanding citizen of Juniper City, but rather a member of the underground Den of Thieves run by a pangolin, Han, who is voiced unmistakably by recent Oscar winner Ke Huy Quan, nailing it delightfully in his first-ever animated voice job.

Rather unbelievably Davis as The Chameleon is also just getting her first gig in an animated feature as the deliciously ambitious and plotting lizard for all seasons. McShane is once again effective as the complicated Tai Lung, as is another returnee, the wonderful 95-year-old James Hong as Mr. Ping, Po’s adoptive father. Po’s birth father Li, who he reunited with in KFP 3, is back again voiced by Bryan Cranston in fine form with limited screen time.

The production value here is superb with a great score from Hans ZImmer and Steve Mazzaro adding to the effectiveness of this ace family entertainment, still vibrant and fresh on its fourth time around. Co-director is Stephanie Ma Stine. Producer is Rebecca Huntley.

Title: Kung Fu Panda 4
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Release Date: March 8, 2024
Director: Mike Mitchell
Screenwriters: Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger and Darren Lemke
Cast: Jack Black, Awkwafina, Bryan Cranston, James Hong, Ke Huy Quan, Dustin Hoffman, Viola Davis, Ronny Chieng, Lori Tan Chinn
Rating: PG
Running time: 1 hr 34 min

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