Come On, Chameleon! — Kung Fu Panda 4

William J Hammon
7 min readMar 10, 2024

The fundamental flaw with Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda 4 is spelled out in the first few minutes. As Po, the Dragon Warrior (Jack Black, still enthusiastic in his voice work for the most part) arrives for a very special ceremony — the opening of a new noodle shop run by his dads, Mr. Ping (James Hong) and Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) — he poses for photo ops (or rather, hastily drawn portrait ops) with the local children who revere him as a celebrity. Meanwhile, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, ever the curmudgeonly mentor), scolds him for engaging in such shallow displays, telling him the time has come for him to choose a successor as Dragon Warrior and ascend to be Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace.

If you saw the trailer for this film, this opening combines with it to tell you everything wrong with what’s about to happen. First, nothing truly new awaits us. The shtick, while occasionally quite funny, is the same as it’s always been, only this time the Furious Five are nowhere to be seen, reduced to literal cardboard cutouts. Second, there’s basically no respect for the previous films in the series, as Po was not “selected” to be Master Oogway’s successor, but rather he was chosen by fate (random chance) to be a prophesied hero. Further, even if he was chosen to be Oogway’s heir, Oogway was a tortoise over a century old. We have no indication that any significant amount of time has passed where Po has aged, so why is this plot development so rushed? We’re supposed to just take it at face value because Shifu (the script) says so with no explanation or justification. And while he chastises Po for pandering and commercialism, that’s precisely what the film itself is doing, forcing an issue where Po has to pass on his title to what is believed to be the most marketable newcomer designed solely to sell toys (and rip off Zootopia), a sly thieving fox named Zhen (Awkwafina). Before we even begin the story proper, every adult in the room knows that this will be a decided downgrade in storytelling quality where we go through the motions to get an ending we all know is coming, while the kids can just giggle at all the butt jokes.

This wouldn’t be so bad if we hadn’t already done this a dozen times. All of this reads as studio notes and checkboxes. We have to have a new, younger hero, preferably a “strong female lead” character, even though nothing she does justifies her story arc or even her existence, and not a single ounce of pathos is earned. When Po first meets Zhen, she tries to rob the Jade Palace, and after she’s captured, she works out a deal for a commuted sentence in exchange for leading Po to The Chameleon (Viola Davis), a shapeshifting sorceress who runs the criminal underworld in the distant Juniper City. Now how could this character, already demonstrated to be a crook in her own right, possibly know all this information about the big boss lady? Shh. Don’t tell the kids. It’s supposed to be a surprise.

So we paint by numbers, holding the youngest viewers’ hands while we pretend any of this is novel or entertaining. When we reveal The Chameleon’s evil plan, it’s not only boilerplate, it’s downright stupid and contradicts the entire series. She wishes to gain Po’s staff to open up the Spirit Realm, so that she can bring back all the biggest villains Po has ever faced, and use her tongue to sap their kung fu moves, starting with Tai Lung (Ian McShane), the first pretender to the title of Dragon Warrior that Po had to defeat. Never mind that by assuming their physical forms and stealing their powers, Dreamworks is literally admitting through this baddie that they have no new ideas, only the ability to pull a Multiplicity and make a copy of a copy, but the motivation is asinine. The Chameleon laments that all she ever wanted was to learn kung fu, but every school turned her away because she was small, so instead she learned sorcery to take over the world.

Are. You. Kidding. ME?! See, this is why the Furious Five isn’t in this movie. If they were, you could instantly look at Viper, Crane, and oh yeah, fucking MANTIS, to give lie to that bullshit. Even Master Shifu is conveniently not around for this part, as he’s a red panda, and is shorter than both Chameleon and Zhen (they’re about the same height and tower over Shifu, who Zhen dismissively calls a squirrel). When you can take a single second to think of another mystical leader and scream, “SIZE MATTERS NOT! JUDGE ME BY MY SIZE, DO YOU?!” you know you’ve failed. Then you get to this whole theme of how it’s important to accept change and be willing to go through it yourself, and you’re flabbergasted because the main antagonist is a character who literally does nothing but change as part of her diabolical skill set (she does point this out, but admitting your stupidity doesn’t make you any less stupid), our so-called protégé never actually changes her ways (there’s a running gag where Po tries to stop Zhen from stealing from people at every opportunity, and she eventually does, but only because the comic potential has run out, not because her character has developed in any way to understand that thievery is wrong), and Po himself really doesn’t learn any lesson.

Now, that’s not to say this film is irredeemable. There’s an interesting running gag that I wish had been more developed about the fact that Po’s influence really doesn’t extend beyond the Valley of Peace. No one in Juniper City has heard of him (though some know who Shifu is), and law enforcement actively finds the idea comical. There’s an excellent B-plot about Ping and Li Shan following Po and Zhen because they’re paranoid, overprotective fathers that gets some decent mileage, with Hong and Cranston giving their all in the vocal booth. I genuinely love the fact that Ke Huy Quan plays a pangolin leader of a den of thieves, and their perception of ethics and morality from Po basically boils down to “do less crime now so you can do more crime later.” That’s legitimately funny.

Further, the action sequences are still excellently done. You can see how well the quality of the animation has evolved over the 16 years since the first movie. There’s a particularly good one that takes place in a bit of a fog caused by collapsing rubble that beautifully works in shadow and silhouette. A good number of the jokes do land, mostly because of the visuals (though the editing is all over the place; there’s one scene where Zhen and Chameleon are walking side by side, and in the very next shot Chameleon is easily 20 feet ahead). In an unexpected character turn, Tai Lung actually gives some grudging respect to Po after witnessing his altruistic nature, giving the former villain more development in five minutes than Zhen gets in the entire picture. If anything, the most disappointing thing about this movie is that in spite of all its flaws, it still could have been spectacular. That’s how rich this fantasy world can be for plot, character, and humor.

Sadly, though, it’s clear that the filmmakers didn’t bother. When it comes right down to it, there’s only one thing to say about this movie, and it’s the exact reaction I had as the credits rolled and Black sang a cover of “Baby One More Time.” Why? Why was this done? Why did any of this need to happen? The Kung Fu Panda series is one of the high points of modern animation, and to be fair, this latest entry is fine for your kids if you want to distract them for 90 minutes (there was one adorable little girl in the theatre doing martial arts moves in the aisle during the credits). But there’s absolutely nothing meaningful or necessary about any of this. Po doesn’t need to pass on his title. The Furious Five didn’t need to be shunted off to the side. We didn’t have to create a new Dragon Warrior just so we can lazily cast Awkwafina rather than search for literally any other Asian actress. We didn’t need to create a new villain who only exists to imitate what we’ve already done while Viola Davis sleepwalks through her dialogue and cashes a check. In a quest for knowledge, wisdom, change, and inner peace, all that happened here was a brief rattling of the cage to spoon-feed the young audience the exact same thing they could watch at home, only now the kids will scream bloody murder if their parents accidentally buy them a Nick Wilde doll instead of a Zhen doll.

Po deserves better than this.

Grade: C+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Should this series keep going if this is the direction they’re going to take? Why do I have a sudden craving for shrimp dumplings? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!

Originally published at on March 10, 2024.



William J Hammon

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