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‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ Is the Best Movie of the Franchise

Clients: Ke Huy Quan – Talent; Ronny Chieng – Talent

Did we really need another Kung Fu Panda? The third film in the DreamWorks Animation franchise, featuring Jack Black as the unlikeliest of martial artists, wrapped things up in a wholly satisfying way a full eight years ago. But necessary or not, the brand new Kung Fu Panda 4 is outstanding: a gorgeous, funny romp with set-pieces that set a new bar for action in Western animation.

There’s a new name in the director’s chair this time around, with Mike Mitchell taking over for Jennifer Yuh Nelson (who also directed Kung Fu Panda 2) and Alessandro Carloni. While that may sound like cause for concern, Mitchell is a veteran behind some of DreamWork’s most successful movies, including the first Trolls and the underrated Shrek Forever After. He proves to be a more than capable replacement, delivering a hugely satisfying follow-up.

That’s not the only big change in the franchise’s fourth installment. The Furious Five, the celebrity-voiced kung-fu animals who have fought alongside Black’s Po throughout the series, are off on their own adventures this time around. Kung Fu Panda 4 is effectively a buddy comedy, pairing Po—now ready to ascend from Dragon Warrior to the role of spiritual leader of the Valley of Peace—with an unexpected new ally, a criminal fox named Zhen (Awkwafina). The two team up to take down the Chameleon (Viola Davis), an evil shape-shifting sorceress looking to use Po’s staff of wisdom to unleash terror upon all of China.

For all the charm they brought to past installments, the Furious Five aren’t missed here. The screenplay, written by Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, and Darren Lemke, keeps a tight focus on the interplay between Po and Zhen, allowing their dynamic to really flourish. It’s mostly smooth sailing. The story falters only with a third-act twist that’s been done so many times elsewhere that it can hardly be considered surprising; it’s brushed under the rug so hastily it makes you wonder why they implemented it at all.

The unlikely panda-fox pairing is supplemented by charming scenes involving Po’s two dads, Mr. Ping (James Hong) and Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), adjusting to their new roles as co-parents. There are also some welcome new additions to the cast, including devious pangolin Han (Ke Huy Quan) and the delightfully absurdist Captain Fish (Ronny Chieng), who takes the form of a fish that lives inside a pelican’s mouth. That’s to say nothing of the film’s sneaky MVPs, a trio of bloodthirsty rabbits who put a dark twist on the generally jovial proceedings.

Kung Fu Panda 4 delivers one astonishing action sequence after another. Po and Zhen have very different fighting styles, wisely using their vastly different sizes to their advantage. A highlight is a large-scale battle in the Chinese metropolis Juniper City, set to an instrumental version of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.” Featuring countless moving parts that are balanced perfectly, it’s the kind of sequence that really makes you appreciate the boundless imagination and creativity that can result from giving animators the opportunity to show off.

It can be frustrating, at least for animation purists, to see roles in movies like this go to A-list stars, instead of voice-acting regulars. Thankfully, the new megastar addition to Kung Fu Panda 4 is the supremely talented Davis, who’s tremendous as Chameleon. Davis relishes the opportunity to play bad, adding a necessary vitriol and menace to her character. Factor in jaw-dropping animation that gorgeously realizes her powers of transformation, and you have the most effective villain in the franchise by some distance. Meanwhile, Awkwafina, who’s become something of a tireless voice-acting ringer in recent years, somewhat disguises her distinctive rasp. Her banter with Black, who’s still the heart of Kung Fu Panda, sizzles.

This is a film that understands its role as a sequel, paying homage to previous installments (and their respective villains, all referenced here) while pushing things forward in interesting new ways. Its plot beats may feel overly familiar at times (the changes are more subtle than dramatic), but there’s a reliable comfort in that familiarity. And if this is where the story of Po and company ends, they’re going out on a high note, with what just might be the best movie in the franchise.


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