Every Kung Fu Panda Movie, Ranked

 Po and Zhen pose for battle in Kung Fu Panda 4.
Po and Zhen pose for battle in Kung Fu Panda 4.

If you’re of a certain age, then you probably grew up with Shrek. It’s for that reason that a lot of people will tell you that he is the best character to ever come out of DreamWorks Animation. But, I highly disagree. Because when it comes to Shrek and Kung Fu Panda, I’m picking the panda voiced by Jack Black all day, every day.

I think it’s because the Kung Fu Panda movies have been consistently better than the Shrek movies (unless, of course, we’re also counting the Puss In Boots movies, like The Last Wish, to which I think we might have an argument then). It’s just that I love the characters in the Panda universe, as well as the progression of Po’s character. I also adore how he always faces a new challenger in each movie, sort of like a video game having bosses at the end of each stage.

That said, even though I like every Panda movie, I will say that they’re not all equally good. So, which one movie is the absolute best? Well, you’re about to find out! Skadoosh.

Po in Kung Fu Panda 4.
Po in Kung Fu Panda 4.

4. Kung Fu Panda 4 (2024)

The most recent film in the franchise, Kung Fu Panda 4 is in an interesting spot, in that we probably didn’t need another sequel. In our review of the movie, our very own Eric Eisenberg called it the “weakest entry” in the series, and I wholeheartedly agree.

In it, Master Shifu, for some reason, is under the impression that Po needs to choose a successor, even though he still seems to be doing pretty fine as the Dragon Warrior. Reluctant to give up his title, he soon finds that he has no choice after a new villain manages to retrieve the Staff of Wisdom. Adventure (and some comedy) ensues.

Now, a big reason why this movie just doesn’t work is because it feels both scaled back, but also too crowded at the same time. We get a new character in a fox named Zhen, voiced by Quiz Lady star, Awkwafina, and while she’s fine, she also isn’t a great substitute for The Furious Five, as they’re not even in the movie until the very end. And, they don’t even speak!

Then, there’s the villain, The Chameleon, voiced by the always fantastic Viola Davis. I used to think that these movies lived and died by how good their villains were, but Panda 4 proves that this isn’t the case, since The Chameleon is actually one of the most interesting villains in the entire series.

However, the lead up to her is so mundane that it detracts from her presence in the film, which is a real shame, since she’s so cool once we finally meet her. Oh, well. This is a decent movie (and definitely better than something like Shrek the Third, or Shrek Forever After), but it’s one that could have been much, much better.

Tigress in a pose in Kung Fu Panda 3
Tigress in a pose in Kung Fu Panda 3

3. Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

In this third film in the franchise, they wanted to change it up a bit. So, they addressed the lingering question teased at the end of Panda 2 of who Po’s biological father was. Honestly, it had mixed results. Because by this point in the series, I think most fans were just content with Mr. Ping being Po’s father, especially since he’s played by the incomparable James Hong. Thankfully, at least we got Bryan Cranston as the voice of Po’s biological dad, Li Shan.

The film itself is pretty fun, though. We’re introduced to a whole village of pandas, and Po needs to train them in order to take on a new villain named General Kai, who is voiced by J.K. Simmons. All of the members of the Furious Five reprise their roles, and we even get Randall Duk Kim back to voice Master Oogway, as his presence was absent in the second movie. So, in every way Kung Fu Panda 3 feels like a grand spectacle.

Unfortunately, General Kai is sort of a dud of a villain. It was because of this film that I truly believed that the antagonist in each one was the determining factor of whether it would be great, or just good, since all of the storytelling around him is pretty snappy. But, the villain himself is just so bland.

However, if Panda 4 taught me anything, it’s that I’d rather have a good story and a mediocre villain, than a great villain and a mediocre story.

Po holding a burning flame in Kung Fu Panda 2
Po holding a burning flame in Kung Fu Panda 2

2. Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

Speaking of villains, we might have the very best in the franchise in Kung Fu Panda 2 with the peacock Lord Shen, voiced by Gary Oldman. He’s truly the highlight of this entire movie, which is an all-around good time. Still, as you can see by its placement on this list, it is not the best movie in the series.

In fact, like I said in my BluRay review at the time: “It’s not better than the original, but because it has so much heart, it’s not worse, either. It’s a fine sequel that fits and seems justified.”

Yeah, I pretty much stand behind that statement even today. In this sequel, Po is now settling into being the Dragon Warrior and leading the Furious Five. So, in that way, it’s a transitional period film, and one that still has a ton of laughs.

That said, it’s definitely not as consistently funny as the original, and it goes into some pretty dark territories for a kids’ film. This is mainly because of Lord Shen, who truly challenges Po and his peers.

It’s all really captivating stuff, and the third act probably has my favorite climax in the entire series. Even so, it still can’t match the original.

Po and Master Shifu training together in Kung Fu Panda
Po and Master Shifu training together in Kung Fu Panda

1. Kung Fu Panda (2008)

That’s right. The first Kung Fu Panda movie is still the best Kung Fu Panda movie. It’s probably because it’s the perfect fish out of water, underdog (or rather, underpanda) story. Po loves kung fu, and he admires the Furious Five more than anybody else.

So, when it comes time to select a new Dragon Warrior, you would think that anybody but Po would be selected, so of course he’s the one who gets chosen. In a lot of ways, all of the films are about finding oneself, but the first movie still does the very best job of telling that story.

It also has a great villain in Tai Lung, voiced by Ian McShane. He’s so good, in fact, that the series frequently references him, as he represents the side of Po that’s still doubtful of his abilities. But, I think this one’s the best because all of the characters really stand out. It’s not just a Po story, but also a Master Shifu story, as well as a Furious Five story.

The first film is, in every way, the best movie in the franchise. It’s actually interesting to note that much like the Scary Movie series, each film in the Panda franchise was not as good as the movie that preceded it. So, I really hope that they don’t make a Kung Fu Panda 5, even though I really like this series! I just don’t feel that any sequel could ever match the stellar original.

What’s your favorite Kung Fu Panda movie?