Review | ‘Kung Fu Panda 4’: The energy’s not yet extinct

Review | ‘Kung Fu Panda 4’: The energy’s not yet extinct

(2.5 stars)

There’s a scene in “Kung Fu Panda 4” that resonates with anyone who’s struggled to meditate. The heroic panda, Po (Jack Black), plops under a blossoming peach tree, relaxes his paws and attempts to concentrate on a mantra. “Inner peace, inner peace,” he chants, but his mind can’t stay still. “Inner peace. Dinner please. Dinner with peas. In a sesame-soy glaze.” Spell broken, Po pads off having summed up this frantic sequel in, well, a pea. It aspires to be Taoism for tykes, but it’s just too fidgety.

The Kung Fu Panda films are like a neon sign of a yin and yang, a fragile balance of philosophy and fat jokes. In the beginning, Black’s Po was a klutz who trained himself to earn the title of Dragon Warrior, a name given to his region’s greatest martial artist. The big idea was that if a panda could high-kick, the rest of us could do anything. But the franchise is turning 16, and the average wild panda’s life span is only 20 years. Now Po’s guide, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), has promoted the panda into a spiritual leader, prodding him beyond his comfort zone. No more can Po while away his days punching dudes and eating dumplings. He must, against his will, hand over the Dragon Warrior title to someone else — a status shift that triggers him to yelp his catchphrase: “But where’s the skadoosh?!”

Jack Black has a mystical hold on children. I’ve seen kids react to him like the second coming of Beatlemania, even ones who weren’t born the last time he voiced this slapstick bear on the big screen in 2016. Black could start his own kindergarten cult, if he were so inclined. But new-to-the-series directors Mike Mitchell and Stephanie Ma Stine seem less confident than the previous filmmakers that Zen sections of their screenplay (by returning writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger and franchise first-timer Darren Lemke) can keep the youths entertained. The pacing is frenetic, with one fight scene spilling over into the next and timeouts no bigger than the space between dominoes.

Joined by a kleptomaniac fox (Awkwafina), a brusque pangolin (Ke Huy Quan) and a trio of ferocious little bunnies, Po sets out to defeat a sorcerer named the Chameleon (Viola Davis). Davis’s baddie has almost no backstory and a pretty vague plan to control the world, but the EGOT-winning actor rages so commandingly that you don’t notice her character is moo shu wrapper-thin until later. The battles are a blur, with the camera pinballing around, trying to keep pace. When the brawlers slice the air, smears of paint streak across the frame. Midway through, there’s a fight that goes on for so long that, by the end, you can barely remember how and why it began.

There’s so much happening on-screen that it requires a meditative focus that I, too, lack to take in the beautiful images whizzing by. One tussle is composed in black and white; others take place with the creatures skidding on oil slicks and water puddles, or gawking as the Chameleon, living up to her name, throws a jab that mutates into an elephant’s trunk.

The comedy also shape-shifts (and, in accordance with today’s tastes, there are fewer fat jokes). The humor is often over-caffeinated and anarchic — a style that suits the production — but when the film dares to slow down, it has a gift for reworking classic gags, like a wordless shot of animals stampeding through a china shop. The best gag comes when Po tiptoes through a rooftop of napping Komodo dragons, desperate to stay quiet. I thought briefly that Charlie Chaplin might cheer this sequence. Twenty seconds later, there was a fart joke and I changed my mind.

PG. At area theaters. Martial arts action and mild violence, scary images, and some mild rude humor. 94 minutes.

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