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Review: ‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ Bursts with Humor, Heart, and Dumplings

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Kung Fu Panda 4 is a karate-packed animated tale bursting with humor, heart, and dumplings. It’s beautifully animated with inventive, family-friendly action that delivers a knockout visual punch. With loveable and hilarious characters, it’s a journey into new worlds with thoughtful wisdom for this beloved franchise. 

The story of Kung Fu Panda 4

Po (Jack Black) is as happy as a panda with dumplings when we first see him in this story. He’s the Dragon Warrior and has all the privileges that affords, including a nifty jade staff of wisdom with which he does great things, like cutting the ribbon at his dads’ (Bryan Cranston and James Hong) new restaurant. His mentor, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), is not happy with his escapades and, with a scowl that puts grumpy-cat to shame, informs him that his time as the Dragon Warrior is over. Po must pick a successor, move onto the next higher plane of existence, and become the wisdom-spouting spiritual leader of the Valley of Peace. No more Kung Fu for this panda!

This goes over about as well as a flying sidekick to the face, as Po is not ready to move on. Both Po and Shifu’s hands are forced when word comes from some iron-mining rams that Tai Lung (Ian McShane), Po’s nemesis from the previous films, is back… or is he? After encountering Zhen (Awkwafina), the thieving fox, Po discovers he has a won-ton wonder-sized problem on his paws.

The two strike an uneasy bargain and journey to Juniper City to defeat a shapeshifting sorcery-loving big bad known as The Chameleon (Viola Davis), who has some pretty big plans for the Blood Moon Rising. Along the way, they encounter new friends and foes, including a drink-loving boat-steering fish (Ronny Chieng), a pangolin with a love of violence (Ke Huy Quan), and rabbits, lots of rabbits. 

The result is an adventure with exciting karate action and a heartwarming message for kids and adults alike. If you haven’t seen any of the previous Kung Fu Panda movies, don’t fret. Kung Fu Panda 4 puts you in the story, introduces the characters, and gives you the lay of the Valley of Peace early on.

The Chameleon in Kung Fu Panda 4
The Chameleon (Viola Davis) and Tai Lung (Ian McShane) in Kung Fu Panda 4. (DreamWorks)

Voice acting charm from Jack Black, Awkwafina and the rest of the cast

Voice acting is a special skill, and Jack Black certainly seems to have mastered it. With Po the Panda (aka the Dragon Warrior), Black seamlessly blends into the character and successfully embodies his character’s quest for inner peas, er peace, and The Chameleon. Unlike his on-screen presence as Bowser in The Super Mario Bros. Movie, this is an intentionally more subtle take on voice acting reflective of who Po is as a character.

Despite his kick-butt karate skills, Po is someone who is an unquestionably good (and hungry) character who sees the best in everyone around him and inspires others to do better. He embodies skadoosh, and is a hero without proselytizing. It’s the moral compass opposite of Bowser, and comparing the two roles and how different his voicing is shows how skillful Black is as an actor. He outdoes himself in Kung Fu Panda 4, with his trademark charisma and fun in full effect. As if that were not enough, Black is 1/2 of Tenacious D and makes all the 90s and 2000s parents want to get up and dance with his epic end-credits rendition of “…Baby One More Time…”

As Zhen, Awkwafina comes on strong initially but tapers the performance as Zhen’s character grows and evolves. The talented comedienne is no stranger to voice acting, having recently played a tough street pigeon in Migration and the iconic Scuttle in the Halle Bailey-led live-action The Little Mermaid. Zhen initially feels a bit Scuttle, but is ultimately deeply enjoyable. Awkwafina, like Black, has a loud magnetism that draws you into orbit and makes her characters so watchable. 

As an adult who has seen Zootopia (or even the 1973 Disney animated Robin Hood), it’s impossible not to look at Zhen and do a mental double-take as to what talking cute animal cinematic universe you’re actually in. Foxes, squirrels… the result is that the character design for the talented thief is adorable. 

Jack Black and Awkafina are well-matched with black belts in charisma and charm. They’re a dynamic duo and grow to have a fun buddy-comedy relationship. As an audience, because of how they bring these characters to life, we’re rooting for Po and Zhen’s on-screen friendship, with all the stairs, tiptoeing through lizard armies, and more. 

Po and Zhen in Kung Fu Panda 4
Po (Jack Black) and Zhen (Awkwafina) in Kung Fu Panda 4. (DreamWorks)

Kung Fu Panda 4 is a DreamWorks film, the same studio behind the upcoming gorgeously animated The Wild Robots and Apple TV+’s Curses! The animators behind Kung Fu Panda 4 have achieved Shifu level and really upped their game since the previous films. It’s both playful and beautiful, with colors that pop off the screen like strong and powerful punches. Although this is a delightful and stylistic action film, there are quiet moments of precisely animated nature, like the cherry blossom trees or the wide shots of the Valley of Peace, that were simply breathtaking. You can feel the care and love put into these moments and more. 

Final thoughts on Kung-Fu Panda 4

The message of Kung Fu Panda 4 is about change and that we shouldn’t be afraid of it or unflexible as a rigid board when it comes to changing the status quo. Change can be scary, but it’s not a bad thing and is necessary for life or the next spiritual plane, as Po discovers through the movie. It’s refreshing and on point for the flick. 

Beyond the vibrant animated surface of Kung Fu Panda, 4 is a creative and fun action adventure with a positive message about embracing change and growth. There’s magic in this franchise installment, and it’s not just from The Chameleon’s conjuring. It’s a family-friendly film with Jack Black and Awkafina’s larger-than-life humor worth checking out on the big screen. 

Kung Fu Panda 4 hits theaters this Friday, March 8 . Are you planning to karate chop your way into the theater and watch it? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord.


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Ayla Ruby

I am a writer and interviewer based somewhere in the Alpha Quadrant. I love all things nerdy - but Star Trek and Spiderman have special places in my heart. Find me at @TulinWrites on Twitter. And visit my other website for more reviews and interviews: movieswetextedabout.com

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