Kung Fu Panda 4: Back in Action

Even after all this time, Kung Fu Panda is still alive and kicking. 

In Kung Fu Panda 4, the viewer returns to the Valley of Peace to see that Po (Jack Black) has become quite satisfied with his life as the Dragon Warrior. But change comes calling once again as he is called upon by destiny… to give it all up. The time has come for Po to become the Spiritual Leader of the Valley and pass on the mantle of Dragon Warrior to another. But, with the arrival of a powerful shape-shifting sorceress, Chameleon (Viola Davis), Po decides to embark on one last mission. Partnering with a quick-witted fox Zhen (Awkwafina), the two set out to find the Chameleon and bring her down before it’s too late.

Directed by Mike Mitchell, Kung Fu Panda 4 is a delightful return to form for a franchise that was beginning to lose its kick. While the films have always remained fun, there’s no question that this world has begun to suffer from franchise fatigue. With over 15 years of stories, much of the film’s original audience will have grown up. (In fact, even Black himself is now in his mid-50s). While this is not unusual for an animated franchise, the series was beginning to show its age. 

But you can’t keep a good panda down. 

Po (Jack Black) in DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 4, directed by Mike Mitchell.

With the fourth entry, the franchise finds its footing once again, offering a film that’s funny and almost as charming as the original. Since his success with The Super Mario Bros., Black has seemingly become hot once again, especially with the youth market. So, with Jack back in fine form, Panda 4 seems to have reclaimed its energy and enthusiasm. By teaming him with Aquafina, Black seems genuinely fiery once again, as the two have a delightful banter that keeps the film on track. 

Interestingly, the film even seems to acknowledge the passage of time by allowing Po to develop a new trainee. Without entirely passing the torch—the film is called Kung Fu Panda after all—this gives Po a new role. All of a sudden, the young panda who wanted to ‘take names and kick butt’ is being asked to give the baton to a new Dragon Warrior. This evolution of the character allows us to see a new side to Po’s character. As the new spiritual leader of the valley, he has a new opportunity to grow and change. And it’s this shift and focus that keeps the film feeling fresh. All of a sudden, the impossible mentee has become the impossible mentor.

(from left) Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and Po (Jack Black) in DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 4, directed by Mike Mitchell.

But Po has no idea what it means to be a mentor. 

With a change in job description, Po is left to figure out what makes a great leader of others. Finally, he is in a place where he believes in himself and loves his role. But now, he is being challenged to see that same potential in another person and step aside for them to take on the glory. To him, being the Dragon Warrior has become second nature. But leading a Dragon Warrior is another thing entirely. 

But that’s the joy of this film (and franchise). Like Master Shifu once did for him, Po must now look for the peach pit of potential within those that may be discarded by others. To Po, the Dragon Warrior for the next generation needs to be a person whose strength of characters shines through when things are tough. But, sometimes, finding that person means giving outcasts a second chance to show who they really are. 

(from left) Po (Jack Black) and Zhen (Awkwafina) in Kung Fu Panda 4 directed by Mike Mitchell.

So, yes. Even on its fourth entry, it turns out that this Kung Fu Panda still has some lessons to learn (and teach). And, as long as Black continues to grow and mature this beloved beast, there should be more than enough reason to return to the Valley of Peace in the future.

Kung Fu Panda 4 is available on 4K, Blu-Ray and VOD now.

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