Kung Fu Panda 4

Kung Fu Panda 4 Is the Franchise Settling Comfortably in It’s Middle Age

Dept. of Skadooshes and Skedaddles


Since we last saw him in 2016, the Dragon Warrior has clearly been working out. Po may still be a fuzzy, pear-shaped panda, but when we meet him again in Kung Fu Panda 4, he defeats a giant flying stingray and saves a seaside village with such easy skill that we’re reminded how far the once bumbling, fanboy novice has come. 

Unlike many superheroes, Po isn’t shy about leveraging his celebrity either. He uses his “Dragon Warrior” status to help his dads, Ping and Li, open their joint-venture restaurant. Only Master Shifu isn’t thrilled that Po is busy spending his time posing for portraits and brandishing the mystical staff Master Oogway gave him for his adoring fans. 

Still prickly about being passed over by Oogway, Shifu tells Po that his stint as “Dragon Warrior” is ending. Po must now fill Oogway’s shoes (shell?) as the Valley of Peace’s next spiritual leader. Po’s devastated about the promotion, and his resistance to this expectation of greater responsibility is relatable. Change is scary for anyone who’s gotten too comfortable in their job.

Kung Fu Panda 4

As Po drags his feet in choosing a successor, he catches a foxy thief stealing ancient artifacts. After a battle of skills, Po bests the slick fox, Zhen, and detains her in a prison/daycare. But when Zhen hints she knows more about a new enemy threatening the valley, Po sees this as his last chance at adventure. 

Against Shifu’s advice, Po frees Zhen, and the mismatched pair head to Juniper City to stop the Chameleon, a shapeshifting sorceress bent on obtaining Oogway’s staff so she can open the spirit realm and steal the kung fu skills form all the masters inside. The Chameleon’s clearly an expansionist, with designs on spreading her rule across all the valleys. 

Kung Fu Panda 4

As Kung Fu Panda villains go, the Chameleon is pretty interesting. For starters, she’s the first female nemesis that Po’s faced. Viola Davis’ voicework is both clinical and creepy, conveying the Chameleon’s cold-blooded and slightly unhinged mind. She and Po also have a lot more in common than they first realize. 

Like Po, the Chameleon adored kung fu and was also underestimated by other people’s perceptions of her body. As Po knows, size matters. For the smallest villain in the franchise, the Chameleon’s mania to steal kung fu skills makes sense. But her methods aren’t very original. General Kai from Kung Fu Panda 3 tried something similar by stealing chi from warriors. 

I felt that the Chameleon’s shapeshifting powers were underutilized. I felt like she would’ve been a bigger threat if she impersonated and infiltrated more rather than remaining in her fortress cackling. Still, the Chameleon provided the perfect opening to bring Tai Lung back. The sexy-voiced snow leopard, played by Ian McShane, returned with all of Po’s past enemies in a nice homage to the previous films.

Kung Fu Panda 4

While the Chameleon as a villain mirrored Po well, Zhen was slightly too obvious as Po’s successor. Still, the role gives Awakfina the best of both worlds: she gets to crack wise, something she always excels at, while still having the depth to explore Zhen’s emotional development. 

Notably, the film telegraphs Po and Zhen’s worldviews in the colour-coding between panda and fox. Po, who sees the world as black and white, now has someone who challenges him with shades of grey. The similarities to Zootopia, however, make this pairing feel repetitive.

This touch of uninspired writing runs throughout the film and is most evident in the humour. Although Jack Black’s comedic timing is impeccable as always, the jokes just don’t pack the same skadoosh (I’m using it wrong, I know). Not even Master Shifu or Ping, Po’s goose father, who I’ve always loved, made me laugh as much this time. 

Kung Fu Panda 4

Part of this tameness might stem from the new direction the writers are taking the franchise. Just as Po is a little more mature now, Kung Fu Panda 4 is clearly settling comfortably in its middle age, if talks about a fifth and sixth instalment are true. So, it’s unsurprising that the franchise is content with playing things safer.

Maybe like Po, the Kung Fu Panda franchise has peaked and is ready to hang up its mystical staff. When you’ve reached the top of the spiritual and commercial mountain, it’s not a bad idea to bow out and leave gracefully. But just as Po is in top fighting form, I reckon the franchise has some skadoosh left for more knockout movies with the charm and wit of the first three.

Kung Fu Panda 4 is now showing in Malaysian cinemas.

Dr Matthew Yap is a writer, editor, and educator. He graduated with a PhD in Literature from Monash University, where he also taught Film Studies. Matthew thinks watching good shows is one of life’s greatest pleasures. If watching TV is like eating, Matthew enjoys an international buffet of programmes across genres, from Sense8 to Alice in Borderland and Derry Girls.

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