Movie review: 'Kung Fu Panda 4' funny despite plot issues

Po and Zhen practice martial arts. Photo courtesy of Dreamworks Animation
1 of 5 | Po and Zhen practice martial arts. Photo courtesy of Dreamworks Animation

LOS ANGELES, March 6 (UPI) -- Kung Fu Panda 4, in theaters Friday, is consistently funny with lots of stellar visuals. It's never enough to completely compensate for a limited plot, but can be frequently distracting.

Po the Panda (voice of Jack Black) is enjoying his status as Dragon Warrior of the Valley of Peace. His animal companions from previous movies, the Furious Five, are off on different adventures, so none of those voices return.


A thieving fox named Zhen (Awkafina) brings news of the threat of a new villain, The Chameleon (Viola Davis). Zhen offers to lead Po to The Chameleon, a mission Po accepts, as he is antsy for another martial arts mission anyway.

The appeal of the Kung Fu Panda movies was not only animals doing martial arts. The films embody the martial arts cinema of Hong Kong in animated form, and Kung Fu Panda 4 continues in this tradition.


The fight scenes flow like good choreography and incorporate the environment and props like Hong Kong choreographers would. One fight scene in a restaurant on a cliff keeps shifting the weight so it tilts back and forth -- the sort of gimmick one might see in a Jackie Chan movie.

Po fights a stingray on a collapsing pier, forcing him to balance on vertical logs like Donnie Yen did in Iron Monkey and Jet Li did in Fong Sai-yuk. If kids like this, they can see human beings do it for real when they're a little older.

They are animating authentic martial arts, but this is still a comedy. So Kung Fu Panda 4 peppers its fight scenes with pratfalls, but they blend in with the martial arts.

A chase scene through a china shop has an especially amusing realization of the "bull in a china shop" expression.

Some of the comedy is just physical silliness, like choking on floating petals or a random henchman being called out by another frustrated henchman. Some adorable bunnies reveal themselves to be quite bloodthirsty sadists.

From the Valley of Peace to their journey to Juniper City, Kung Fu Panda 4 creates animated cities full of Chinese architecture or landscapes like the topography of China. One particularly striking scene shows Po and his opponents fighting in silhouette in a smokey pit.


As villains go, The Chameleon is a missed opportunity. The Chameleon is a little lizard who's smaller than the other imposing animals, but can literally transform into larger forms and overpower them.

But, the film asks viewers to take its word for it that The Chameleon is a threat, just like Po takes Zhen's word for it. The Chameleon mainly just operates in the background, occasionally threatening other animals, but just waiting for Po to reach her.

The climax does allow The Chameleon to change form in her battle against Po. It is worth it to see not just two animals face-off, but also Po facing every animal into which The Chameleon can transform. It's just a shame The Chameleon wasn't more formidable throughout.

Zhen's characterization is a bit too predictable to spark any genuine feelings for her relationship with Po. Her backstory refers to a mentor so vaguely that it should be obvious who her mentor was, even if this is the very first movie a child ever saw.

Early in the film, Po's master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) encourages Po to pass the torch to a new Dragon Warrior. Po is reluctant, and the appearance of Zhen offers a diversion, as well as a very predictable evolution of Po and Zhen's relationship.


The student becoming the master is also a tradition of martial arts movies, though Kung Fu Panda 4 doesn't represent that theme as well as it does other martial arts themes.

Zhen is more trouble than Po ever was, so he learns just how hard it is to impart what he has learned about noble Kung Fu values. But, Zhen and Po spend less time bonding on their mission than Aquaman and Orm did on their adventure in Aquaman 2.

So, Kung Fu Panda 4 is amusing enough to see Po in another wacky martial arts quest. The film struggles to reach the balance his earlier outings struck between Kung Fu, comedy and heart.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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