‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ review: Cute, but it’s time to put this bear to bed

Po, voiced by Jack Black
Jack Black returns to voice Po in "Kung Fu Panda 4."

While watching “Kung Fu Panda 4,” an unshakable thought kept creeping in: How much more mileage can DreamWorks possibly get out of this bear martial artist?

movie review


Running time: 94 minutes. Rated PG (martial arts action, mild violence, scary images and some mild rude humor). In theaters March 8.

Po (Jack Black) is no longer a scrappy underdog — he’s the revered Dragon Warrior. His clumsiness has given way to confidence, and he’s relatively famous among the talking-animal set. A puffy panda swiftly punching and kicking isn’t a killer sight gag anymore.

So, after 16 years and a quartet of films, where else is there for Po to go?

“4,” while nice enough, suggests that the smartest move would be to let the fuzzy guy retire to a calming bamboo forest rather than embark on yet another predictable adventure.

The decent animated film still boasts the formidable voice talent of Black, Dustin Hoffman, Bryan Cranston, James Hong and Ian McShane. Now they’re joined by Awkwafina, Viola Davis and Ke Huy Quan. Not too shabby.

This go-round, Po is reveling in his mini celeb status — swanning around town, posing for (hand-drawn) pictures with fans and cutting the ribbon at the Dragon Warrior Noodle and Tofu restaurant.

But, Master Shifu (Hoffman) informs him, it’s time to move on. Po will instead transition into the less exciting role of Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace, a kind of supervisory desk job, and select a spry replacement Dragon Warrior to bask in glory.

Po is none too pleased with this so-called promotion.

Jack Black returns to voice Po in “Kung Fu Panda 4.” Universal
Jack Black returns to voice Po in “Kung Fu Panda 4.” Universal

But before he can make his choice of successor, the four-legged fighter is thrown back into action when a new foe, the Chameleon (Davis), arrives with a supernatural plot of world domination. That lizard is dangerous because, as her species would suggest, she can take on the appearance of anyone around her.

Needing help, Po is joined in his heroic journey to bustling Juniper City by a thieving fox sidekick named Zhen (Awkwafina).

Come for the jokes and the stars — not for the suspense. “Panda,” directed by Mike Mitchell and Stephanie Stine, is simply not entrancing enough to ever convince viewers that the obvious thing won’t happen. It does. “Yep,” you say as you zip up your coat.

Zhen, voiced by Awkwafina, is a mischievous fox. AP / Universal
Zhen, voiced by Awkwafina, is a mischievous fox. AP / Universal

I left feeling much the same way I did after seeing “Toy Story 4.” “3” was perfect. Why mess it up with a lesser, smaller sequel?

The so-so story aside, like the previous three movies and most of DreamWorks’ catalog, this iteration of “Panda” appealingly wears its heart on its paw. And that’s sufficient reason for families to choose it over a lot of other animated schlock out there.