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Kung Fu Panda 4


In Theaters


Home Release Date




Paul Asay

Movie Review

Po still doesn’t look the part of a Kung Fu master. But his famed exploits brooch no argument: This panda can tanga. (Er, tangle.)

Po has beaten the mighty leopard Tai Lung. He bested the dastardly peacock Lord Shen. He walloped the nefarious yak General Kai and overcame his legion of Jade Zombies.

And now, just when he’s getting the hang of this whole Dragon Warrior thing, Master Shifu wants Po to give the whole gig up. Pass the torch. Become a mentor … like Master Shifu himself. Ensure the Valley of Peace is peaceful for a new generation.


Yeah, Po’s not quite ready to step down just yet, thank you very much. This panda’s still got plenty of punch in his paws, kick in his caboodle.

But Shifu insists. So Po dutifully holds tryouts for the next Dragon Warrior. The applicants are impressive. And once the competition is over, Po chooses … himself! For just a while longer. Because the choice was just so hard, y’know?

Shifu once again grits his teeth and struggles to find a bit of inner peace—a peace that Po has, through three movies, done his best to trample into inner pieces. But perhaps in the back of his mind, Shifu hears his own mentor, Oogway, say, “There are no accidents.” Perhaps this delay in succession is for a reason.

Shortly thereafter, a possible “reason” bounces into the revered Hall of Heroes, home to the relics of the great warriors of yore. The interloper is a fox named Zhen, and she’s clearly after a relic or two—perhaps even the Staff of Wisdom wielded by Po himself.

Well, that won’t do. First, the staff needs to be freely given for its powers to be unlocked. Second, no thieving fox (no matter how skilled) can best the Dragon Warrior. Off to jail she goes.

But then Po hears rumors of a truly fearsome foe: the Chameleon. She’s a sorcerer of great renown, and it’s said she can transform herself to look like anybody she likes: Tai Lung. Master Shifu. Po. Anyone.

Zhen knows all about her—and she promises to lead Po right to her front door. If he lets her out of jail, that is.

Yep, good thing Po didn’t just step down just yet. This Dragon Warrior still has some dragon warrior-ing to do.

Positive Elements

Zhen grew up on the rough streets of Juniper City, and she’s known some pretty tough hombres. The fox learned from the best. But as she travels with Po, Zhen marvels at her black-and-white companion. “You’re not like any of the other masters I’ve met,” she says. “You’re, like, a good guy.”

Po is a good guy. Sure, he might not be ready to give up being Dragon Warrior just yet—and partly because he feels totally unprepared to be a sage mentor. But from the moment Po offers Zhen a half a cookie—just to be nice—Zhen realizes that the panda’s better than your average bloke off the street.

Po insists that Zhen stop stealing during this adventure (even giving back her ill-gotten gains in the middle of a frenetic fight). He sometimes does what he can to solve conflicts without violence—and occasionally, it even works. And, as always, Po is willing to risk life and limb to protect the people who depend on him.

And honestly, Po might be better at the whole “wise sage” thing than he gives himself credit for. At one point, Po gives Zhen a peach pit—from the Peach Tree of Heavenly Wisdom. He uses that pit to illustrate a little proverb. “Every pit holds the promise of a mighty tree,” he tells Zhen—a nice message for someone whose life has been, well, kind of the pits itself. Po sees in Zhen the potential to be a mighty tree, and his confidence in her moves Zhen mightily.

Back home, Po’s fathers (adoptive dad Mr. Ping and biological dad Li Shan) worry that the Chameleon may be more than a match for their son. “But there’s something that [Po] has that the Chameleon does not,” Mr. Ping says. “Us.” And with that, the goose and elder panda embark on their own adventure—seeking to find Po and help him in any way they can.

The film is filled with strong messages about the importance of change and growth, and the need to move past who you are to become something better. And as Po’s entire multi-movie story arc has shown, you don’t need to look strong to be strong; you don’t need to feel brave to be brave. Heroism just might be found in us all—even if we don’t look the part. As Po says in another surprisingly nice aphorism, “Sometimes the greatest dishes come from the most unlikely ingredients.”

Spiritual Elements

The Kung Fu Panda franchise has always been filled with plenty of spirituality—some of it harkening back to Eastern religions, some of it just a freeform, Hollywood-style mix-and-match treatment of faith. The movie’s not out to evangelize with these spiritual plot points, but they are elements that parents should be aware of.

As mentioned, the Chameleon is a sorcerer, and her powers are significant. We don’t know where her powers come from, but we know she’s been working at her craft for an awful long time. And from the context of the film, it sure feels like sorcery is bad.

Most of the familiar martial arts have always been infused with a sense of spirituality, and the kung fu we see in the franchise is not so different. The Chameleon herself tells us that kung fu is “housed in the spirit.” She can look like, say, Tai Lung—but to fight like him, she needs more.

The Spirit Realm has been a part of the Kung Fu Panda franchise since its inception, and it once again plays a huge role here. In fact, the Chameleon wants to access that realm and take on the powers of Po’s most formidable foes—all of which now reside in the Spirit Realm. That realm, incidentally, doesn’t seem analogous to heaven or hell. Its most dastardly denizens don’t seem to be punished there in any way, and one bad guy tells a good guy he’s looking forward to renewing his acquaintance when he gets there. Honestly, it doesn’t appear you even need to die to gain access. The Realm is treated more like another neighborhood that you move to once your time in this mortal suburb is over.

When Shifu presses Po to decide on the next Dragon Warrior, he suggests that Po should sit by the Peach Tree of Heavenly Wisdom and “ask the universe for answers.” Po dutifully plops down and says, “All right, universe. Give me some guidance.” He strikes a meditative pose and starts repeating, mantra-like, the phrase “inner peace” before it morphs into “dinner please,” along with possible menu options.

When fighting with Zhen in the Hall of Heroes, Po views Zhen’s activities as desecration. A running gag involves the Urn of Whispering Warriors, which moan whenever the urn is toppled. (“Why would you keep an urn of souls?” Zhen asks. “It seems kind of creepy.”) Li Shan says that Po has faced everything, including “demons and demigods.” A ritual involves the “blood moon.” Po has what he describes as a vision (but Zhen suggests is just a dream). We hear other references to meditation. Po’s staff is topped with a yin-yang symbol.

Sexual Content

We hear a reference to the rather violent marital rituals of praying mantises. Someone’s pants are swiped, and the victim holds a cup in front of his groin. A version of Brittany Spears’ suggestive song “… Baby One More Time” plays during the credits.

Po’s two fathers play an important role in this film, and we see them adventure alongside each other. But the two don’t appear to be a couple: One is Po’s adoptive father, the other his biological father. And while Li Shan works at Mr. Ping’s noodle restaurant, and both men are clearly both united in their love for their son, that’s as far as their relationship goes.

That said, one character (a fish who lives in the mouth of a pelican) does mention Po’s parents: “Goose dads, panda dads—I guess it takes all kinds,” he says. Then he addresses the pelican directly. “Right mom?” he asks, to which the pelican honks affirmatively.

Violent Content

“Remember, Po,” Shifu sagely tells the panda in a memory, “there are other ways to bring peace than kicking butt.” But while Po tries that approach on occasion, there’s still a whole lot of kicking here—and punching, and twirling, and weapons use, and … oh so much violence of all types.

It’s all played for thrills and fun, and no one ever seems to get seriously hurt. But the result onscreen is way too much martial mayhem to go into explicit detail here. If you’re familiar with the previous Kung Fu Panda outings, you probably know what to expect.

That said, it’s worth mentioning a couple of things.

When Po and Zhen arrive at Juniper City, they meet a trio of cute-as-a-button bunnies that make Dune’s villainous Baron Harkonnen look rather pacifistic. They almost immediately attack Po (with a couple of them chewing on his chest where his nipples would be), and they descend upon other characters like furry piranhas. When given a choice between violence and anything else, they choose violence. When they’re given a choice between violence and more violence, they always choose more violence. And when Po suggests that violence is not the way, the bunnies misunderstand him. “More violence later is better than less violence now!” they enthuse.

Li Shan tries to act tough in a fearsome bar. But when his tough acts lead him to some painful-looking injuries (a shard of wood in his paw and the loss of a few teeth after chewing something that shouldn’t be chewed), the rough regulars are less than impressed. Eventually, though, the whole establishment falls off a cliff—leading to no apparent injuries but a number of wet patrons.

Crude or Profane Language

We hear repeated uses of “butt.”

Drug and Alcohol Content

Po, Zhen and other characters hang out at a restaurant with a bar, hiring a boat captain to ferry them to Juniper City: a fish that lives in the mouth of a pelican. He slams down several drinks, and Po wonders, “Should he be driving?” The answer is no. When they arrive at Juniper City, the fish’s boat plows into a pier. “Whoa,” he says. “That came out of nowhere.”

Other Negative Elements

Po passes gas at a critical, and inopportune, moment. Patrons at a bar gamble. People lie.

We meet a bunch of criminals and crooks, one of whom grouses that the Chameleon takes a huge chunk of their ill-gotten gains. “It’s like a criminal can’t make an honest living anymore,” he says.

As mentioned, Zhen has spent most of her life on the streets, and she grew up stealing. Po tries to get her to promise to not steal; but, as we repeatedly see, old habits die hard. Her bad habits are on display throughout most of the movie. She and Po evade Juniper City’s law enforcement (when Po is also thought to be a criminal) and ultimately meet scads of Zhen’s underworld associates.

[Spoiler Warning] Zhen and Po join with these ne’er-do-wells, who actually do do well this one time. But they’re far from reformed: They simply want to take down a bad guy so that they’ll have a freer hand in Juniper City to do their own form of badness. “Are you guys ready to do the right thing for the wrong reasons?” Zhen exhorts. And they are.


Change is hard. Just ask Po, who’s having a hard time giving up his role as the Dragon Warrior. Just ask Zhen, who struggles to reform her bad habits. Even the Chameleon herself—who reminds us that she changes all the time—has difficulty embracing change outside her own shape-shifting ways.

And just ask the makers of Kung Fu Panda 4, who, eight years after giving Po a nice bit of closure in Kung Fu Panda 3, bring back Po and his spirit person, Jack Black, for one more encore.

But let’s be honest: It’s a pretty worthwhile encore.

The Kung Fu Panda franchise certainly has more than its share of issues—most of which we’ve also documented in our reviews of KFP 1-3. The series’ sense of Eastern spirituality is still in play, as is its superficial mix-and-match sense of faith. The intense slapstick cartoon violence here is unrelenting: If the film ever goes 10 minutes without someone throwing a fist or falling from a rooftop, I’d be a little surprised. And does a PG film really have to use the word “butt” quite so often?

For all of that, however, Po remains a worthy and relatable hero—absolutely goofy and utterly incorruptible. He tries to make those around him better, too. And when it counts, he kinda succeeds. Kung Fu Panda 4 offers some really nice messages about friendship, family and how it’s “never too late to do the right thing” (as someone says explicitly in the film). It reminds us that heroism comes in unexpected forms.

Oh, and it’s a really fun film, too. The violent bunnies display a streak of sadism you’d not want your own little ones to emulate—but they did make me laugh.

With Disney and Pixar both struggling to recapture their lost magic of yesteryear, it’s nice to see other animation studios pick up the slack. Kung Fu Panda 4 may not have the richness and depth found in the best of animated movies. It may have more problems than we’d like. But like Po himself, Kung Fu Panda 4 is sweet, fun and unexpectedly sage.

And that’s worth a hip-hip skadoosh.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.