‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ Review: Jack Black Goes Through the Motions, but There’s Not Much Kick Left

Po (Jack Black), the sad-clown-eyed, dude-speaking, dumpling-loving, dumpling-shaped whirling dervish of the “Kung Fu Panda” films, has a word to describe his favorite martial-arts move (the wuxi finger hold, executed with a raised pinkie). More than that, it describes the exalted state inside him as he executes it. The word is “skadoosh.” Early on in “Kung Fu Panda 4,” Po is in the middle of a combat training moment when he asks, “Where’s the skadoosh?” It’s a meaningful question, because what he’s really saying is: You can fight all you want, but without the skadoosh, what’s the point?

Watching “Kung Fu Panda 4,” a sequel that’s probably going to make a Zen temple full of money, I kept thinking back to that moment. This genial fourth-chapter action fairy tale has all the things it’s supposed to have, at least according to the blockbuster animation playbook: Po kicking butt between daydreams of doughy cuisine; a quirky fighting sidekick — an androgynous-looking fox named Zhen, voiced by Awkwafina — who spends the film trading barbs with him; box-checking encounters with Po’s parents, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) and Mr. Ping (James Hong), as well as his training guru, the ancient curmudgeon Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman); plus a supervillain who does all she can to take over the world. Yet as the movie unfolded, all I could think was, Where’s the skadoosh?

More from Variety

When the original “Kung Fu Panda” was released in 2008, it was built around a great joke: that Po, incarnated by Jack Black at his Jack Blackiest, was a lazy hipster goofball who just wanted to sit around — yet somehow, through intense training (and the pursuit of his love of dumplings), he became the unlikeliest of kung fu masters. Two sequels (one good, one okay) and three let’s-milk-the-franchise animated TV series later, Po is now an icon, a mascot, an action figure for every kid with the imagination of a superhero and the soul of a couch potato. But with all that overexposure, it isn’t just the novelty that is now gone from Po’s saga. So is the comic punch, the sense that he’s on a journey that jolts him out of his torpor.

The journey “Kung Fu Panda 4” places him on is retirement. As the film opens, he’s trying to hawk his identity as the Dragon Warrior to open a tofu-and-noodle shop. This is a clear sign of decadence (almost a knowing metaphor for franchise cartoon burnout), which is why it seems fitting when Master Shifu informs him that it’s time for Po to choose a successor — and for Po himself to become the spiritual leader of the Valley of Peace. But Po doesn’t want to be yesterday’s dumpling. He’s holding as iron a grip on his role as Joe Biden.

Fate arrives in the form of the Chameleon, an empress sorceress who can shape-shift into anything she wants. You’d think the movie would have a mad ball with this, but Mike Mitchell, who directed the inspired “Trolls,” works no such magic here. The Chameleon is cool to look at (a diminutive lizard in finery worthy of the Met Gala), and Viola Davis voices her with a dour aristocratic hauteur, but all the character does, really, is to call forth her guards and summon up past villains that Po has defeated. The movie gets too busy with generic bad guys. It’s an onslaught of villainy without a scheme, or much of anything else to keep us invested.

Even after 16 years of Po, you want to hear Jack Black’s voice charged with that youthful cockeyed exuberance, rather than the older-and-wiser aura he exudes here. You also wish the movie had better jokes. Mitchell, co-directing with Stephanie Stine, doesn’t stage the action bouts with the surreal freedom that animation makes possible. Po goes through the motions, but I’m sorry, the kick is gone.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.