Is 'Kung Fu Panda 4' a worthy entry in the fun and thoughtful franchise? : Pop Culture Happy Hour Kung Fu Panda 4 is the latest movie in the popular and surprisingly thoughtful animated film franchise. Jack Black returns to voice Po, a gigantic, adorable panda who becomes the highly unlikely Dragon Warrior. He embarks on a quest alongside a devious fox, played by Awkwafina, to face a new villain, the Chameleon, played by Viola Davis. You got your hero's journey and training montages and some pretty stellar voice acting.

Is 'Kung Fu Panda 4' a worthy entry in the fun and thoughtful franchise?

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"Kung Fu Panda 4" is the latest entry in the popular and surprisingly thoughtful animated film franchise. Jack Black returns to voice our titular hero as he embarks on a quest alongside a devious fox, voiced by Awkwafina. Together, they must face a new villain played by Viola Davis. I'm Stephen Thompson, and today we are talking about "Kung Fu Panda 4" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


THOMPSON: Joining me today is co-host of Slate's "ICYMI" podcast and former POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR producer Candice Lim. Hey, Candice.


THOMPSON: It is great to have you back. Making her POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR debut, Regina Barber. She's the scientist-in-residence on NPR's science podcast, Short Wave. Welcome to the show, Regina.

REGINA BARBER, BYLINE: Thank you. I am so excited. This is like a dream come true.

THOMPSON: As our resident scientist, you will be called upon to explain all of the physics in this movie.

BARBER: It doesn't work.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

BARBER: It's not real.


THOMPSON: Wow. OK, so the 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.


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 shape-shifting 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"?

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 is 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...


THOMPSON: ...Candice.


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.


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 'cause 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, that 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.

LIM: Yeah.

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).


BARBER: ...Because she kept on saying things like, don't slouch. She keeps on saying that - 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.


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...


THOMPSON: ...The one fart joke is in the trailer. So don't worry too much about that.

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

LIM: It does. It does.

BARBER: ...Enjoy it.

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...


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.


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.

LIM: I feel like this film weirdly felt like a sitcom to me, where there were, like, three plot lines. The villains had their own villains, and my, like, genuine only thing was that I felt like there was not enough Po because, you know, the first film, they really follow him. They may do a quick cutaway to see what Tai Lung is up to, but it's really following Po on that journey forward. Whereas this one, it's crisscrossing of like, Po's doing this. His dads are doing that. The villain's doing this. And that - I wondered if it would get kind of confusing for, like, a younger audience. But I will say this. I think in terms of, like, what has improved - animation style, clearly, 2008...

BARBER: (Laughter) Yeah.

LIM: ...They were working with different programs here. This film does this thing where, like, the hairs on the furs are so fine that you want to touch them. Like, it's very texturized. The character design itself reminded me, actually, a lot of "Zootopia"...

BARBER: Oh. I love "Zootopia."

LIM: ...And "Sing" and "Madagascar," which is really one of my also favorite, favorite animated films, 'cause that is another film that is both marrying high comedy - you know, that Ben Stiller stuff - along with, like, a lot of heart and a lot of stuff about found family 'cause they're in a zoo.


LIM: So, yeah.

BARBER: I will say, I'm just realizing that this idea of, like, competition being toxic - the dads at first were kind of jealous of each other. The character played by Angelina Jolie - the Tigress - is very put off in the first movie that she wasn't selected. Dustin Hoffman is constantly in this state of like, I wish this happened to me. But kind of that envy and that jealousy and that fighting each other - it never pays off in these movies. What always pays off in these movies is coming to terms with what is reality and teaming up - every single time.

THOMPSON: What did you think about the Awkwafina of it all - as Candice might say? Talking to people about this film, I've heard a lot of people sort of express to me Awkwafina fatigue. How did you feel about her presence here? If you were skeptical going in, did she win you over?

LIM: This is tough because I never want to get in front of someone's bookings. But this idea of Awkwafina fatigue is interesting because the criticism that has been leveled against her, I think, is valid. I shared some of it as well, but at the same time, it's like - when you think about the landscape of Hollywood for Asian actors - who can do roles like this and not feel bad about it - unfortunately, you can - there's a handful. And Awkwafina does have something about her that makes her a perfect voice actor. It's a very distinct, likable tone that mixes really well with Jack Black. I think the other funny thing is Jack Black is from Santa Monica and (laughter) Awkwafina's from, like, New York. So a part of me is like, ah, East meets West - interesting. Interesting.


BARBER: (Laughter) I like that. I agree. The kind of criticisms of the way she kind of presents herself - and, like, how she is in movies - I can understand. But I also, as an Asian American - who is being represented? And who is being criticized and who's not being criticized? And, like, what's the level of criticism to certain people that is fair - but who is not being criticized? And I think about that a lot, too.

LIM: Also, think about the fact that when I rewatched the first "Kung Fu Panda" movie, I was like, OK. So we have Dustin Hoffman...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

BARBER: Right. Right.

LIM: ...Playing Master Shifu - interesting. And you - as an adult - watch that entire film, just waiting for a white actor to slip up and go a little too left, a little too right. I had the same fear with Viola Davis, honestly, when she first popped up as...


LIM: ...The Chameleon - the cha-me-leon (ph). And I...

BARBER: (Laughter) Good "How I Met Your Mother" reference.

LIM: Thank you.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

LIM: Thank you. I just think it's really interesting that "Kung Fu Panda" - the franchise - has kind of escaped that criticism about, like...

BARBER: It has.

LIM: ...Having white actors playing Chinese characters because maybe the question there is like, well, did we really say these animals are Chinese, or do you think they're Chinese? Is this all coded? Can animals have a race? And it's like, ah, OK. OK. I get it.

BARBER: I think it's because the actors themselves are pretty careful. I don't think Dustin Hoffman...

LIM: I think so.

BARBER: ...Goes a little to the left or a little to the right. I think he's just angry Dustin Hoffman. And I think Jack Black is just ridiculous So Cal Jack Black.

LIM: Himself, yeah.

BARBER: It's just himself. And I think - and I do want to say that I, to answer Stephen's initial question...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

BARBER: ...I went in with a little bit of skepticism, too. And - because I am kind of torn about, like, kind of the criticisms of Awkwafina and stuff like that. And I thought it was going to be a little over the top, but I think she did an OK job. Honestly, I'm going to be fair, I think she reined it in a bit, and I think she was herself, and I think it was good.


AWKWAFINA: (As Zhen) Oh, wow. Look at the time. Remember, we have to do that thing down by the place with that guy.

THOMPSON: Yeah. And I'm glad you said that, Regina, because I had the same reaction - that this is a more - it's not exactly a subdued performance. There are subtleties in this performance.

BARBER: It seems more sincere.

THOMPSON: And she's very - she's a trickster. She's a foil to Poe's earnestness and a foil to Poe's, you know, desire to do the right thing. And they're kind of bouncing off each other, and I think they have real chemistry. I agree.


AWKWAFINA: (As Zhen) Well, then, come and get it.

BLACK: (As Po) No, no, no, no, no, don't come and get it.

LORI TAN CHINN: (As Granny Boar) Destroy them.

THOMPSON: I ended up liking this performance, and I hope that people don't, you know, skip the movie on that basis.

BARBER: It kind of reminded me of Shang-Chi, a little bit - about her character there.

LIM: You know what it reminded me of? Zhen, played by Awkwafina, has this backstory where she was, like, an orphan, just like Po. She was a bit of a scoundrel, kind of "Aladdin," pickpocketing thief in the black market like a fox. And I was like, OK, who's another fox who also had a seedy past? Mr. Nick Wilde from "Zootopia," played by Jason Bateman.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

BARBER: That's right, that's right.

LIM: And I was like, here we go, here we go. People having a crush on a fox yet again, repeating these patterns.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

BARBER: Nick Wilde is one of my favorites, 100%.

LIM: I mean, formative.

BARBER: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: I guess my last question is, do you feel like this story has run its course? I mean, clearly, if this does well, they're going to make more of them. Do you feel like this story has been told? Are you interested in further explorations of this world?

BARBER: Factually, as the scientist here, I'm just worried about James Hong. He's 95 years old. I love the father character. I think he's the most genuine parent, Chinese parent, character that I've ever seen. I love him. I don't know how much longer he's going to be around, so I feel like maybe that's why it should end. Because I couldn't imagine the series without such a loving, caring, anxious Chinese parent (laughter).

LIM: Yeah.

THOMPSON: On a sad point. Thanks for bringing us down, Regina.

BARBER: I know. But I love him. The life is full of change. We have to embrace it.

LIM: The goose is also my favorite character. There is something about him that is so anxious, yet so entrepreneurial, yet so supportive of his son. And I think those three qualities - you take and give some, if you grew up Asian American, being like, yeah, I wish my mom was more like that goose, etcetera, etcetera.

BARBER: Hundred percent. I'm sorry, Mom.

LIM: When we talk about the longevity of this franchise, something that I love about "Kung Fu Panda" is that I feel like they really grew up with their audience. And what I mean by that is, you know, in the first movie, when I was 11, it never pinged me as odd that Po was a panda whose dad was a goose. Didn't faze me. I was like, yeah. And in the second movie, so we're talking a few years later, you know, I'm 15, and that movie brings up some, like, kind of darker themes and topics, one of which is that Po was adopted when his single goose father found him in a box of radishes, and that is because there was a panda genocide, and Po's parents had to store him...


LIM: ...Safely to sacrifice themselves in the war. And I was like, whoa. I don't know if 11-year-old me could have comprehended that, but I like that the franchise took the time to roll out their movies and to meet us where we are, because they needed us to grow up and be like, Po is changing. You are changing. Here the subtle ways you learn about your history. And sometimes that requires being kind of an adult and talking about adult-tier stuff.

BARBER: Yeah. I love it.

THOMPSON: You're tapping into something that I'm really, really glad you brought up, which is just that these movies are not just funny cartoon panda fighting movies. They're movies about biological family versus chosen family, about, you know, being more than you think you are. You know, some of these are themes that a lot of movies come to. But I really find the the arc of the relationship between Po and his dads, his biological father and the father who raised him and their relationship with each other...

BARBER: It's so sweet. And they've just accepted it.

LIM: Yeah.

THOMPSON: And which - to this movie's credit, this movie teams up...

BARBER: Like a buddy comedy.

THOMPSON: Yeah, it kind of creates - has, like, a little buddy-comedy subplot where the two dads are kind of fussily chasing after him, trying to make sure that he's OK.


BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Li Shan) What if the chameleon knows we're coming? Oh, she could be anywhere. Any one.

JAMES HONG: (As Mr. Ping) Li, would you please show a little backbone?

CRANSTON: (As Li Shan) I'm sorry, but bravery was never really my specialty.

HONG: (As Mr. Ping) You don't have to be brave. You just have to act brave.

CRANSTON: (As Li Shan) Act brave...

THOMPSON: I find that really moving. And I'm really glad that these movies have leaned so hard into those relationships. And that's part of what keeps me coming back to these movies. It's not just that they're funny. It's not just that they're beautiful to look at. It's not just that they're really well-acted. I love it when these films dig deep into these themes, the way particularly I think "Kung Fu Panda 3" did. And so if they continue making them, I hope they lean - I hope they keep leaning into that, because that's part of what makes these movies, I think not just fun, but special.

LIM: Mmm hmm, and there's such an art to that, that truly, I'm so supportive of this franchise that I want my grandkids to roll me onto the spaceship AMC to opening day of "Kung Fu Panda 20."

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

LIM: I am all here for it because it crosses generations. It crosses cultures and borders and noodles.


THOMPSON: Noodles. God, I'm so glad we can agree that the "Kung Fu Panda" movies are awesome.


THOMPSON: We want to know what you think about "Kung Fu Panda 4." Find us at That brings us to the end of our show. Regina Barber, Candice Lim, thanks so much for being here.

LIM: Thank you.

BARBER: Thank you.

THOMPSON: This episode was produced by Liz Metzger and edited by Mike Katzif. Our supervising producer is Jessica Reedy, and Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Stephen Thompson, and we will see you all tomorrow.

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