Review: ‘Kung Fu Panda 4,’ starring the voices of Jack Black, Awkwafina, Bryan Cranston, James Hong, Ian McShane, Ke Huy Quan, Dustin Hoffman and Viola Davis

March 7, 2024

by Carla Hay

Po (voiced by Jack Black) and Zhen (voiced by Awkwafina) in “Kung Fu Panda 4” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Kung Fu Panda 4”

Directed by Mike Mitchell; co-directed by Stephanie Ma Stine

Culture Representation: Taking place in a mythical version of China, the animated film “Kung Fu Panda 4” features a cast of characters portraying various talking animals.

Culture Clash: Grandmaster Warrior/kung fu fighter Po (a panda) and a rebellious fox named Zhen go on a quest to defeat an evil, shape-shifting villain named The Chameleon. 

Culture Audience: “Kung Fu Panda 4” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise, the movie’s headliners, and predictable but entertaining animation films that blend comedy and adventure.

The Chameleon (voiced by Viola Davis), center, in “Kung Fu Panda 4” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Kung Fu Panda 4” sticks to a certain formula that’s made entertaining, thanks to a talented voice cast, light comedy and dazzling visuals. The absence of the Furious Five in this story will disappoint some viewers, but the adventure doesn’t get boring. “Kung Fu Panda 4” is the type of sequel that exists to set up a continuation of this franchise with perspectives that were different from previous “Kung Fu Panda” movies.

Directed by Mike Mitchell and co-directed by Stephanie Ma Stine, “Kung Fu Panda 4” is part of the franchise series that began with 2008’s “Kung Fu Panda” and continued with 2011’s “Kung Fu Panda 2” and 2016’s “Kung Fu Panda 3.” In the first three “Kung Fu Panda” movies, the title character Po (voiced by Jack Black) had adventures with a group of kung fu masters called the Furious Five: Tigress (voiced by Angela Jolie), Monkey (voiced by Jackie Chan), Viper (voiced by Lucy Liu), Crane (voiced by David Cross) and Mantis (voiced by Seth Rogen). Po evolves from being an awkward panda to being a full-fledged kung fu warrior, under the guidance of an elderly mentor named Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), who also trained the Furious Five.

It’s mentioned at the beginning of “Kung Fu Panda 4” (which takes place ina fantasy version of China, just like the previous “Kung Fu Panda” movies) that the Furious Five are off doing separate heroic deeds. (In other words, the “Kung Fu Panda 4” filmmakers couldn’t or didn’t want to pay the money it would take to bring the original Furious Five voice actors back as principal characters for this sequel.) Po is now a famous Dragon Warrior who loves to fight and almost always wins his battles against criminals where he lives in the Valley of Peace.

And that’s why Po is surprised when Shifu tells Po that Po is being “promoted” to become the Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace, as a replacement for the retiring Master Oogway, an elderly Galápagos tortoise. Po doesn’t think of himself as having enough knowledge about spirtuality to be qualified for this position. He only wants to do what he knows he’s good at doing: “Kicking butt and taking names,” Po says. Shifu gives reluctant Po the task of choosing Po’s successor as the next Dragon Warrior, but Po doesn’t think he’s qualified to do that task either.

Because he is the reigning Dragon Warrior, Po has been given possession of a magical staff that can open different realms. The staff only works if it is in the possession of someone who has been given the staff, not someone who steals or buys the staff. It should come as no surprise that this staff becomes the sought-after object in this story of good versus evil.

Po soon meets a female Corsac fox named Zhen (voiced by Awkwafina), a wily and sarcastic thief from Juniper City, a place that is bustling with high energy but also danger. It’s the type of place where innocent-looking kids can turn into mean little terrors within a split second. Zhen soon gets caught during a robbery and is tossed in jail.

Zhen tells Po that there’s an evil shapeshifting sorceress named The Chameleon (voiced by Viola Davis), who has super-strength powers and an army of Komodo dragons. The Chameleon who wants the staff, in order to have world domination. The Chameleon is already wreaking havoc by having several crime lords under her control in the surrounding areas. She forces these nefarious bosses to give her at least half of their bounty. The crime lords hang out at a place called the Den of Thieves, where they are led by Han (voiced by Ke Huy Quan), a pangolin who can change himself into a ball the size of a boulder.

Po naturally wants to stop The Chameleon. Zhen tells Po that she knows how to find The Chameleon. Po makes a deal with Zhen: He will get Zhen out of jail and get her jail sentence reduced if she can bring him to the place where The Chameleon is. Po figures that if he will soon have to gve up the title of Dragon Warrior, he wants to go out in a blaze of glory. The majority of “Kung Fu Panda 4” is about Zhen and Po’s quest to find The Chameleon and encountering several obstacles and challenges along the way.

It’s a secretive trip that Po doesn’t disclose to his family. Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong) and Po’s biological father Li (voiced by Bryan Cranston)—whose rivalry was resolved after they met in “Kung Fu Panda 3″—join forces in “Kung Fu Panda 4” to find Po when he goes missing. Mr. Ping is a nervous goose, while Li has a lot of masculine bravado, so these two opposite personalities (who occasionally argue) are fodder of a lot the comedic rapport between these two fathers.

During the time and Zhen and Po spend time together and get to know each other better, they find out that they both spent most of their childhoods as orphans. Zhen says she was taken in and raised by someone who taught street smarts to Zhen. It’s at this point in the story where it might be very easy for some viewers to figure out what’s going to happen.

“Kung Fu Panda 4” voice cast members Black and Awkwafina have done several animated films where they are larger-than-life, comedic characters. It’s a skill set that not all performers have, but Black and Awkwafina excel at it, even if some viewers might think Awkwafina’s voice is irritating. As for the Chameleon character, Davis gives a very divalicious performance as a villain who is both glamorous and menacing.

“Kung Fu Panda 4” also marks the return of snow leopard Tai Lung (voiced by Ian McShane), who was the chief villain in the first “Kung Fu Panda” movie. Other supporting characters in “Kung Fu Panda 4” are Captain Fish (voiced by Ronny Chieng), a green arowana living in a pelican’s mouth; Granny Boar (voiced by Lori Tan Chinn), who uses her tusks and weapons; and PandaPig (voiced by MrBeast), a pig with certain panda characteristics, who is at the Dragon Warrior Tournament. One of the best-looking fight sequences in “Kung Fu Panda 4” involves Po and some of the other characters in shadows.

Sometimes, when there’s a long gap between movies in a franchise, the movie that closes that gap can be a very stale cash grab that seems outdated. However, the throughline between “Kung Fu Panda 3” and “Kung Fu Panda 4” manages to keep the story and characters fresh enough to deliver a crowd-pleasing film. “Kung Fu Panda” is not going to win any major awards, but it fulfills its purpose to be pleasant diversion that people of many generations can enjoy.

Universal Pictures will release “Kung Fu Panda 4” in U.S. cinemas on Mach 8, 2024.

Review: ‘Sam & Kate,’ starring Jake Hoffman, Schuyler Fisk, Sissy Spacek and Dustin Hoffman

December 7, 2022

by Carla Hay

Dustin Hoffman, Jake Hoffman, Schuyler Fisk and Sissy Spacek in “Sam & Kate” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Sam & Kate”

Directed by Darren Le Gallo

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed small city in the United States, the comedy/drama film “Sam & Kate” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A man and a woman in their 30s start dating each other at around the same time that their elderly single parents show a romantic interest in each other.

Culture Audience: “Sam & Kate will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Sissy Spacek and Dustin Hoffman and are interested in watching a movie about intergenerational relationships.

Jake Hoffman and Schuyler Fisk in “Sam & Kate” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Dull conversations and lackluster scenes prevent “Sam & Kate” from being the great romantic dramedy that it wants to be. The acting is admirable though, and the film’s best moments make up for any flaws. The movie is better at depicting grief than romance.

“Sam & Kate” is the first feature film written and directed by Darren Le Gallo, whose film credits are mostly as an actor. (Le Gallo has an acting cameo in “Sam & Kate,” where he has a brief speaking role as a customer in a coffee shop.) As a concept, the movie sounds like a sure-fire charmer: Two Oscar-winning actors (Dustin Hoffman and Sissy Spacek) portray single senior citizens who develop a romantic interest in each other at the same time that his son and her daughter start dating each other. And to give it sense of authenticity, Dustin Hoffman’s real-life son Jake Hoffman and Spacek’s real-life daughter Schuyler Fisk portray the children of these elderly characters.

However, “Sam & Kate” ends up being hit-and-miss in the movie’s dialogue and pacing. Some of the scenes (especially toward the end of the movie) work very well, while other scenes are a slog that will induce boredom. The movie’s tag line—”It’s hard raising parents”—implies that the children are more emotionally mature than the parents. It’s a misleading tag line because that doesn’t really describe the movie’s plot at all.

The story is told from the point of view of the least emotionally mature of the four people at the center of the story. Sam (played by Jake Hoffman), who is in his late 30s, is a cynical and mopey slacker who’s an assembly line worker at a chocolate factory in an unnamed small city in the United States. (“Sam & Kate” was actually filmed in Thomasville, Georgia.) Sam doesn’t really like his job, because he would rather be a professional illustrator, but working at the chocolate factory seems to be the only job he can find at the moment. When Sam is on his work breaks, he goes outside to the back of the building and smokes marijuana.

The movie begins in late December, during the end-of-year holiday season. The city where the movie takes place is Sam’s childhood hometown. He has recently moved back to this hometown to help take care of his widower father Bill (played by Dustin Hoffman), who’s been having some health issues that aren’t detailed until later in the movie. Sam, who calls his father by his first name (not Dad or Father), feels a little bit like a failure that he’s had to move back in with his father because Sam can’t afford his own place.

Not much is told about Sam’s mother, except that she died a few years ago. Sam’s parents had a happy marriage. It’s also mentioned that Sam grew up in an interfaith household, because his mother was Christian, and Bill is Jewish. Therefore, Sam celebrates Christmas and Hanukkah.

There’s some friction between Sam and Bill, mostly because Bill doesn’t think Sam has lived up to his potential in life. Bill doesn’t discourage Sam from being an artist, but he thinks Sam hasn’t tried hard enough to make a living as an artist and hasn’t considered better career options, in case Sam never becomes a professional artist. Sam will soon meet someone who is also put artistic dreams aside to work at a more job that can offer a steady income.

One day, Sam is walking past a bookstore when he notices an attractive female employee through the window. He immediately goes in the store to try to talk to this mystery lady, who is about the same age as Sam. Later, he’ll find out that her name is Kate (played by Fisk), and there’s more to her than his first impression.

Sam is awkward and nervous around Kate. He tries to make small talk and pretends to be interested in buying a book, until he blurts out that he went into the store just because he wanted to meet her. She’s polite but a little standoffish.

He doesn’t notice until he gets to the cash register that the book he’s picked out is $125, which is a price that Sam can’t afford, but he doesn’t want to say that out loud. Kate can tell he doesn’t want to pay that price for a book, so she points him in the direction of a table that has books on sale. Sam then gets up the courage to ask her on a date, but she turns him down nicely by saying, “I’m not dating right now.” A dejected Sam then leaves the store.

But what a coincidence: While Sam and Bill are at a Christmas Eve service at a local Christian church, Sam sees Kate with her mother Tina (played by Spacek) sitting in a nearby pew. After the church service, Tina’s car can’t start. And what a coincidence: Sam and Bill just happen to be nearby and can jumpstart the car for Tina, who asks for their help.

And that’s how these parents and children all meet each other. Kate already knows that Sam is attracted to her. He eventually finds out that Kate owns the bookstore where she works, and she used to be a folk musician who would go on tour. Kate’s past life as a musician is a sore subject for her.

Eventually, Kate warms up to Sam’s earnest attempts to court her, and they start dating each other. Bill and Tina get to know each other better too. And then, Bill and Tina also start dating each other. One of these romances heats up more than the other.

A lot of “Sam & Kate” sort of ambles along (particularly in the middle of the movie) with scenes that just aren’t very interesting. Viewers find out that Tina quit the church choir before the movie takes place, because she’s “not ready to go back” to the choir. Tina’s church friend Beth (played by Elizabeth Becka) is disappointed in this decision. Sam has a co-worker friend named Tom (played by Henry Thomas), who’s about 10 years older than Sam and who moonlights as a musician. Sam and Tom have some forgettable stoner conversations.

Viewers also find out that Bill and Sam get on each other’s nerves. Bill is very demanding, opinionated and a little bit of a weirdo. Bill does things such as ask Sam to drive him to a 24-hour Kmart-type of store late at night (after midnight), just to buy non-essential items, such as a hat. At the store, Bill goofs around and somehow gets on the public-address system to praise the store manager. This type of late-night trip is shown in the movie’s opening scene. Sam is annoyed, but he feels obligated to accommodate Bill, because Sam is living rent-free in Bill’s house.

Bill doesn’t let Sam forget it. The first argument that Bill and Sam have in the movie is when Bill and Sam are at home. Bill starts to lecture Sam about working at a low-paying, dead job, by telling Sam that he needs to grow up and be a man. In response, Sam tells Bill, “I think you need to get laid.” Bill says about Tina, “You think I have a shot?” And then just as suddenly, Bill cries a little bit and says, “I miss your mother.”

That scene is an example of how the movie tries and doesn’t always succeed in having a balancing act between the grief and the romance that propel the storylines for the four main characters. Sometimes this balancing act is handled in a clumsy way that doesn’t look believable, while other times the balancing act is handled in a seamless way that looks very authentic. Even with the great acting talent of Spacek and Hoffman, their respective Bill and Tina characters don’t seem fully developed.

It isn’t until about halfway into the movie that viewers find out more about Tina and Kate. Kate’s father/Tina’s ex-husband abandoned the family when Kate was a baby, and he hasn’t been heard from since. Tina never remarried. Tina is also a hoarder, and the movie shows how Bill reacts when he finds out about Tina’s hoarding. Kate is embarrassed by her mother’s hoarding, but she helps her mother when Tina is ordered by the local health department to clean up and de-clutter Tina’s house.

Kate has her own heavy emotional issues, which are also revealed in the movie, perhaps a little too late in the story to make the impact that it should have had. Kate has been keeping a big secret from Sam after they’ve become a romantic couple. Everyone else who’s close to Kate, except for Sam, knows that Kate hasn’t told him. It seems a little hard to believe Sam wouldn’t have heard about this secret in this small town, where a lot of people know everyone else’s business and gossip about it.

“Sam & Kate” tries very hard not to be a lightweight story, because the tone of this uneven movie switches into tearjerker mode in the last 20 minutes. There’s a plot development in these last 20 minutes that feels a little rushed into the movie, but these last 20 minutes also have the movie’s best scenes. “Sam & Kate” gives the impression that it’s a film whose screenplay started out with some great scenes in mind, and then a lot of filler was written around those scenes.

Up until the last 20 minutes of “Sam & Kate,” Jake Hoffman’s portrayal of Sam comes across as a neurotic with a self-defeating attitude that’s stuck in a rut. Fisk is perfectly fine in her role as pleasant-but-guarded Kate, who encourages Sam’s dreams of becoming a professional artist. Spacek shows the most range in her role as Tina, but the movie doesn’t answer some significant questions about Tina, such as how long she’s been a hoarder and what else she has going on her life. In the late stage of his career, Dustin Hoffman has been doing a lot of “cantankerous old man” roles, so he’s essentially perfected that persona at this point.

As the movie’s title indicates, the relationship between Sam and Kate gets most of the screen time, which doesn’t leave equal time for viewers to get to know Bill and Tina better. Some viewers might not like how this movie ends, but considering the meandering vibe of the rest of “Sam & Kate,” it’s not too much of a surprise. As long as viewers don’t expect “Sam & Kate” to be a wacky comedy or an award-worthy film, there shouldn’t be too much disappointment, because the most meaningful scenes carry this movie.

Vertical Entertainment released “Sam & Kate” in select U.S. cinemas on November 11, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on November 18, 2022.

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