Kung Fu Panda 4

Facing a new role as the spiritual leader of Peace Valley, Po (voice of Jack Black) is dragging his feet about passing on the Staff of Wisdom and the mantle of Dragon Warrior despite Shifu’s (voice of Dustin Hoffman) urging and a number of candidates.  But when The Chameleon (voice of Viola Davis), a powerful, shapeshifting sorceress, takes on the appearance of Tai Lung (voice of Ian McShane) and terrifies water buffalo miners, Po pairs up with the fox Zhen (voice of Awkwafina), the pesky thief he’s just imprisoned, who claims to know her whereabouts in Juniper City in “Kung Fu Panda 4.”

Laura's Review: B

Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger, the writers of the first three “Kung Fu Pandas,” and "Turbo's" Darren Lemke, are either winding down the franchise or setting up its next chapter, dispensing with the Furious Five (who appear during closing credits without their starry character voices) in lieu of a mismatched buddy comedy.  This one is full of action, a bar brawl at the Happy Bunny Tavern a highlight as the building itself teeters atop a cliff, its owner, Granny Boar (voice of Lori Tan Chinn), an homage to “Kung Fu Hustle’s” Landlady.

Our dumpling loving panda is trying (‘Inner peace, inner peace’) and failing (‘Dinner please, dinner please’) to embrace his new role.  After enthusiastically watching four extraordinary displays of kung fu, when prodded to pick a successor, Po’s pointing finger turns to…himself.  It is in the Hall of Warriors that Po has a run-in with the thieving Zhen, who at first appears to have the upper hand, and Shifu is once again left aghast when Po decides the fox should accompany him to try and defeat The Chameleon.

It is really no surprise to figure out where all this is heading, but there is fun to be had along the way, especially in that Happy Rabbit Tavern which is featured not just once, but again as Po’s two dads, Mr. Ping (voice of James Hong) and Li (voice of Bryan Cranston), decide to follow their boy.  After a ferry ride featuring an insulting Fish (voice of Ronny Chieng) residing in the gullet of a pelican, Po and Zhen arrive in the big city where Po is decidedly a fish out of water.  He also discovers that Zhen is a wanted criminal here and when she appeals to her cousin Han (voice of Ke Huy Quan), the pangolin leader of the city’s Den of Thieves, she doesn’t get the welcome she expects.

The Chameleon, Davis’s voice dripping seductive treachery, is a beautifully designed creature costumed in exquisitely embroidered silken robes, an intricate headdress completely the look.  All she wants is Po’s staff in order to open the heavens and assume the powers of all the former warriors he vanquished, a feat which would make her unstoppable.  There will be twists and turns in allegiances as four factions – Po and Zhen, The Chameleon and her guards, Ping and Li and the Den of Thieves – all merge for a climax which will see Po facing his biggest challenge.

Directors Mike Mitchell ("Trolls") and Stephanie Stine respect prior entries with a few nods to Asian art forms, a standout here a black and white shadow play in the foggy dungeons of The Chameleon’s castle.  They also lean on the big-eyed cute animal cliché, here a trio of bunnies, which Dreamworks has now overworked to death, but that’s a minor quibble.  “Kung Fu Panda 4” is a twist on the old formula, Awkwafina providing a breath of fresh air while Po amuses by passing gas.

Universal releases "Kung Fu Panda 4" in theaters on 3/8/24.