KUNG FU PANDA 4 Confirms the DreamWorks Series is Only Going Downhill With Each New Instalment


When a fellow Farrago reviewer suggested that someone from the team review Kung Fu Panda 4, they did so with a curiosity only matched by standing around roadkill and waiting for someone to poke it. Having been forewarned by negative responses from fans and critics, the question on the Farrago review team’s lips turned quickly from “Was the film good?” to “Okay, but how bad exactly?” With that kind of endorsement, ~naturally~ I put my hand up. So, I went into the film screening with the spirits of my fellow reviewers hanging off my shoulders and chortling that I was in for a doozy.


As a long-time DreamWorks Animation fan, I approached the film with optimism, and with what I thought was a healthy tolerance for the studio’s more out-there narrative tendencies. Surely, this film couldn’t be as bad as people were making out, right? Reader, it was worse. Bad we could’ve handled; we could’ve gathered our friends, popped the popcorn and relished in that wholesome wonder of collective derision. But DreamWorks Animation had beaten the dead horse to wheeze out another instalment of this series and, in doing so, condemned Kung Fu Panda 4 to an altogether incurable affliction known as wait-this-movie-existed?-itis. Kung Fu Panda 4 was forgettable, uninspiring and altogether meh. 


In the fourth film of the Kung Fu Panda series, we see Po as a seasoned kung fu warrior. The film follows as he chooses a successor to take on the position of Dragon Warrior so that he can ascend to the role of spiritual leader of the Valley of Peace. Po is challenged by this shift in responsibility and identity, and he faces the looming threat of the conquering sorceress, The Chameleon. In response, Po must evolve to suit his new circumstances and realise his full potential.

It’s a bold choice for an animated film to take a hero we’ve watched over the years and replace him before our very eyes. I respected the filmmakers for deciding that Po has had his time as Dragon Warrior and needed to move on to being something new. One of this film’s few positives is that the change in Po’s responsibilities allowed viewers to see a new side of his character: Po as mentor. In previous films, Po had always been the bumbling newcomer to kung fu, whose youthful exuberance complemented the seasoned gravitas of characters like Master Shifu and the Furious Five.


However, Po becoming mentor allowed for the inclusion of a new character, Zhen; a lively fox, voiced by Awkwafina, who occupied the space of comedic, mischievous, witty mentee. I did enjoy seeing a more mature Po, whose experiences had taught him both practically and emotionally. What particularly resonated with me was him teaching Zhen to see the world less cynically, and that being kind-hearted isn’t a weakness. Throughout the series, Po demonstrates a remarkable level of empathy, even towards his opponents. He sees the potential in the world around him; his journey as a hero allows him to realise the potential in himself. You can always find a hero that has a good heart and isn’t afraid to emote in a Hollywood animation, and that is why I keep myself open to animated films even as I grow older. Like with many other children’s animations, I appreciated Kung Fu Panda 4 reminding me that I don’t need to harden myself to be strong. What makes Po such an entertaining protagonist throughout the series is that he brings slapstick, humour and earnestness when his counterparts are solemn, maniacal and weathered. It is this juxtaposition that makes Po shine. So, to pair him with the similarly spirited Zhen was a questionable choice for this film.


First off, I think animation studios should stop hiring Awkwafina for voice acting until she learns how to do a voice other than her usual speaking tone. Throughout her voice acting filmography—Sisu from Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), Tarantula from The Bad Guys (2022), Scuttle from The Little Mermaid (2023), Chump from Migration (2023)—Awkwafina’s voice is so distinct and delivery so one-note that her characters fail to become their own entities. Instead, it always comes across like Awkwafina is guest starring as herself. Secondly, if Zhen was inexperienced, she would’ve had more to gain from being Po’s pupil and the partnership would’ve been more compelling. But even before meeting Po, Zhen’s childhood as a thief growing up on the streets made her industrious, worldly and skilled in fighting and evading opponents. So, what's there for Po to teach her? Ultimately, the introduction of Zhen to the series felt like a wasted opportunity and had me longing to see the Furious Five by Po’s side.


The absence of the Furious Five in Kung Fu Panda 4 was deeply felt. After removing them from the line-up, the film overcompensated with too many secondary characters. There’s Zhen and the band of thieves she grew up with, the new big bad—The Chameleon—and her henchmen, and an assortment of kung fu masters and villains from previous films. This juggling of side-characters was superficial and dismissive. Too much time was spent with them for inconsequential comedic relief, and not enough time was dedicated to those you actually want to know about.


Take the main villain for example. A chameleon named The Chameleon, (which should’ve been my first clue to the state of this film), who aims to steal the kung fu abilities of warriors from the Spirit Realm through sorcery. Intriguing, no? Well, if you were looking for any background beyond the surface-level, you won’t find it in Kung Fu Panda 4. Don’t bother wondering where The Chameleon came from, why she wants power, or what she plans to do after conquering the world. Not to mention the abrupt introduction of sorcery to the story world; has it existed this whole time and we just never saw it? Oh, to go back to the days when a peacock’s misguided vendetta culminating in panda genocide was breathtakingly conveyed through 2D animation! Alas, The Chameleon’s Tragic Backstory™ is so shallow that the film covers it in a few lines. It is an uninspired villain monologue that amounts to ‘I was too short for kung fu, so I made it everybody else’s problem’.


My biggest gripe with this film was that it had potential to be great. As with the previous films in this series, Kung Fu Panda 4’s action sequences offered a zany, fast-paced, sheer awesomeness. One of my favourite scenes was when Po fought a thieving Zhen in the Jade Palace. Taking advantage of his surroundings, quipping, bumbling around and using his unexpected skills to triumph—this scene showcased Po at his best and reminded me of what I love about this series. It harkened back to the glory days of Kung Fu Panda and Kung Fu Panda 2 with its vitality. The filmmakers even snuck in a delightful call-back to the first film by having Po catch and redirect a thrown blade in the same manner Master Shifu demonstrated when fighting Tai Lung. If only the film had approached the other call-backs with such grace! Instead, almost as if to compensate for a lack of originality and innovation, Kung Fu Panda 4 treads familiar paths in the most uninspiring of ways: copy and paste. From a peach seed metaphor to a chaotic escape from authorities in a bustling marketplace to a Jade Palace training montage, this film imitates former successes. The result is, unsurprisingly, a feeble hodgepodge desperately clinging to its predecessors.


Kung Fu Panda 4 frustrates with the number of missed opportunities throughout the film. Collecting all of Po’s former adversaries and not having Po confront them meaningfully? Not developing Master Shifu and Po’s relationship when the panda’s whole challenge this time around is learning how to be a mentor? Building up The Chameleon as a supremely conniving and powerful shapeshifting sorceress imbued with the fighting prowess of kung fu masters, only to have her defeated by knocking her around a bit? Reader, there was a good movie in there—but it’s just out of reach beyond the limp wrist of a film that is Kung Fu Panda 4.          

Farrago's magazine cover - Edition One 2024


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