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Mar 11, 2024 10:59AM ● By Jenniffer Wardell

Even after all these years, this panda’s still got some magic in him. 

Though it’s been eight years since “Kung Fu Panda 3” was in theaters, this weekend’s “Kung Fu Panda 4” is a charming, ultimately worthy continuation of the series. Directly flowing from character development beats first brought up in the previous film, “Kung Fu Panda 4” brings all the laughs, emotional weight, and great fight scenes audiences could hope for. It also takes a new character that could have been tacked-on and integrates her beautifully with the larger themes of the series, giving the series added juice that may end up carrying it even further. 

In “Kung Fu Panda 3,” Master Oogway declared Po his successor. In the current film, Master Shifu decides that means that Po needs to retire as the Dragon Warrior so he can learn his new duties as spiritual leader. Po isn’t thrilled about giving up his current job, and when word reaches him that an old foe has returned he jumps at the chance to investigate. Is this one last adventure for the Dragon Warrior, or a mistake that will put the entire world at risk? 

Though there are callbacks to Po’s earlier battles, the face-off against the Chameleon doesn’t feel like a re-tread. Po has grown as a person throughout the movie series, and like in previous movies their final battle reflects the growth he’s experienced. Jack Black clearly loves Po as much as ever, and is as committed as always to capturing his unique spirit. On a lighter note, the team-up of Po’s goose dad (voiced by the fantastic James Hong) and panda dad (voiced by the equally fantastic Bryan Cranston) is an absolute delight. 

Awkwafina does an excellent job of voicing Zhen, a tricky fox and Po’s impromptu partner on the adventure, but I was initially afraid she was a sign sequelitis was setting in. Too many other series’ have done it before, bringing in new characters partway through to create a “tonal change” that sabotages everything that came before it. Zhen was such a scamp I was sure she was meant to do the same thing to Po.  

The writers, though, knew exactly what they were doing. They dig down to Zhen’s depths and make her something of a mirror to Po, hearkening back to the state he was in at the first movie. It’s either great closure for the series or a great continuation, and either way it leads to a fun, unexpectedly deep dynamic between her and Po. I never would have pictured him with a sidekick, but it turns out she’s the perfect one. 

Some might argue that the movie’s plot twists are predictable, but in this case it’s simply a sign of solid narrative and thematic structure. It is important to refresh yourself on the previous movies before seeing this one (or catch them for the first time if you’ve never seen them.) “Kung Fu Panda 4” isn’t a bad movie without them, but it’s better if you can recognize the echoes from earlier films. 

Po may be growing up, but getting to hang out with him is still as special as ever. 

Grade: Three and a half stars

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