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Panda versus chameleon in a wacky sequel


“Kung Fu Panda 4” OK, it falls into a pretty good range, so it’s good enough to entice a few million families to see the movies this month. The movie world needs babysitters with easy access to kiosks, and the “Kung Fu Panda” sequel appears to be the current choice.

But the question remains: What did 2008’s “Kung Fu Panda” accomplish that “Panda 4” can only manage here and there and now and then?

The first film in any animated series, of course, has the theoretical advantage of introducing new characters and new everything to the world. The original “Kung Fu Panda” relied on a lot of martial arts action, but it took a while to establish the special comedic improbability of a lovable panda like Po, voiced by Jack Black, rising to his destiny as God’s guardian, the Dragon Warrior. All that was good in our own corner of ancient China. The movie is confused true comic book invention with clever variants of live-action martial arts movies to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and others.

Since Panda 3, eight years have flown by, inches have passed, or both, depending on your experience of the pandemic. In “Panda 4,” screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger return, working with co-writer Darren Lemke and co-directors Mike Mitchell (“Shrek 4,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks 3”) and Stephanie Stine. Stine makes his feature-length directorial debut here. His art direction experience includes “Raya and the Last Dragon” and the “How to Train Your Dragon” sequels, and the visual achievements of both are satisfying.

It happens all the time in franchise sequels, whether it’s Iron Man or Panda: At some point, the perils of a celebrity’s ego become a major plot point. In “Panda 4,” Po is enjoying fame, relative wealth, and unlimited dumplings at this stage of his Dragon Warrior tenure. His mentor Shifu (Dustin Hoffman returns for exasperated voice-over muttering) quickly breaks the news that Po must appoint the next Dragon Warrior, so Po can move into a quieter role he doesn’t want: steward and protector of the Valley of Peace, armed with the Staff of Wisdom.

The staff has the power to open the spirit realm where deceased great kung fu masters reside, including the fearsome snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane). The new film’s antagonist, the Chameleon (Viola Davis), has risen to the top of the underworld by usurping a piece of almost everything, like a female lizard Capone. He is a kingpin of supreme deception who changes his appearance at will. His evil ambitions include snatching the Staff of Wisdom for his own morally unwise reasons.

A sly fox (Awkwafina) offers her services to help Po (Jack Black) battle new enemies in “Kung Fu Panda 4.” (Universal Images)

This plays out as a constant series of near-death scenarios for the nemesis of Po and his new ally, the street fox Zhen (Awkwafina). The film rarely quiets down or calms down for more than five seconds, and while the first “Panda” sequels went that way, the relative rhythmic variety and verbal spice of the original now seems pretty far removed.

Many probably prefer animated babysitters this way; rarely pauses or downshifts. I laughed four or five times, once for each credited writer, including the “supplementary material” writers: Po’s meditation mantra “inner peace” slowly morphs into “dinner please,” as Jack Black puts it coming, for example. There’s also a delightful china shop sight gag, done with a wry subtlety that’s missing from much of the rest of the film.

Perhaps the decline in quality is due to the production budget; this cost roughly half the cost of the other three “Pandas”. But maybe not. Perhaps the pandemic has played tricks on screenwriters’ minds about what they think audiences want and need and how to master it. “Panda 4” feels more like one of the “Ice Age” movies, occasionally funny but constantly full of chattering sarcasm and bad language, so you don’t buy the truly heartfelt parts. Black, Awkwafina and Hoffman are doing their thing, but jokes have a way of sounding like jokes but not quite like them structure jokes. This is an action movie first and foremost, which is fine.

Or rather, okay-pretty good.

“Kung Fu Panda 4” — 2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG (for martial arts action/mild violence, scary images and some crude humor)

Running time: 1:34

How to watch: Releases in theaters March 7



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