Kung Fu Panda 4 is a joyless slog. Its sole purpose for being appears to be to launch a new set of movies, but it doesn’t provide the audience with any reason to come back.

The only reason I could see that a parent might want to take their child is that there’d be a chance it could hold their attention for 90 minutes. Of the three children who watched it at the same time as I did, only one of them watched the whole thing. So your odds aren’t great.

The film follows Po (Jack Black) as he’s been tasked to find the new Dragon Warrior to replace him. But Po isn’t ready to leave the job, and gets thrust into one last adventure that forces him to re-confront the many foes of his past. Zhen (Awkwafina) joins Po for this adventure, but the character and her Oliver-Twist-esque backstory fall flat. 

The plot is rather convoluted, and while the moral of the story is putatively “it’s never too late to do the right thing”—the line is repeated twice—it’s not very often that the audience can tell what the right thing to do is. It’s not that the morals are nuanced, so much as the only apparent “right thing” to do is whatever the plot demands to get to the next scene. And while the film brushes up against themes like the justification of violence, or the power of redemption, it certainly doesn’t have anything to say about them. 

The only theme that the film actually addresses is the importance of moving on when it’s time, a theme that might resonate with the grandparents who find themselves caught in the theater, but I can’t imagine meaning much to its five to eight-year-old target audience. And a message, which perhaps, the studio heads who greenlit the project should have taken heed of. 

Other than a very mild insinuation that the only purpose of spiritual leaders is to come up with pithy proverbs, and some mild frightening elements for more sensitive children, the film has nothing offensive to it. So I certainly don’t want to scare parents away if they want to take their children to see it. There’s just no reason for them to want to.

And because the film is so muddled, I can’t imagine that it much matters whether you come in having seen the earlier films. However, if you did, there may be one added layer of enjoyment to this film’s climax.

As far as the animation, it lacks some of the bright, bouncy style that set the first film apart. It borrows stylistic flourishes from contemporary animation, so at times, it looks like a second-rate version of  “The Bad Guys” (a much better DreamWorks entrant of recent years.) 

If the film has any redeeming features, it might be limited to the choreography of the final battle. The villain of this film, Chameleon, utilizes her shapeshifting abilities to stylish results. Ronny Chieng, who enters the franchise as a fish who lives in a Pelican beak, and James Hong back as Po’s adopted father both sound like they’re having fun, at least. 

I shouldn’t be too hard. Kung Fu Panda 4 is only the fifth animated film series to make it to a fourth release in theaters. And none of those other installments arrived with much left to say either. The director, Mike Mitchell, also directed Shrek Forever After and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, so he has found a niche navigating franchises on their last legs. So, while DreamWorks seemed interested in trying to jumpstart the franchise for another go around, there’s nothing left in the tank for this one. Even Jack Black sounds tired. If you wanted another film celebrating Chinese culture, check out the far superior “Tiger’s Apprentice” on Paramount Plus, released undeservedly under the radar earlier this year. 

Kung Fu Panda 4 isn’t a film for anyone, and while I wouldn’t be worried about it indoctrinating your kids, I would be worried they’d get up and leave. One and a half out of five stars. 

Kung Fu Panda 4 releases in theaters nationwide on March 8th. It is rated PG.