Jack Black’s as charming as ever, but the kung fu feels weak this time

Returning to the big screen after an absence of eight years, KUNG FU PANDA 4 sees Po (Jack Black) wrestling with the next step in his journey: from warrior to master. Of course, if you’ve been following his small-screen antics, this is just the latest in a long line of adventures for our unassumingly upbeat hero. Then again, perhaps you don’t think the TV shows count, after all most of the principal cast don’t and even Jack Black only showed up sporadically.

Still, he’s back for this one, alongside series mainstay James Hong as Po’s adoptive father Ping, Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu and Bryan Cranston as Po’s biological father Li Shan from KUNG FU PANDA 3 and newcomer Zhen (Awkwafina), a thief who joins Po on his latest quest. Threatening the Valley of Peace this time is the villainous Chameleon (Viola Davis), a master of disguise who plans to absorb the kung fu from the denizens of the spirit realm in order to conquer the world.

It’s hard not to feel that The Dragon Warrior is diminished a little by the absence of The Furious Five for this instalment, with Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Crane and Viper conveniently off on a top-secret kung fu mission. It’s a cost-saving contrivance which makes sense in the realm of TV spin-offs but feels cheap on a cinematic scale. Likewise, Po’s elevation to spiritual master feels uninspired and unearned, as does the film’s chief trump card, the “return” of all the previous movies’ villains. This isn’t some “Antagonists Assemble” style team-up, though, and they’re mostly just visual callbacks with only Ian McShane’s Tai Lung making a (very welcome) verbal reappearance. I mean it makes sense, if you haven’t got Furious Five money, you sure don’t have post-Oscar win Gary Oldman cash in the budget.

KUNG FU PANDA 4, while perfectly serviceable, feels far looser and lazier than previous entries. It lacks the sharp wit of its predecessors, particularly the first two films, and while there’s some mileage in Ping and Li Shan’s coparenting, even the usual strong emotional undercurrents feel superficial this time round.

The animation remains as good as ever, but the action feels like we’ve seen it all before and the story unfolds in a dispiritingly predictable way, with even the inevitable lessons being learned telegraphed so obviously it’s hardly worth the journey this time.

Thankfully, at the heart of this underwhelming whirlwind of wasted potential, Jack Black’s effortlessly irresistible charm remains as vibrant as ever, carrying the adventure through its by-the-numbers steps to its conclusion. Where the KUNG FU PANDA saga goes from here, though, is unclear. The (wordless) return of The Furious Five bodes well, but it’s clear that if the intention is to sideline Po in a mentor role, the Kung Fu may not be strong enough to keep the franchise afloat if it’s not centred on him.

kung fu panda 4 review
Score 6/10

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