Kung Fu Panda 4 wastes its super-cool villain

In Kung Fu Panda 4, Jack Black returns as Po the Panda, the super-duper enthusiastic kung fu superstar and leader of the Kung Fu Panda franchise. This is the fourth film in the series, which also contains three different animated tv shows and several short films. That’s one lot of Panda – meaning there isn’t much material left to squeeze into a solid, standalone film.

From director Mike Mitchell (The Lego Movie 2) and co-director Stephanie Stine, Kung Fu Panda 4 has enough solid scenes to make it an acceptable fourth entry in a franchise, but the plot doesn’t come together in a way that would elevate it to the franchise’s previous heights. That’s especially true when it comes to the main villain, whose super-cool power is completely wasted on a film that’s mostly exposition.

(Ed. remark: This review contains setup spoilers for Kung Fu Panda 4.)

Image: DreamWorks Animation

In Kung Fu Panda 4, Po (Jack Black) is tasked with finding his successor to the Dragon Warrior, but once he gets the scent of a new big bad on the horizon, he abandons his search for an apprentice and teams up with Zhen, a thieving fox played by Awkwafina, to bring her down. That villain, the Chameleon (Viola Davis), is a powerful shape-shifting sorceress who can take on any appearance, including perfectly mimicking other people.

Mitchell and the other filmmakers emphasize in her introductory scene that anyone – including known, trusted friends – could in fact be the evil crime lord in disguise. But outside of that first scene, this plot device is rarely used to its full potential. Instead, the Chameleon spends the film sitting in her pretty little fortress and lording it over crime families. What’s the point of having a shapeshifting villain if she just wants to be completely open about her identity? Why emphasize that she’s sneaky and subterfuge, and then have her spend the movie cackling loudly about her (completely boring) evil plans?

The final act of the film thankfully uses her powers in more meaningful ways, but feels disconnected from the first act. Most of the film consists of getting the characters where they need to be for the finale, but that setting up isn’t done in a particularly fun way. Yes, it’s cool to see the city where the Chameleon rules, a bustling metropolis far removed from the quiet valley where Po comes from, but the plot and characters don’t quite fit together.

The Furious Five, previously introduced in the Kung Fu Panda series and presented as valuable, powerful allies for Po, have disappeared from the story completely. Po’s grumpy master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), is only around briefly to yell at Po and try to push through the film’s message about accepting change. The new character and setting are lively additions, but there’s a lot of expository setup to get the pieces into place.

Po the panda watches in awe as a sleek silver fox jumps over him carrying some stolen treasures

Image: DreamWorks Animation

However, Jack Black as Po is still delightful, selling the character with an endearing seriousness wrapped in bumbling enthusiasm. His lines are perfect, especially when he accentuates moments of tension. But the real highlight of Kung Fu Panda 4 is Awkwafina, who gets a chance to shine beyond her usual animated character characterization of “loud, crazy comic relief.” As smart-talking villain Zhen, she certainly has her share of one-liners, but the character has more depth. As her past and her motives are revealed, Awkwafina gets the chance to do more of the dramatic jobs we saw in The goodbye. It’s a far cry from characters like The little Mermaid‘s Scuttle and Migration‘s Chump, which is usually just loud and obnoxious.

Overall, the Kung Fu Panda films have a great sense of physicality, which lends itself to both humor and action scenes. The fourth film in the series is no exception. It’s hilarious to watch Po’s biological panda father (Bryan Cranston) throw Po’s adoptive goose father (James Hong) to the next step of a mountain staircase so that the goose has enough momentum to flap its little wings and land with a satisfying landing. thump. The fight in a rickety tavern on a cliff that rocks and rules. There are so many little details in the visuals that help really sell the physicality of the characters and their world, a testament to the care that went into this film’s animation.

But while the individual scenes and moments in Kung Fu Panda 4 are entertaining (and sometimes even great), but it’s never really an enjoyable movie on its own. The message of change that ties everything together is weak, and the plot feels contiguous, trying to get the characters in the right place to launch a few seconds of cool action. After four films, it’s not really a surprise that the Kung Fu Panda Machine is running out of power, but luckily it still has just enough power left to deliver a genuine laugh at the end.

Kung Fu Panda 4 will be in cinemas from March 8.