• Sun. Apr 14th, 2024

Movie Curiosities

The online diary of an aspiring movie nerd

This whole series should never have worked. I remember when the first movie came out in 2008, it looked like the most ridiculous crap ever put to celluloid. But then I actually sat down to watch the film and its sequel in 2011, and I was stoked as hell to watch the third movie.

It’s truly astounding how each movie in the trilogy was better than the one before it. A martial arts franchise for kids built around anthropomorphic animals has no right to be as consistently clever, funny, endearing, poignant, or kickass as these movies ultimately became. Low-key, no joke, Kung Fu Panda is truly underrated as one of the all-time great film trilogies, from its goofy beginnings to its triumphant and definitive ending.

…Yeah, about that.

Last October, word came down that Dreamworks Animation would be gutted by layoffs in the immediate future, with a greater reliance on animation from third-party companies, to boost the bottom line for parent company Comcast. I might add that Sony Pictures Imageworks is positioned to be a prime collaborator, which might explain why Dreamworks’ Orion and the Dark was hosted by the Sony-friendly Netflix, as opposed to Comcast’s Peacock streaming service.

In other words, Comcast delegated animation to Sony in the interest of cutting costs, and it lost them a movie — maybe even a franchise! — that might have brought in streaming revenue. Dipshits.

So here we are with Kung Fu Panda 4, one of the last two films to be made almost entirely in-house at Dreamworks Animation (the other one being The Wild Robot, due later this year). I can’t make heads or tails as to why anyone at Comcast or DWA would’ve greenlit a fourth movie in a franchise that had pretty well concluded. It’s not like anyone wanted or asked for this movie, and digging up old franchises doesn’t seem like the smart thing to do during such a transitional time. Especially considering that a mainline entry in a flagship franchise would demand heavy expenditure at a time when Comcast is trying to cut costs.

So far as I can tell (and this is coming from Reddit, so take it with a pinch of salt), the best explanation I’ve got is that the fourth movie was made to render the TV spin-off shows non-canon. You see, “they are under separate film and television divisions that are ‘rivals’.” Yes, this could very well be a case of competing film and TV divisions struggling to assert dominance over each other as the One True Canon out of sheer intra-conglomerate spite. It’s Feige/Perlmutter all over again. Fucking dipshits.

Anyway, what have we got here? Well, Po (Jack Black, who else?) has settled comfortably into his role as the Dragon Warrior. In fact, enough time has passed that Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, once again) is now pressuring Po into choosing a successor as Po himself had been chosen to succeed Oogway back in the first movie. This way, Po can be free to take on an even higher purpose as spiritual leader to the entire Valley of Peace while a new Dragon Warrior takes on the heavy lifting of beating down bad guys. Trouble is, beating down bad guys is what Po knows and loves best, so he’s in no hurry whatsoever to think about what comes next.

Enter “The Chameleon”, voiced by… Viola Davis? Really? Okay, sure, why not? Anyway, The Chameleon is an immensely powerful sorceress with the magical power to shapeshift into pretty much anyone. She’s used this power to make herself into a crime boss, thoroughly dominating the faraway town of Juniper City with the eventual goal of world domination.

At roughly the same time, Po crosses paths with Zhen (Awkwafina), a thieving fox who tries to steal a number of valuable artifacts pertaining to the Dragon Warrior lineage. And it turns out she’s a lifelong criminal with intimate knowledge of Juniper City, so she and Po reluctantly agree to team up against the Chameleon. Thus we have our buddy comedy, Po has a potential protege… come on, do I really need to say it?

Don’t get me wrong, the movie is entertaining enough on the surface level. Jack Black is still doing what he does best, the animation is still beautiful, the characters are still endearing, and the fight scenes are nicely entertaining. It’s not as innovative as the past three movies of the same, but it’s still fun to watch nonetheless.

But no doubt about it, this movie has some deep-seated plot issues. The third-act reversal is glaringly predictable to anyone who’s ever seen a movie before. The timeline is wonky as hell. The plot holes are pathetically bad. The last-minute deus ex machina… okay, that last one is in keeping with the previous movies, so I’ll let it slide.

By far the bigger issue here is the thematic inconsistency. Ostensibly, this is a movie that wants to be about the need to change and grow, and Po has to accept that he can’t and won’t be the Dragon Warrior forever. But that message isn’t reflected in what actually happens in the movie. Through pretty much the entire second act, Po’s actions are motivated by his desire to do good and try to seek peaceful solutions instead of going straight to violence. Everything that goes wrong is because Po is a pure soul who tries to bring out the best in everyone around him, NOT because he’s afraid of everything changing. It doesn’t work.

But it’s not like this couldn’t have worked. A villain who constantly changes her exterior without ever changing who she really is could’ve been a fantastic means of exploring themes of growth and development. The straight-laced and spiritual Po trying to assert himself as a mentor to the materialistic deviant Zhen was potentially a fantastic means of demonstrating how far and how much they could change each other. But in practice, the film gives so much lip service to the themes of changing times while also giving screentime to the relationship between mentors and proteges, without doing nearly enough to dovetail those two ideas.

The greater franchise implications are another huge problem. Yes, it makes sense that Po would eventually have to pass the torch like Oogway did before him. But let’s think it through for a moment. This means that if we keep moving forward with more sequels, Po would eventually have to ascend to the Spirit Realm and effectively die as Oogway did. Does anyone need to see that? Does anyone want to see that?

There’s a very real sense that Zhen is being positioned as the next protagonist of the series, picking up the torch from Po. With all due respect to the lovely and talented Awkwafina, she and Jack Black are such wildly different talents that I don’t think the franchise could survive such a drastic change. Zhen is such a completely different character that I don’t think she’d be a worthy or satisfying anchor for the series moving forward. And even if she was, are we seriously going to keep the series churning until she passes the torch to some other character, like Po and Oogway did before her? How much longer does anyone want this cycle to keep going?

That said, the series is clearly running out of ways to keep Po relevant in his own franchise. The filmmakers could use Oogway and Po’s own ascendance into the Dragon Warrior role to pull an even higher rank out of their asses, but that trick will only work once. Yes, it’s satisfying to watch Po in a bustling urban setting where he’s unfamiliar with the ways and customs, but how many more places and settings can reasonably throw the Dragon Warrior off his guard? Hell, one character directly points out all the demigods and sorcerers Po has already defeated in his time — how many more supervillains would pose a novel and legitimate threat?

Then we have the issue of the cast. Yes, Jack Black is clearly willing and able to capably voice Po for the rest of his life (and maybe even longer). Yes, Bryan Cranston and James Hong are still 110 percent committed to voicing Po’s fathers because they’re both motherfucking legends of their craft who never half-ass anything. But Awkwafina and Viola Davis are both playing so squarely in their respective wheelhouses that it’s like they’re not even trying. I might add that Dustin Hoffman sounds visibly frustrated to still be in this franchise long past the point when he’s otherwise retired from acting altogether (which admittedly works well with the character). Likewise, Ian McShane sounds like he literally phoned in his voice work off of dialogue written on the back of a cocktail napkin.

Yes, Ian McShane returns to voice Tai Lung, the Big Bad from all the way back in the first movie. In fact, all the series’ baddies up to this point make appearances, yet Tai Lung is the only one who talks. By a similar token, the Furious Five — a cornerstone of the franchise since Day freaking One — don’t show up until the end credits and not a single one of them gets a spoken line of dialogue. Yes, I get that the voice actors are all crazy expensive, but they were all A-list celebrities back in 2008 — which is why they got cast in the first place — and it didn’t stop them then!

Put simply, this movie shows a compulsive need to bring in legacy characters without the money or effort to do them right. It’s a clear sign that this franchise has outgrown its usefulness.

I know the comparison is obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less true: What we’ve got here is another Toy Story 4. Granted, Kung Fu Panda 4 delivers more of the same heart and comedy and engaging cartoon action that we know and love from the franchise, but diminishing returns are definitely setting in. The film in itself is a harmless and passable 100 minutes, but in the context of the greater series, it’s an unnecessary and subpar epilogue to a landmark film trilogy that didn’t need or want it.

The good news is, this movie is nowhere near bad enough to tarnish the legacy of the saga that came before. The bad news is, that stinker is coming. There is no upside to continuing the series any further, especially with the staff shakeups at DWA. Let’s please just end the series here and we can all move on.

By Curiosity Inc.

I hold a B.S. in Bioinformatics, the only one from Pacific University's Class of '09. I was the stage-hand-in-chief of my high school drama department and I'm a bass drummer for the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers. I dabble in video games and I'm still pretty good at DDR. My primary hobby is going online for upcoming movie news. I am a movie buff, a movie nerd, whatever you want to call it. Comic books are another hobby, but I'm not talking about Superman or Spider-Man or those books that number in the triple-digits. I'm talking about Watchmen, Preacher, Sandman, etc. Self-contained, dramatic, intellectual stories that couldn't be accomplished in any other medium. I'm a proud son of Oregon, born and raised here. I've been just about everywhere in North and Central America and I love it right here.

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