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Monday, March 18, 2024

Kung Fu Panda 4 (2024)

Sixteen years after first gracing our screens, Po the Panda (Jack Black) is back in action again, this time with a smaller budget and less things to do.

Luckily, the thrills of the original Kung Fu Panda are alive and well. Action sequences in the fourth installment of this franchise totally deliver, and Black brings his best "rizz"-y self to one of his most famous characters, so audiences will still feel suckered into Po's world even if the story wears thin and the laughs are not as monstrous as in previous iterations.

This time around, we watch as Po receives a promotion of sorts from Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) to be the spiritual leader of the Valley of Peace. This means that Po has to radically transform from the kick-butt Dragon Warrior to the decidedly more zen philosopher of his kingdom and find a successor in his place. 

Theatrical Poster
Theatrical Poster | Copyright 2024 DreamWorks Animation/Universal

While trying to find the right animal for the job, Po comes across a slick fox named Zhen (Awkwafina) as she tries to steal ancient weapons. Po rightfully puts her in the slammer, only to free her after leopard villain Tai Lung (Ian McShane, reminding longtime fans why he's one of the best animated movie villains) returns and has decimated an entire village. It is then revealed that Tai Lung's return was spurned by a new villain named the Chameleon (Viola Davis, bringing her best to the role). 

Now, onto what makes this movie fall short. If the plot sounds familiar, that might be because parts of it appear to be lifted from the third one. It feels like a regressive retread of Kung Fu Panda 3 overall. Po came out of the third movie ready for a more hands-off role as a teacher, and the fourth opens with him seemingly forgetting this and again asking Shifu why he should step aside as a fighter. This may be because of last-minute editorial decisions that were made by DreamWorks executives.

It was revealed recently in an interview that the film's co-director Stephanie Ma Stine had a more redemptive storyline for Tai Lung, where he and his adoptive father Shifu reunite. However, that plotline was axed by director Mike Mitchell, who ultimately received full credit for directing the film, in a move that probably adds insult to injury for Stine and female directors everywhere. 

Stine also reported being kicked around by film executives, which has been a worrying trend in the movie business as of late.

Then there's the budget, which at $85 million, is decidedly lower than the previous three films, each of which were around $130 million. This might reflect on some of the editorial decisions that were ultimately made in this fourth installment, most notably the near-absence of the Furious Five and their A-list voice cast. Luckily, it looks like no corners were cut when it comes to the stunning visuals that this series continues to dazzle us with four films in. Fight scenes remain as kinetic and inventive as other, with a notable overwater bar brawl being a highlight of the entire franchise.

While Kung Fu Panda 4 has already made more than its budget, with a gross thus far of $176.5 million globally, the box office returns appear to candy coat the film's many flaws. Even still, it's an enjoyable ride with a fan favorite at his kick-butt best. And a thrilling musical number closing out the movie (which we swear is not a total spoiler).