Kung Fu Panda 4 

(dirs. Mike Mitchell & Stephanie Stine)

By: Adam Freed 

Jack Black’s Kung Fu Panda may have just become the face of middling animated franchise entertainment.  With its fourth installment over sixteen years, the panda production doesn’t seem interested in earning more than a tepid response from anyone old enough to see over the theater seat in front of them.  Like its predecessors, Kung Fu Panda 4 does just enough to warrant a few giggles, but nothing remotely close to becoming memorable.  Boasting an impressive vocal cast with 13 Academy Award nominations and 4 Oscar wins to their name, it feels like a shame to have such a cornucopia of talent at Dreamworks’ disposal, and so little for the bevy of stars to accomplish.  Minus the delightful addition of Viola Davis, other Hollywood legends such as Dustin Hoffman, Bryan Cranston and Ian McShane are never allowed to step outside of the static box created by their paint by numbers characters.

Po, Jack Black’s lovable panda, now years into his journey as Dragon Master, defender of the Valley of Peace, is faced with the reality that it may be time to find a worthy successor, and ascend to his ultimate position as Spiritual Leader.  In order to accomplish this goal, Po must employ the help of a shifty fox named Zhen (Awkwafina) whose past may not be all that it seems.  Unfortunately, their relationship does very little to challenge anything previously established about Po and the events of this utterly predictable film unfold as if crafted by someone within the film’s target demographic.  Alliterative directors Mike Mitchell (Trolls) and Stephanie Stine (Raya and the Last Dragon) do very little to put a distinct spin on their latest panda adventure. What may strike as somewhat ironic for a film that doesn’t stand out in any appreciable way, is that Stine, a former storyboard artist, has earned her way into the co-directors chair via her keen artistic eye.  Very little of this talent seems to have been utilized by the bland and repetitive visual stylizations of the film.   

Save for Jack Black’s endearing, yet predictable vocal intonations, the only notable takeaway from Kung Fu Panda 4 is the vocal prowess and menacing nature of Viola Davis’ Chameleon.  The Academy Award winning actress is given room to roam as Po’s shape shifting nemesis, bent on conquering lands by means of deception.  It is clear as their characters square off  that Jack Black and Viola Davis approach an unimportant film with a surfeit amount of care and professionalism.  Davis’ talent, even vocally, elevates beyond the rest of a cast hamstrung by being given nearly nothing to do.  Two things are sure about Kung Fu Panda 4, it is a great example of the law of diminishing returns, and it certainly won’t be the final installment of the franchise that will be just mediocre enough to earn its way back to theaters three years from now.

Target Score 4.5/10 - The shame here is that such an impressive collection of vocal actors are provided so little room to demonstrate their greatness.  Kung Fu Panda 4 is as predictable as trailers betray it to be.  Although suitable for young audiences, this film is going to have a hard time impressing anyone old enough to question any of the film's countless absurdities.