My Honest Take on Kung Fu Panda 4


When the trailer for Kung Fu Panda 4 first came out, I immediately wrote an article to talk about my expectations, as a Kung Fu Panda fan, for the upcoming film. Despite the mixed reviews about the previous title (Kung Fu Panda 3) and the controversy that lay behind the production, I still believed that they could do better with Kung Fu Panda 4.

Regardless, I gave the film a watch a couple of days ago (throwing all of my expectations away to have a clearer and more open mind about their approaches), and I have a few things to talk about their approaches in the seemingly final title of the franchise. I’ll be highlighting characters, scenes, and tone of the film, so if you have yet to watch the movie, consider this as a spoiler warning. If you have, however, feel free to read further. 

Let’s Talk about Zhen

My Honest Take on Kung Fu Panda 4
Zhen standing in front of magic-infused cage that locks Po inside.

I know that there are a lot of mixed feelings about her character as a whole, and her purpose in the film, as well as her enrolment in being the next Dragon Warrior.

When the trailer was released, there were people who weren’t very fond of the choice the team behind the film had made in making Zhen the next Dragon Warrior. I wouldn’t blame them, because they didn’t really put that much of an effort to redeem her character, too.

Zhen had the potential, but her quality as a character was not as prominent as Po did in Kung Fu Panda 1. I couldn’t help but to think that the movie was juggling between Po and Zhen, with Zhen losing some of the spotlights she could’ve needed to shine in the film. When Po was introduced in Kung Fu Panda 1, the journey from him being a nobody to the Dragon Warrior felt satisfying. The audience was taken through the journey to really empathise with the panda and understand both his character and motive.

Zhen, on the other hand, remained unmoved throughout the film. She betrayed Po and nothing much else afterwards, apart from attempting to redeem herself by siding with Po in the final fight with The Chameleon. Sure, her betrayal did catch me off guard, but it wasn’t much of a surprise, considering that she was showing hints here and there (eagerly wanting the Staff of Wisdom, being a wanted criminal in Juniper City, the criminal underlings in the underworld resenting her, etc.).

My Honest Take on Kung Fu Panda 4
Zhen (image credit: IMDB).

It’s hard to empathise with her character much in the film because she didn’t open up to Po, much to his dismay during the betrayal later on. “Rule of the street #1: never trust anyone”, as she said. If Zhen had a bit more compassion (if she grew more human and less mysterious nor cunning she was) throughout her journey with Po, I think the audience would’ve empathised with her more.

It’s kind of like how the audience sympathised with Nick Wilde in Zootopia. He grew to be more human when he was with Judy Hopps. Zhen lacked that quality. Until the very moment she realised it was wrong to lure him back to The Chameleon, she remained stone-hearted and cunning to Po.

My Honest Take on Kung Fu Panda 4
Nick Wilde opening up to Judy about his past (image credit: IMDB).

Plus, she didn’t exactly show any distinct quality that separates her from the rest, even when fighting The Chameleon, which she didn’t finish off on her own unlike Po did with Tai Lung (more on that later). I just wish her character would’ve fleshed out more instead of juggling between Po’s struggle in trying to keep his Dragon Warrior title and Zhen proving herself to be the worthy successor.

The Tone of This Movie is Still Light-hearted

My Honest Take on Kung Fu Panda 4
Po smiling sheepishly (image credit: IGN).

I understand, it’s a children’s movie. But what made the Kung Fu Panda franchise so successful is because of both the comedy and drama they instil in the films. The first Kung Fu Panda thrived so well because it shifts between comedy and drama whenever it fits. It’s a charm that defines Kung Fu Panda well. There were times when the audience would laugh their butts off, there were times when the audience would be gasping in awe or shock, and there were times when the audience would remain silent in grief or sympathy.

Let’s take the first Kung Fu Panda as an example. Po in general was funny to watch as he was training with the Furious Five when he was first appointed as the Dragon Warrior. He was beaten left and right, but he persisted. But when he was alone eating the peaches at the Tree of Wisdom, the audience could see it (the treatment he received from the Furious Five) got to him, emotionally, as Master Oogway approached him.

Then we have the fight between Master Shifu and Tai Lung — the fight was personal, and emotionally powerful. The pent-up anger by Tai Lung could be felt, even by the audience as he tore Master Shifu’s pride apart. So, it wasn’t all about comedic timing — there are times when the movie can get serious.

My Honest Take on Kung Fu Panda 4
Tai Lung fueled with pent-up rage and grief when fighting Master Shifu (image credit: Kung Fu Panda Wiki).

Emotionally connecting with the audience is key. Thankfully, The Chameleon’s introduction to the film is good, with the right tone set to really put the foot down to make sure the audience knows the threat she brings.

When The Chameleon first appeared in the film, where the previous rulers were expressing their disapproval of the tributes and her unjust ruling of the Juniper City, it turned out that The Chameleon was among them, disguising as a part of the rulers that she had under her thumbs. She then proceeded to threaten one of them, shapeshifting into an elephant that’s twice the size of the rulers.

Knowing that she could be anyone at any given time, no one dared to scheme anything against her. So, the potential was there.

My Honest Take on Kung Fu Panda 4
The Chameleon’s villain reveal in the film (image credit: IMDB).

But, the film somewhat gets the Kung Fu Panda 3 treatment. Nothing too borderline mature, and light-hearted jokes were inserted even when it’s unneeded. The comedic timing in this film was a mixed bag; sometimes the jokes were good and humorous, making the audience chuckle. Some were just a bit too awkwardly placed and unnecessary — like the three bunnies in the underworld singing something about liking violence. There’s even a scene where they attacked Po and biting his nipples chest — I genuinely went, “Oh God, what was that?” at the scene. And Master Shifu’s meditation being interrupted by Po at the final scene before the credit rolls, too; it’s weirdly placed, as if they’re trying to put every single joke in possible.

I wished they had toned down the unnecessary jokes. Some of the unnecessary joke scenes could’ve been used for Zhen’s character development, honestly. I can’t lie when I cringed at some of the jokes, as if they were trying too hard. The first two films were entertaining, and the comedy was there too, and it didn’t feel like they were trying hard to make the audience laugh. 

The Boss Fight was Underwhelming

My Honest Take on Kung Fu Panda 4
The Chameleon vs. Po (image credit: IGN).

I’m going to talk about the previous three villains in this section while I’m at it, too, since they were in the fourth film. Tai Lung, Lord Shen and General Kai all appeared in the film, but I can’t shake the feeling that the other two villains were there only for fan service and nothing more. Heck, they didn’t even have a single voice line, unlike Tai Lung. They really cut back on every expense possible to the point where the two villains weren’t speaking at all.

The Chameleon brought them all back from the Spirit Realm only for the purpose of absorbing their technique and power. I talked a bit about the previous villains possibly appearing in the film in one of my articles before, and I can let it slide when General Kai appeared, but I don’t understand how Lord Shen re-appeared. Spirit Realm was for those who were sent there, like Tai Lung. Lord Shen died by the very cannon he built to destroy and bring fear; he wasn’t sent to the Spirit Realm.

The battle had potential to be a terrifying and epic fight. They even showed it in the final battle, where The Chameleon transformed into a combination of multiple strong warriors, including Tai Lung, General Kai, and Lord Shen himself. That scene was honestly good. She used the nerve-strike technique Tai Lung was very well known for against Po, and she did the unique feint-cover strike before delivering a powerful General Kai blow to Po, imitating the technique Lord Shen once used against Master Croc in Kung Fu Panda 2 (except the blow was replaced with a spear thrust).

My Honest Take on Kung Fu Panda 4
A group of people fighting

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But the fight between Zhen and The Chameleon was honestly lacking. They put so much focus on the fight between The Chameleon and Po to the point where Zhen didn’t get much spotlight, even though it’s supposed to be the opportunity for her to prove her worth. I was expecting Zhen to finally shine in the battle, but — man, it was underwhelming when all it took to knock The Chameleon out was the move Po taught Zhen with the Staff of Wisdom he had carried. And it wasn’t even flashy where the audience would go “Woah”, too — it’s just a dragon-shaped energy thrusted into The Chameleon, knocking her out.

My Honest Take on Kung Fu Panda 4
Po and Zhen going against The Chameleon in the final battle (image credit: IMDB).

And the fight had little emotional impact on the audience, too.

The Chameleon did express her anger and disappointment in Zhen for betraying her when they were going for each other’s throats, but that’s about it. They didn’t explore more on this emotion that would have carried the fight further. Sure, it could have been brushed off as dramatic, but Tai Lung did just the same as he monologued while delivering blow after blow against Master Shifu; why couldn’t The Chameleon show similar frustration to really bring out the emotion among the audience? Instead, they resort to the “you said this before, and I’m using this against you now” trick that honestly brought little to no dramatic effect.

Oh, speaking of which, I recall Master Shifu saying to Po that tracking down The Chameleon was the Furious Five’s job when Po insisted on finding her at the beginning of the movie. Where were they when The Chameleon was finally found? They only appeared at the end credits, and nowhere else.

My Verdict

My Honest Take on Kung Fu Panda 4
Zhen and Po (image credit: IGN).

I should’ve kept my expectations down, really. The budget for this movie is the smallest compared to the previous three, with only $85 million, whilst it’s roughly $130 million for Kung Fu Panda 1, $150 million for Kung Fu Panda 2, and $140 million for Kung Fu Panda 3. That explains why there are slight falls in quality, including some of the models in the film (most noticeably Lord Shen, General Kai, and Monkey), lacking voice actors for some characters, and the lack of jaw-dropping scenes in the film.

There are some parts where the film excels well, including the villain introduction that makes it feel menacing and eerie and character designs. But the others are just where it definitely needs some work. It goes without saying, it’s quite of a bold approach from Dreamworks for taking away the Furious Five from the entirety of the film to make way for Zhen and Po (as well as Ping and Li Shan) to have more screen time, which I welcome as long as they have good execution.

I still don’t know why Dreamworks cuts off so much on the budget for the fourth film, considering the respect and hype the franchise has on the general audience. I even saw some Po merchandise on the popcorn stand when I was queuing up to get my snacks too, so there’s definitely some love being put into making the film. Regardless, it is what it is — a new Dragon Warrior is born, and our Zhen has finally redeemed herself to live a better life.

In case you’ve missed it, I wrote an article about my expectations for the movie prior to it being released, so you can check it out here. Otherwise, feel free to check the rest of my catalogue for some other things I’ve written. See you in another time!


  • Muhammad Hariz

    A ’00 Malaysian freelance writer for MugenMilano. Occasionally writes for fun; otherwise, going to the gym and playing video games would be the R&R for Hariz. Having a keen interest in the area of gaming and technology, Hariz’s written materials would mostly be tech-related and gaming news, particularly in adventure, horror, and fighting genre. Doesn’t stop him from writing other interesting topics, though, as long as it is worth checking out.

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