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Po returns for a final adventure as the Dragon Warrior in Kung Fu Panda 4

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Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures


Kung Fu Panda 4 does not rise to the lofty heights of 2008's Kung Fu Panda or its 2011 sequel Kung Fu Panda 2. It does, however, maintain the perfectly pleasant, endearingly entertaining charm found in 2016's Kung Fu Panda 3. While this installment in the popular DreamWorks animated series does not deliver on the inherent promise of its clever premise (panda Dragon Warrior Po, voiced by Jack Black, must stop baddie The Chameleon — who is literally a chameleon — from entering the Spirit Realm and stealing the kung fu skills of as many villains as possible), it does offer up enough laughs, visual ingenuity, and genuine heart to be worthwhile.

The sequel doesn't waste a lot of time reestablishing the world of the Valley of Peace or recapping the events of Po's previous escapades. Heck, it begins with snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) mysteriously returning from the Spirit Realm to wreak all sorts of havoc for gosh sake, not caring at all that the younger viewers who first saw him 16 years ago are all likely in — or have graduated from — college at this point.

This does not mean the plot dreamt up by returning screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, plus newcomer Darren Lemke (Shazam!), is flimsy. Its foundation is admittedly pretty solid. The idea is that it is time for Po to move on from being the Dragon Warrior and pass his knowledge to a worthy successor. While searching for inner peace, the rotund panda walks in on fast-talking fox Zhen (Awkwafina) attempting to steal valuable ancient treasures from the Valley of Peace's temple's inner sanctum.

Before he can take her to prison, Po learns about the return of Tai Lung. But Zhen knows all about this threat, including that the real culprit is the shape-shifting Chameleon (Viola Davis) and not a ghost from the Dragon Warrior's past. She's willing to lead Po on a quest to stop this lizard from gaining incredible power. While he must go on this mission without the aid of the Furious Five, if this truly is his last fight against evil, he's determined to make it a memorable one.

Along with McShane, returning cast members include Dustin Hoffman as Po's wise mentor Shifu, and the always terrific James Hong (the noodle-making chef Mr. Ping), and a wonderfully goofy Bryan Cranston (the eternally optimistic Li), the panda's two fathers (one adoptive, the other biological). In addition to Awkwafina and Davis, another newcomer who makes a lasting impression is Ke Huy Quan as a Fagin-like armadillo crime boss Han; I'd have been glad if the film had his character linger around a bit more than it does.

Unlike the first two entries in the series, however, no matter how much energy Davis malevolently exerts, The Chameleon remains a bland, one-dimensional, straightforward villain. While I appreciate having the bad guy just be bad seemingly for the sake of being bad (a rarity in major studio franchise fare of a late), that doesn't mean much if the character ends up being instantaneously unmemorable. In the time it took me to stand up, exit the theater, and walk to the elevator, I'd already started to forget about the "whys" that drove The Chameleon's plan.

Thankfully, Black is as great as ever as Po, Awkwafina is a strong addition to the series, McShane makes his few moments as Tai Lung resonate with surprisingly multifaceted strength, and several inspired set pieces help make up for The Chameleon's overall ineffectiveness. There are several running gags involving bunnies that left me in hysterics, chief among them a comedic action sequence on a perilously positioned mountaintop inn where the "happy bunnies" working there are anything but.

I admit, after the unexpected genius of 2022's Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, I was kind of hoping DreamWorks would deliver another unanticipated smash sequel overflowing with storytelling imagination and creatively adventurous animated bravado. That's sadly not the case.

But that does not mean Kung Fu Panda 4 isn't worthwhile. Far from it. There isn't anything wrong with a good film being nothing more than a good film. This is an enjoyably winning continuation of Po's story, and if this panda's cinematic journey has finally reached a conclusion, at least he passed on his title as Dragon Warrior with the same gregarious, wide-eyed, and empathetic enthusiasm he accepted it with over a decade and a half ago.