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Kung Fu Panda 4 ★★



Released: 28 March 2024

Director: Mike Mitchell

Cast: Jack Black, Awkwafina, Bryan Cranston, James Hong, Ian McShane, Ke Huy Quan, Dustin Hoffman and Viola Davis

After defeating General Kai and embracing his Dragon Warrior and Master of Chi mantle, dumpling loving Po’s (Jack Black) journey seemingly came full circle in the third instalment of the beloved Dreamworks Animation franchise. However, eight years later and the larger-than-life character returns for a surprising fourth outing, with the franchises’ winning formula unfortunately showing signs of wearing thin in this latest martial arts adventure.

Following many karate chopping missions and death-defying escapades, Po is instructed to recruit and train a successor to be the next Dragon Warrior, as he is set to become the spiritual leader of the Valley of Peace. However, with news of a shapeshifting sorceress (Viola Davis) imitating foes from Po’s past, the Dragon Warrior teams up with a thieving fox Zhen (Awkwafina) to track her down and stop her.

With a seemingly continuous stream of sequels and prequels dominating the box office, it’s no surprise that Dreamworks are looking to reinvigorate one of their most popular panda-packed franchises. However, with Po’s journey perfectly concluding in the original trilogy, the latest instalment unfortunately feels unnecessary, particularly as it’s aimed at a much younger audience.

With animation consistently dismissed and undermined as a medium purely for children, most recently at the Oscars no less, it’s disappointing to see this change in direction for the franchise which worked so well to cater for both family-friendly and adult audiences. And Dreamworks wonderfully demonstrated that they can tackle nuanced and deeper themes which resonate for both audiences in their 2022 Oscar nominated sequel Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.

With frenetic pacing, thin new characters and predictable twists, the fourth instalment unfortunately feels somewhat reductive in comparison to the original trilogy, especially when it comes to the surprising decision to recruit another Dragon Warrior so soon. Despite a couple of fun memorable moments – a literal chase with bulls through a Jade china shop and a fun bar brawl in a tavern balancing precariously on a cliff – the comedy felt stretched too thin.

And while the charming dads side plot earns a lot of goodwill – with a wonderful return from Bryan Cranston and James Hong – this unfortunately doesn’t make up for the disappointing third act featuring Po’s former antagonists which could have had real potential, particularly when it comes to Ian McShane’s return as iconic franchise villain Tai Lung,

Still, the film features another undoubtedly energetic and charming performance from Jack Black, who seems to show no sign in slowing down his enthusiasm for the larger-than-life character. Oscar winner Ke Huy Quan also has a real panache for vocal character work but unfortunately, there is a rather large Furious Five shaped hole throughout the film. The new additions unfortunately lack the emotional impact or development of the gang, particularly as Awkwafina doesn’t bring anything new or different to yet another animated role. Viola Davis’ villain is also disappointingly underdeveloped with poor motivations for her nefarious actions.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, as the signature stylistic action sequences are peppered throughout, featuring an impressive array of animation styles. Along with the hugely creative traditional artistry on display, there’s a surprisingly anime-inspired influence to some of the sequences, balancing an interesting mix of old and new. Hans Zimmer is also back with another beautiful score, and Tenacious D’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time” cover in the end credits is a total blast.

Despite Jack Black’s relentless enthusiasm and the impressive artistry on offer, Kung Fu Panda 4 unfortunately feels like an underwhelming and unnecessary instalment in a franchise which should have stopped following the heartfelt third outing, à la Shrek. Less skadoosh, more amuse-bouche.

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