Arts and Entertainment

Kung Fu Panda 4: The Drawn Out End

Viewers hoped the release of Kung Fu Panda 4 would be a nostalgic experience, but instead received confirmation that the trilogy marked the end of this infamous series.

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When rumors of Kung Fu Panda 4 (2024) were confirmed in December 2023 with the release of its trailer, fans immediately began to speculate about the new villains. The trailer was viewed over 142 million times in the first 24 hours of its release, making it the most popular trailer of any Universal Studios movie. While Dreamworks Animations CEO Jeffery Katzenberg stated there would be six “chapters” of the franchise in 2010, the trilogy was widely accepted as the complete story. Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) provides a clear conclusion to Po’s, the main protagonist’s, training arc, so the following was expected to begin a new journey of self-discovery and physical conflicts. The sequel, released on March 8, does exactly that, but unfortunately forgets its roots in the previous movies, leaving loyal fans who were looking for an exciting visit to their childhood with a sense of betrayal. 

The film opens with Po (Jack Black), the infamous hero of a fantasy land in Ancient China, succeeding in his role as Dragon Warrior, a position he obtained by the end of the trilogy. His mentor, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), surprises him at his father’s restaurant with a quest to find the new guardian of the land, as Po must now ascend to a higher spiritual calling. He is unable to find a candidate for the coveted position of Dragon Warrior until he meets Zhen (Awkwafina), a bandit fox who informs him of the return of Tai Lung (Ian McShane), who is actually the villainous Chameleon (Viola Davis) in disguise. Po and Zhen travel to the City of Juniper, where Po is captured by the Den of Thieves, revealing that Zhen is an accomplice of the Chameleon. Chameleon uses Po’s Staff of Wisdom to steal the Kung Fu abilities of several powerful characters from previous films, including General Kai and Lord Shen. Po regains faith in Zhen after she persuades the Den of Thieves to rescue him, and together, they engage in an intense martial arts battle against the Chameleon, a classic climax scene for this series. After defeating the Chameleon, Po bestows the title of Dragon Warrior upon Zhen and agrees to train her with the help of his close friends, the Furious Five. 

While the new directors of the series, Mike Mitchell and Stephanie Ma Stine, do an excellent job of replicating the previous movies’ animation style and childish humor, the absence of the Furious Five, a central set of characters within the trilogy, is painfully obvious within the first few minutes of the film. While this is a clear attempt to branch off from the original trilogy and create a new storyline for future sequels, it fails to satisfy the large majority of viewers who were hoping for a nostalgic experience. There are additional missed opportunities to bring these characters back in later action scenes, as they typically appear for Po during the height of a major battle. This also makes Zhen’s role as Po’s accomplice and future student extremely predictable, ruining the emotional buildup and development of their relationship. Since Po and Zhen are expected to be allies by the end of the movie, the revelation that Zhen is a double agent is severely underwhelming, a plot twist that seems essential to this story. There are attempts to tie this movie to the series with the strong bond between Po’s fathers and the return of the infamous Tai Lung, but these references alone could not create a satisfactory connection. 

The ultimate downfall of this film is its villain—the Chameleon. What made the Kung Fu Panda movies so captivating for viewers was the emotional depth of their antagonists. From Lord Shen to General Kai, each of these opponents had an intrinsic motivation for fighting Po. Furthermore, they all possessed essential skills that made them worthy adversaries, whether that be in martial arts or simply impressive deception. The Chameleon is given a meager backstory, and she comes across as more of a nuisance than an intimidating character. Her supposed driving insecurity is her size, which completely contradicts the pre-established ideals of Kung Fu, as exemplified by Mantis, a member of the Furious Five and one of the smallest yet most renowned protagonists of the franchise. Her only skill is her ability to shapeshift, destroying the recurring martial arts theme that Kung Fu Panda is known for. It also contradicts the foundational teachings of Master Shifu, who believes that magic can only be created in a small amount from true inner peace. Sorcery simply does not align with this series, making Chameleon the sore thumb of the villain lineup. 

Overall, Kung Fu Panda 4 (2023) appeared to be more of a cash grab by Universal Studios than a genuine attempt to faithfully continue the series. While producers were successful in creating substantial hype around the movie’s release, they did not meet expectations and woefully failed to prove a need for films beyond the respected trilogy. The ending of the movie, with Po entering the spiritual realm and Zhen training to become the Dragon Warrior, foreshadows an expected Kung Fu Panda 5 that will likely explore their development in these roles but is ultimately unnecessary. This film marks an exaggerated end for the Kung Fu Panda movies that fans know and love and unfortunately proves that sequels are never as good as the the originals.