Kung Fu Panda 4 Sees the Series Skew Towards a Lighter Tone for the Better

In the first three Kung Fu Panda movies, titular panda Po travelled to the spirit world, conquered the most fearsome foes, and became the hero of the Valley of Peace. Knowing all that, you’d think that there’s not much left for the pugnacious panda to do. But if you love the series, you know that half their charm sits with the characters. So, even though Kung Fu Panda 4 doesn’t top the trilogy in terms of epic fights scenes and spiritual storytelling, it makes up for it by being a fun hangout movie with some fun new faces and some great set-pieces.

This time around Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tasks Po (Jack Black) with finding a successor, a new dragon warrior. The story has finally come full circle and he’s set to become the spiritual leader of the valley of peace – just as Master Oogway was in the first film. But stepping down from his role as life-saving superhero doesn’t really entice Po, so he drags his feet a little. Thankfully, a new villain, The Chameleon (Viola Davis), is on the horizon and a thieving fox named Zhen (Awkwafina) offers to lead Po right to her. “One last adventure” Po says and they head off for the rough-and-tumble Juniper City. But Po’s two dads (James Wong & Bryan Cranston) are concerned about him facing this mysterious new villain, so they follow in his tracks and get into hijinks along the way.

Previous series directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson didn’t return for this entry, and while Kung Fu Panda 4 may have the same writers, its new directors have brought with them a different style of animation and effects. This time round, it’s punchier and more in your face, leaning into the look of a comic book or manga. For reference, co-director, Mike Mitchell and Stephanie Stine are clearly inspired by the recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem with an animation style that features impact frames and janky transformations. The resulting effect is a bouncier film with a more comedic tone, ultimately creating an experience that’s more spectacular overall.

However, Kung Fu Panda 4 brings with it a much smaller budget than the previous films, and it’s clear that a few shortcuts have been taken in the process; while there are a handful of lovely landscape shots of the Valley of Peace, its majesty stops short at flat painted background, and when paired with the notion that there are fewer crowds in the background, it creates a film that lacks visual depth.

Aside from the technical aspects, the tone of the film has also shifted. The elegant balance between Jackie Chan comedy action and the more dramatic Bruce Lee or Shaw Brothers style martial arts film has tipped towards the comedic Jackie Chan side, only with a touch of Wuxia added into the mix. 

Kung Fu Panda 4 is closer to a buddy comedy than it is to a classic hero’s journey, with Awkwafina’s shady Zheng being a nice foil to Po’s good natured ways. In the other movies Jack Black tends to be the one cracking most of the jokes, so having Awkwafina keep him on his toes definitely keeps things fresh and funny. Along the way they meet a couple new faces like the inspired character of a fish who lives in the beak of a pelican (Ronny Chieng), and a fun inversion with the normally good-natured Key Huy Quan playing a dastardly pangolin slumlord. Paired with the B-story of Po’s Dads Mr Ping and Li Shan following in the wake of Po’s buttkicking, Kung Fu Panda 4 might be the most fun entry in the series so far.

In the third act, the film takes a more dramatic turn, ensuring that fans who love the Kung Fu Panda series for its awesome action will leave impressed. The final battle doesn’t beat out something like the collapsing palace and fireworks cannons of Kung Fu Panda 2, but it’s an exciting addition nonetheless. Viola Davis’ new villain, The Chameleon, is the shapeshifting ruler of Juniper City, and her bulging, unnatural transformations make her an intimidating foe.

Kung Fu Panda 4 takes the series in a lighter direction with suitably levity, and it works well for it. Instead of trying to keep upping the stakes with each bad guy, they’ve decided to give you more time with the beloved characters and add some new ones too. Because of this, not every fan will love it, but for some it’ll be their favourite so far.

Directors: Mike Mitchell, Stephanie Stine

Voice Cast: Jack Black, Awkwafina, Viola Davis

Writers: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Darren Lemke, (with additional screenplay material by David Lindsay-Abaire, Lillian Yu)

Streaming Availability:

Branden Zavaleta

Branden Zavaleta is a Perth-based film critic. He loves movies that charm, surprise or share secrets. Some little known favourites of his are Ishii's The Taste of Tea, Barboni's They Call Me Trinity, and Kieslowski's Camera Buff.

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