I don’t know how to feel about Kung Fu Panda 4

A reflective review of the newest installment in a beloved Asian-inspired franchise

silhouette of people watching Kung Fu Panda on a movie theatre screen
ILLUSTRATION: Aliya Nourlan / The Peak

By: Jin Song, Peak Associate

It’s hard to understate the impact of Kung Fu Panda (2008) on pre-teen me, along with many others. The scene revealing the truth behind the secret ingredient is something I still think about to this day. It tells us that the most successful, powerful thing you can be is yourself — truly yourself. This message of identity is universally important, but it was extra special to me coming from an intentionally Chinese-inspired movie. Representation matters . . . even when it’s from anthropomorphic animals. It’s Chinese North American in the best way possible and crafted with so much heart.

From the kung fu stances to the deliciously rendered food, this series is one of the best examples of positive East Asian representation I have seen. We’ve come a long way from the likes of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Full Metal Jacket. So many parts of Po’s characterization resonated with me, like his love for dumplings and his nerdy excitement over martial arts. The thing that impacted me the most, however, is his search for identity and discovery that it’s everything put together that made him himself. His relationship with his family also calls to the intersection of filial piety so prevalent in many Asian cultures. Mixed with the desire to do things your own way — it’s an ode to the coming of age.

Kung Fu Panda shows us how our protagonist, Po, becomes the Dragon Warrior, a kung fu prodigy described in an in-universe legend. Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) has Po grow into his role and confront his past. In Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016), Po grows beyond his role by becoming a teacher and taking on more responsibilities. So when I heard the news of a fourth movie, I was perplexed. Po’s arc was complete. What else was there?

Despite this, I went into the theatre on May 2 with an open mind, and came out rather confused.

Let’s be clear: Kung Fu Panda 4 (2024) is not a bad movie. The animation is gorgeous, the shots are dynamic, the scenery is a love song to Ancient China, and Jack Black’s voice acting is flawless. Po’s adoptive goose father (Mr. Ping) and biological panda father (Li) are my favourite parts of the film, and I could not stop smiling every time they were on screen.

“This message of identity is universally important, but it was extra special to me coming from an intentionally Chinese-inspired movie. Representation matters . . . even when it’s anthropomorphic animals.”

Yet, something is off. I don’t necessarily disagree with the central theme of the film — change and its necessity — but the way it’s executed feels clunky and breaks immersion. Shifu, Po’s kung fu teacher, tells him it’s time for him to pass the mantle on and stop being the Dragon Warrior so he can be a spiritual leader instead . . . which would make perfect sense if Po was old or not in tune with his spirituality.

The audience has seen Po work so hard to become the Dragon Warrior, not only for himself but for those he wants to protect. To see him need to give up this role for such an absurd reason feels like a backsliding of his character. Throughout Kung Fu Panda 4, Po is still the kindhearted, silly panda beloved by fans, but it seems like he’s confused about his place in the world. It’s a strange characterization decision on the part of the writers, considering Po has previously figured out his identity. 

In Kung Fu Panda 3, there’s a scene where the main villain asks Po who he is. His response? “I’ve been asking myself that question. Am I the son of a panda? The son of a goose? A student? A teacher? I’m all of those things.”

Po’s character arc is complete. Early in the movie, Po himself all but acknowledges this. The unfolding plot doesn’t do much for his, the newly introduced Zhen’s, or anyone else’s character for that matter. There’s also the strange exclusion of the Furious Five, which was very awkwardly explained. Though the previous three movies were very much for kids, they still took themselves seriously, whereas this film had jokes crammed in left and right. The vibe was “quirky, silly TV episode” rather than a genuine installment to the otherwise heartfelt, thoughtful series. Altogether, I felt like this was, indeed, a cash grab, rather than a project born of passion. I don’t doubt that the individuals who worked on the film are passionate, but I’m sad to admit that I feel disillusioned by the corporation. 

In all, I’m honestly not sure who thought that we needed a fourth Kung Fu Panda to begin with. Po has grown as a character throughout the original trilogy of movies, and so have we the audience. The core of Kung Fu Panda is its emphasis on personal identity, and while this latest installment is still entertaining, it’s sad to see where it stands in context to the previous movies.

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