Director: Mike Mitchell Screenwriter: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Darren Lemke Cast: Jack Black, Awkwafina, Viola Davis, Dustin Hoffman, James Hong, Bryan Cranston, Ian McShane, Ke Huy Quan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 94 min. MPAA: PG

Thus far, DreamWorks’s Kung Fu Panda films have been its most consistent animated saga. The immaculate fusion of classic Hong Kong choreography, stylish Chinese-inspired design, and clever slapstick have a distinct charm. It’s enough to make even the expected routine of this fourth entry a pleasing return to the ongoing story. Even after 16 years of this pudgy anthropomorphic panda bouncing around the screen, it still makes me smile, even if not all of the same magic is there.

The heroic Po (Jack Black) has proven himself worthy of the legendary status of Dragon Warrior. Revered by his community of anthropomorphic bunnies and pigs, he has grown older and is nearing the point where he must choose a successor. That time seems to be coming, considering how annoyed Po’s master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) has grown with the panda using the afterlife-opening staff for restaurant openings. That torch must be passed soon, and prying those stubby paws from it will be hard.

Po puts his successor contest on hold when a new threat looms over his community. The corrupt figure known as The Chameleon (Viola Davis) seeks to expand her power in more ways than one. While dominating territories and managing crime organizations, she also wants to absorb the powers of kung fu masters. With Po becoming a prime target, he faces this threat head-on, aided by the deceptive fox thief, Zhen (Awkwafina). With the Furious Five not present for this mission, Po must align himself with the criminal underworld and place trust in the most unlikely of allies to save the land and the spirits of previous villains.

It’d be easy to say that after four films, Kung Fu Panda has lost its luster with its fourth entry. The truth is that the same spark of magic is not as present. It’s not simply a matter of the Furious Five being written out of the film or that this film is helmed by an almost entirely different crew of directors and producers. Perhaps this martial arts world has become so accustomed that even its distinct artistic touches and slapstick staging feel way too standard, as though the film is spinning its wheels desperately trying to find something more to do with fully realized characters.

Luckily, there are plenty of charming scenes to warrant this sequel. Po’s biological father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), and adoptive father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), have some cute moments together as concerned dads trying to look out for their son. The criminal underworld Po visits is filled with misfits like the cunning and dry-witted Han, a Sunda pangolin played by Ke Huy Quan. There are also some funny moments with the new characters, such as Lori Tan Chinn voicing a shrewd boar of a restaurant and Ronny Chieng playing an absurd fish captain who relies on a pelican like a mech suit. For as little a role as he plays, it was also nice to hear Ian McShane returning to voice the villain Tai Lung.

The Kung Fu Panda saga certainly shows its age and desperation in its fourth film, but also enough smiles to please to a lesser degree. In the absence of more stylish fights and evoking powerful choreography, there’s a solid dose of wit and morality that always makes the picture amusing. Part of Mr. Ping’s ongoing philosophy bestowed onto Po in this film is that it’s important to change and avoid being stuck in a rut. While Kung Fu Panda 4 certainly does that, it teases how better the film could have been if it had changed even more, rather than feeling like a good-but-not-great adventure for the returning panda warrior.

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