Review: Though visually dazzling, 'Kung Fu Panda 4' shows a flabby franchise in need of punch

The “Kung Fu Panda” movies have always been reliable when it comes to animated franchises. A distinctive style, star-studded voice cast and the winning Jack Black voicing Po, the roly-poly, dumpling-appreciating Dragon Warrior, is usually a recipe for success, or at least it has been. “Kung Fu Panda 2” was even nominated for an animated feature Oscar in 2012.

It’s been eight years since we last saw our old pal Po in 2016’s “Kung Fu Panda 3,” and this new installment, “Kung Fu Panda 4,” is co-directed by journeyman animation director Mike Mitchell teamed with Stephanie Ma Stine, making her feature debut. The film coasts on elements that have worked before: Black’s vocal charms and the signature visuals, inspired by various Chinese arts, including painting, music and film. It’s still a fun, beautiful animated world to experience, but in this rushed and harried 94-minute package — over-stuffed with plot and characters — those virtues get short shrift.

The film also falls prey to a few well-trod tropes, so what used to be fresh and singular now feels like every other animated sequel. There are cutesy killer bunnies and a giant monster thrashing around in a climactic battle; Awkwafina voices a sassy supporting character — can casting Awkwafina in an animated vocal role be considered a cliché now? She’s voiced characters in “Migration,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Bad Guys,” “Raya and the Last Dragon,” “The Angry Birds Movie 2,” “Storks” and more. All respect to her for staying employed, but it just feels almost too predictable that her gravelly Queens-inflected tones will pop up in an animated feature at this point.

In Awkwafina’s favor, her character, Zhen, is a little bit more grounded and well-developed than usual. She plays a thieving fox whom Po apprehends stealing relics. He tosses her in jail (even the Valley of Peace is apparently a carceral state) but frees her when she promises to help him find a power-hungry mob boss known as the Chameleon (Viola Davis). The pair set off on a journey to Juniper City to find the Chameleon, who has been shape-shifting into different vanquished warriors and demanding monetary tribute.

Po finally gets to explore beyond the rural beauty of the Valley of Peace, and we get to see some urban landscapes. Except as soon as the pair arrive in Juniper City, they’re chased into the criminal underground and then spend the rest of the film in the Chameleon’s mountaintop palace, where she’s using Po’s Staff of Wisdom to steal kung fu from every powerful warrior he’s sent to the Spirit Realm. Also, Po’s two dads, Li (Bryan Cranston) and Mr. Ping (James Hong) are in hot pursuit of their son, worried that he left their cheerful Valley home.

On top of this Chameleon business, Po has to handle a nagging directive from his master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), who has instructed him to appoint a Dragon Warrior successor. Though Po is reluctant to do so, the appropriate candidate is immediately all-too obvious. They’ll just have to go on an unexpected journey together to truly get to know one another before the Staff of Wisdom and the requisite “Skadoosh” can be handed down, while Po retires to a life of writing proverbs.

The story is skeletal and often rushes by in a blur, and it relies on so many overly familiar beats that it’s hard to muster up the energy to care about anyone’s motivation. Much like Po himself, “Kung Fu Panda 4” just wants to vibe out, riding the wave of previous successes. For little kids, it will be a fun diversion, but for anyone expecting the excellence of the previous films, this dumpling is a little too light on the filling.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

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