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Kung Fu Panda 4 punches up: Movie Review

Photo: Universal Pictures
Photo: Universal Pictures

Jack Black is back, returning to his now longest-running performance, voicing Po the Panda in Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda 4. Reviving the popular animated action comedy franchise brings back all the heart, art and gumption that have made the film series so popular, even if they’re here in slightly smaller amounts.

Panda 4 is funny and action packed, but instead of being equally poignant and soulful, it’s merely serviceable entertainment. It’s got all the panda and less of the poetry (or Po-etry, perhaps.)

The franchise, which first premiered in 2008, is defined not just by Black’s lead performance but also by sharp character and set designs mixed with entry-level taoism and surprisingly smart humour. It’s a weird mix that’s turned Po’s story as the Dragon Warrior into a multi-billion dollar franchise.

This fourth film excels because despite a director change in new leader Mike Mitchell, the film’s tone and well-connected storyline offer the craftsmanship of the original trilogy in a diminished final product.

New villain Chameleon (Viola Davis), for example, offers a smaller threat than Po’s previous foes, and the absence of key supporting characters and locations from the first three movies make Kung Fu Panda 4 feel less epic and awe-inspiring in scale.

The voice cast is still excellent: Black is hysterically funny, modest, and fully invested as Po. Returning actors Dustin Hoffman and James Hong are strong, as is Davis in her shallow character and comedienne Awkwafina as sly fox Zhen. She’s always a strong voice actor and her winning streak continues here.

Like Pixar’s Toy Story 4, this animated four-quel is about confronting change and reframing a legacy. Like Woody, Po’s arc in the film sees the hero forced to give up revelling in the victories from his past adventures and forced to accept they have a new role and purpose in life.

The morals are thinner and less profound than past Panda films, but Kung Fu Panda 4’s script still delivers them in a clear and succinct way that will help young audiences understand that change is inevitable - and not always a bad or scary thing.

Also worth mentioning is the always stunning art design, landscapes, lighting and technical work in creating the Kung Fu Panda world. The music, characters and backgrounds all looks gorgeous as always.

Dreamworks is risking overstaying Po’s welcome with a fourth film after finishing a superior original trilogy. Kung Fu Panda 4, thankfully, is a clean, simple and well-intentioned film and a great family event for this year’s spring break.

Kung Fu Panda 4

7 out of 10

PG. 1hr 34mins. Animated Family Action Comedy.

Directed by Mike Mitchell.

Starring Jack Black, Awkwafina, Viola Davis, James Hong, Bryan Cranston and Dustin Hoffman.

Now Playing at Film.Ca Cinemas, Cineplex Winston Churchill & VIP and Cineplex Oakville & VIP.