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Review: 'Kung Fu Panda 4'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

"Kung Fu Panda 4" - the latest entry into the popular movie franchise - is out in theaters now. Our friends over at NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour watched it for us, you know, just to see how the new animated film stacks up to its predecessors. Our review panel includes NPR's Regina Barber, Slate's Candice Lim and Pop Culture Happy Hour host Stephen Thompson, who kicks off the conversation with a little bit of context about the franchise.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Original "Kung Fu Panda" came out in 2008 and launched a billion-dollar animated franchise with multiple sequels and TV spinoffs, as well as video games and toys. It starred Jack Black as Po, a gigantic, adorable panda who becomes the highly unlikely Dragon Warrior with the aid of a much smaller red panda voiced by Dustin Hoffman. You got your hero's journey, your training montages, your wisecracks about food and the horrors of stairs, and you've got some pretty stellar voice acting.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KUNG FU PANDA 4")

JACK BLACK: (As Po) All I know are two things - kicking butt and taking names. And if I'm being completely honest, I'm not even that good at the name taking.

THOMPSON: Now "Kung Fu Panda 4" finds Po living comfortably as the Dragon Warrior, but trouble arises in two very different forms. First, Po runs afoul of a thieving trickster fox named Zhen, voiced by Awkwafina. And then there's also the larger matter of the evil chameleon, a tiny, shapeshifting lizard sorceress. She's voiced by Viola Davis. Po and Zhen embark on a quest to find and battle the chameleon before it's too late, and they're tailed every step of the way by Po's nervous helicopter dads, his biological father voiced by Bryan Cranston and the father who raised him, a fussy goose voiced by James Hong. "Kung Fu Panda 4" is in theaters now. Candice, I'm going to start with you. What did you think of "Kung Fu Panda 4"?

CANDICE LIM: This movie is about approaching retirement, taxes, regional fame, being from the streets. I love this movie, OK? I have so much love for the "KFP" franchise because, you know, the first one came out when I was, like, 11 and it was my first Jack Black movie. It was one of the first movies that, like, I bought the video game for. Most significantly, you know, there was something kind of revolutionary at the time about this film starring a panda who was culturally, visually Chinese yet speaks with an American accent. Jack Black is from SoCal. So am I. And in my head, I was like, this movie is very much a metaphor for my existence as someone who was raised culturally Chinese but sounded American. And that was maybe my first mainstream encounter with specifically Chinese American representation, and the fact that this was a kid's movie, my parents approved. And I've just always loved the way this franchise grows up with its audience and meets them there and brings up darker matter later. And so I am a Po stan. I was very excited to watch the fourth one - 10 out of 10, no notes.

THOMPSON: Wow. All right...

REGINA BARBER, BYLINE: Wow.

THOMPSON: ...Candice.

BARBER: Wow.

THOMPSON: I did not realize that you and I had in common a deep and abiding love for the "Kung Fu Panda" franchise.

LIM: We see each other.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: All right. How about you, Regina?

BARBER: I was in my 20s when it came out, the first one, and it wasn't really on my radar as, like, being so meaningful and, like, really affecting, like, how I actually saw myself. Candice, I actually relate because "Kung Fu Panda 3" came out, and I took my daughter. And I left that movie thinking, this is about intersectionality.

LIM: Yeah.

BARBER: He talks about, I'm a teacher, I'm a student, I'm a son of a goose, and I'm a panda. I can be all these things - because he was so confused about identity. And because I'm, like, half Chinese and half Mexican American, like, it was this moment where I was like, oh, my God, you can be all of them. Like, I was kind of going through that too as an adult. And my daughter is going through that, right? So, like, we had this discussion about intersectionality after "Kung Fu Panda 3." We watched all of them again, you know, getting ready for this. I took her to the screening. We had the best time. I still think "Kung Fu Panda 3" is better.

THOMPSON: So I came to the first "Kung Fu Panda" movie at the tender age of 35 when it came out, and I fell completely in love with it. I think all four films are visually stunning, wonderfully voice acted, extremely charming and deeper, particularly the first three films, than you might expect a movie called "Kung Fu Panda" or "Kung Fu Panda 2"...

BARBER: Totally.

THOMPSON: ...Or "Kung Fu Panda 3" to be. They are, as you say, about identity. There's also a recurring thread in these films about chosen family that I find really, really powerful. They're also very, very funny. And my relationship with these films is that I, like Regina, watched them with my kids. I'm extraordinarily fond of this franchise. I came out of this film feeling like this was the fourth-best film of the four.

LIM: Yeah.

THOMPSON: It is the least kind of emotionally resonant of the four films. This is more cutting than I mean for it to sound, but it's got a little bit of a "Return Of Jafar"...

BARBER: Oh, wow. Ouch.

THOMPSON: ...Quality to it.

LIM: I picked that up, too.

THOMPSON: It is slight. The first three films fit together so beautifully as a trilogy.

BARBER: It did.

THOMPSON: I would like for it to have built the story a little bit more than it does. It is fun. It is gorgeous to look at.

BARBER: It had good fighting scenes.

THOMPSON: It has very, very, very strong battle scenes. I think Viola Davis is an extraordinarily well...

BARBER: I didn't know it was her.

THOMPSON: Oh, you didn't?

BARBER: That was a surprise for me, like, at the end. I know everyone else was, like, watching trailers, and I was like, I wanted to go in clean. And the whole time I'm listening to this, and I was like, who is this Chinese woman?

LIM: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: Ah.

BARBER: Because she kept on saying things like, don't slouch. She keeps on saying things like, don't slouch. And I was like, oh, that's my mom. So I...

LIM: Yeah.

BARBER: ...Like, who is this Chinese American actor? And at the end, I'm like, it's Viola Davis.

THOMPSON: (Laughter)

LIM: Yeah.

BARBER: She did amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KUNG FU PANDA 4")

VIOLA DAVIS: (As The Chameleon) Once I possess the kung fu of every master villain, no one will dare question my power.

THOMPSON: I do want to point out - if you watched the trailer and you're worried that it's going to be wall-to-wall fart jokes, the one fart joke is in the trailer. So don't worry too much about that.

BARBER: It does land, though. I did enjoy it.

LIM: It does. It does.

THOMPSON: It lands, and I think it lands more in the context of the film than it does in the trailer.

BARBER: Yes, absolutely.

THOMPSON: But if you're afraid that this is a gross degradation of this franchise, it's not, at all.

BARBER: What I felt when I was watching is that the other "Kung Fu Pandas" had, like, a clear theme, you know? And the theme of this movie is everything has to change. Like, you know, the most predictable thing in life is change.

THOMPSON: Right.

BARBER: But it took a while to get there, and it wasn't super crystallized. It took a while.

LIM: Yeah.

THOMPSON: Yeah. And I should clarify, like, right at the beginning of the film, Po is talking to his mentor, you know, played by Dustin Hoffman. And Po is informed, like, you have been the Dragon Warrior. You kind of got what you were looking to become. But now I'm telling you that you are destined to be the spiritual leader of the Valley of Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KUNG FU PANDA 4")

BLACK: (As Po) Master Shifu, I finally found something I'm good at. And now you want to just take it away from me?

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Shifu) No one was taking anything away, Po. Who you are will always be a part of what you become.

BLACK: (As Po) Yeah. But where's the skadoosh (ph) - you know what I mean? - the shashabooey (ph)? I don't want to seem ungrateful, but I don't know anything about passing on wisdom or inspiring hope.

THOMPSON: It's kind of an opportunity to have another hero's journey, where he resists the call and kind of has to learn to embrace change. But that's kind of the premise of the film. But once it kind of sets off on a journey - like, we have to go find this villain and try to defeat this villain - it's kind of only returning to it just kind of as callbacks and not necessarily as, like, a grand, overarching theme of a movie, or an overarching lesson of the movie that people can take away - the way they did with the first three films.

DETROW: That was Pop Culture Happy Hour host Stephen Thompson, along with NPR's Regina Barber and Slate's Candice Lim. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)