Jack Black returns for the latest instalment of a series which has lost much of its kick

Kung Fu Panda 4

Source: Universal

‘Kung Fu Panda 4’

Dir: Mike Mitchell. US. 2024. 94mins

Martial arts master panda Po returns to the big screen after an eight-year absence with Kung Fu Panda 4, a lacklustre sequel which is as colourful and energetic as its predecessors but lacks the sweet buoyancy that once made this franchise so fun. Jack Black is back to voice the endearing panda, who is coping with the fact that he must relinquish his warrior mantle — just when a deadly new enemy makes her presence known. But there is little fresh about the character or his world any more, resulting in a sporadically amusing animated action-comedy without much kick.

The sequels have struggled to maintain the magic, and this new chapter is especially laboured

Kung Fu Panda 4 opens March 8 in the US, with a March 28 release planned for the UK. The 2016 Kung Fu Panda 3 grossed roughly $520m worldwide, followed by two streaming series, one on Prime Video and the other on Netflix. (Black lent his voice to the latter) Some of the star cast from previous cinematic instalments — Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan — are missing from the new film, although the arrival of new names, such as Awkwafina and Viola Davis, will add lustre. With few family pictures in the marketplace, Kung Fu Panda 4 should enjoy strong commercial returns.

The original 2008 film provided Black with one of his signature roles; an irreverent, compassionate panda who discovers the greatness inside himself after he is forced to protect those he loves. Boasting dazzling animation and a fizzy combination of martial-arts action and slapstick comedy, Kung Fu Panda was a constant delight. Unfortunately, the sequels have struggled to maintain that magic, and this new chapter is especially laboured. 

Now long-celebrated as The Dragon Warrior, the kindly, heroic Po (Black) is concerned when his ageing mentor Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) advises him that it is time to ascend to his new role, that of Spiritual Leader Of The Valley Of Peace. But Po has no interest in a position in which he will not be able to show off his expert kung-fu moves, so it is almost a relief when he learns of the arrival of a mysterious adversary, The Chameleon (Davis), a shape-shifting sorceress who wants to rule the land. Assisted by a new friend, a crafty fox named Zhen (Awkwafina) who has dealt with The Chameleon before, Po prepares to do battle.

Director Mike Mitchell (Trolls, The Lego Movie 2) and franchise writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (joined this time by Darren Lemke) have crafted a simplistic parable in which Po bonds with the sarcastic Zhen, an orphan who has trouble trusting others. (She is only working with Po in exchange for a shorter prison term after being arrested for stealing.) Po does not want to give up his title as Dragon Warrior, but Shifu insists he must choose a successor — so, inevitably, Po will spend much of this sequel shirking his responsibility until, eventually, he comes to understand the importance of embracing change, no matter how difficult it might be.

Those life lessons — like everything else in Kung Fu Panda 4 — are handled in blunt, obvious ways. Between the strained punchlines and the unsurprising plot twists, the picture feels obligatory rather than inspired. When old villains are reintroduced later on, they only further demonstrate the originality that has been lost along the way.

Thankfully, some of the franchise’s trademarks remain. Hans Zimmer returns as composer — alongside series newcomer Steve Mazzaro — and the fiery percussive score lends the proceedings a mythic grandeur. The same goes for the reliably sweeping visuals, which occasionally incorporate dynamic split screens and gravity-defying derring-do. Kung Fu Panda 4 is such a feast for the eye and ear that younger viewers may not mind the clunky dialogue or threadbare narrative. After all, Po can still be awfully cute, his bright eyes and goofy expressions a perfect compliment to Black’s boisterous voice performance. (And Davis’ venomous Chameleon adds a little menace.) 

But those lingering pluses aside, it is painfully apt that this underwhelming sequel explores Po’s realisation that he must say goodbye to the past and move on to new adventures. That moral hopefully resonates with the filmmakers, who do not have much new to say about their adorable, oversized panda warrior. Maybe they should let Po go. 

Production company: DreamWorks Animation

Worldwide distribution: Universal Pictures

Producer: Rebecca Huntley

Co-director: Stephanie Ma Stine

Screenplay: Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger and Darren Lemke

Production design: Paul Duncan

Editing: Christopher Knights

Music: Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro 

Main voice cast: Jack Black, Awkwafina, Bryan Cranston, James Hong, Ian McShane, Ke Huy Quan, Dustin Hoffman, Viola Davis