‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ Review: Jack Black and Awkwafina Voice Predictable but Pleasant Franchise Entry

Animated film franchises have a way of making you feel old. When you watch live-action movie series featuring your favorite stars over a period of many years, the actors at least have the grace to age along with their audiences. But the characters in animated movies tend to always look the same, as demonstrated by Po, the hero of Kung Fu Panda 4. As still delightfully voiced by Jack Black, he’s exactly the same big, furry lug that he was in the original film, which came out in, gulp, 2008.

Well, he’s a little different. He’s now been the Dragon Warrior for so long that his mentor, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, sounding more gravelly than ever), orders him to relinquish his title and assume the role of Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace. Po, who’s preoccupied with starting his own noodle restaurant, resists at first, but ultimately complies with the directive that also requires him to find and train his successor.

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First, though, he has to deal with a new villain in the form of, at least some of the time, The Chameleon (Viola Davis, in her first animated voice turn), who, as her name indicates, has the ability to transform herself at will from a tiny lizard into any creature she chooses, including an elephant. The Chameleon is set on acquiring Po’s Staff of Wisdom, which would enable her to bring back all of the evildoers whom Po had previously vanished in films 1-3.

He winds up teaming up, buddy cop-movie style, with Zhen (Awkwafina), a crafty, thieving fox who promises to lead Po to The Chameleon. To do so, they’ll have to leave the safe confines of the Valley of Peace and head to the wilds of Juniper City, where they instantly get into all forms of trouble, including a barroom brawl that provides the opportunity, one of many, for the filmmakers to deliver one of the kinetic animated fight sequences that have been the series’ trademark since its inception and here reach dazzling new visual heights.

Pursuing the pair are Po’s adoptive, goose father Mr. Ping (James Hong) and real father Li (Bryan Cranston), who are prominently featured in this installment. Their bumbling interactions resembling the antics of a seasoned vaudevillian team, they provide many of the film’s laughs, as when Li attempts to intimidate a group of lowlifes by announcing, “I eat mahjong tiles for breakfast!”

Some fans will be disappointed by the absence (mostly) of the Furious Five, but The Chameleon makes for a pretty strong villain. Not to mention that she provides the opportunity for the animators to get a workout providing the many creatures into which she morphs. Those looking for nostalgia will cheer the return of the fierce snow leopard Tai Lung from the first film, with Ian McShane again providing his elegant baritone.

With its new settings and characters, including Oscar winner Ke Huy Quan as a pangolin leader of a den of thieves and Ronnie Chieng as a fish that lives in a pelican’s mouth, Kung Fu Panda 4 clearly aims to refresh the franchise. But it’s really more of the same, which is not such a bad thing when you consider that the series has grossed some $1.8 billion so far (and that’s not including the spin-off projects, including various television series and video games). Its appeal still lies largely in Black’s hilarious vocal performance which has lost none of its charm. Here, he’s well matched by Awkwafina, who brings such verve to her line readings that she’s a cinch to return in the inevitable future installments.

This humor in this edition doesn’t seem as broad as usual, with the mostly low-key laughs coming from amusing visual gags like a very careful chase through a jade shop and such throwaway lines as Po plaintively asking, “Are my adventures really that regional?” when no one in Juniper City recognizes him. Many of the gags are either derivative or homages, depending on your perspective, including the vicious killer bunnies that bring to mind Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But that doesn’t make them any less funny. And it’s worth sitting through the end credits just to hear the terrific Tenacious D cover version of Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time.”

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