It can’t hold a candle to the earlier movies, but Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight is a fresh new take on the world of Po.
The Kung Fu Panda universe is no stranger to the small screen. Previously, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness and Kung Fu Panda: The Paws of Destiny ensured that audiences could watch more antics of Po the Panda in the comfort of their home. But the newest expansion of this franchise, the Netflix program Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight, breaks new ground by being the first of these shows to feature Jack Black reprising the role as Po.
As anyone who’s sat through Dan Castellaneta’s Genie can attest, there’s no substitute for perfectly cast animated characters. So it is a treat to hear Black’s pipes coming out of the mouth of this rotund warrior once more. Even better, The Dragon Knight hands Po a new adventure with its fair share of charms. It can never escape the feeling of being a superfluous extension of the original Kung Fu Panda movies. Still, this show can pack a punch in its best moments.
Taking place an unspecified amount of time after Kung Fu Panda 3, Po is now the Dragon Master and tasked with protecting China at all costs. However, his status as a beloved celebrity evaporates after a failed attempt to stop a pair of scheming weasels, Klaus (Chris Geere) and Veruca (Della Saba), from stealing a magical gauntlet. Now stripped of his rank, the disgraced Po is determined to make things right. A chance to fulfill that goal arrives in the form of Wandering Blade (Rita Ora).
A knight hailing from London, England, Wandering Blade is on a mission to vanquish those weasels. Much to her chagrin, she requires the aid of Po if she wants to stop Klaus and Veruca. The duo set off on a road trip, the all-business Wandering Blade functioning as Roy Kent to Po’s Ted Lasso. The mismatched pair face foes and mystical weapons on their quest, nearly all new to the Kung Fu Panda franchise.
There is no better indicator of The Dragon Knight’s focus on fresh material than to realize how few characters it ports over from its predecessors. Only Po and his adoptive goose father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), return from the Kung Fu Panda movies. Mentor figures Oogway and Shifu are name-dropped but never seen. Meanwhile, The Furious Five are entirely absent from the show’s eleven-episode run, ditto all the panda villagers seen in Kung Fu Panda 3.
Fans may balk at their favorite supporting players being MIA. However, The Dragon Knight’s writers (which include DreamWorks TV veteran Ben Mekler) have wisely opted to create a standalone adventure story centered on a familiar protagonist. Not shackled to preconceived notions about how certain plotlines or characters should play out, the storytelling has a sense of freedom that proves quite enjoyable.
The Dragon Knight hands Po a new adventure with its fair share of charms.
The embrace of the new is especially noticeable in the amount of heretofore unseen animal species that populate the series. Just the existence of critters like stags, armadillos, and porcupines, not to mention the presence of knights and mages, immediately set The Dragon Knight apart from its predecessors. There are also unexpected detours in atmosphere that would not have ever fit into the earlier Panda films. For instance, a late-season digression to an isolated village turns into a quasi-homage to Midsommar.
But The Dragon Knight does not eschew everything from its predecessors. Thankfully maintained from the Kung Fu Panda movies is a willingness to embrace quieter moments or darker storytelling beats. Parents need not fret; this is a show perfectly suited for youngsters. Nobody involved here has turned Po into a Zack Snyder protagonist. However, these cuddly animals frequently mention death, and many of the action scenes linger on the fight choreography rather than intrusive fart gags.
Unfortunately, the restrictions of being a kid-friendly computer-animated TV show keep The Dragon Knight from fulfilling its potential.
When it lets its atmosphere and quieter moments take the wheel, The Dragon Knight shows a lot of tonal confidence. Unfortunately, the restrictions of being a kid-friendly computer-animated TV show keep The Dragon Knight from fulfilling its potential. Among these limitations is the program’s animation, which alternates between looking serviceable and downright abysmal. Certain main characters, like Po, look fine in design, and the occasionally dynamic camerawork lends verve to the skirmishes between animals.
Too often, though, The Dragon Knight’s visuals yank viewers right out of the story and remind you that you are watching a cheaper TV cartoon. The various backgrounds are especially disappointing. They often look like landscapes from a Banjo-Kazooie level over two decades ago. Supporting characters also tend to carry these eerie vacant eyes that can prove quite distracting. Poor Mr. Ping, still voiced with such vibrant energy by Hong, now wanders the screen with relentlessly chilling pupils devoid of life.
The budgetary limitations of small-screen CG animation also make the movements in the fight scenes significantly less fluid. Moments intended to show off Po or Wandering Blade’s physical prowess lose their cathartic energy by inappropriately rigid motions. The pronounced instances where the lip-syncing of characters fails to align with their words are the worst, though. Bolder elements of The Dragon Knight’s storytelling only serve to highlight how the visuals’ run-of-the-mill nature.
While the animation is usually lackluster, the writing on The Dragon Knight also has its shortcomings. The dynamic between Po and Wandering Blade, particularly, needed extra injections of nuance to make it entertaining enough to sustain eleven half-hour episodes. Unfortunately, constantly watching the latter character underestimate this portly panda only for Po to impart a valuable lesson about kung fu or fun gets repetitive in a binge-watching environment. More variety in the story structures would’ve gone a long way to solving this issue.
The sad news for Po devotees about this effort is it can’t hold a candle to the franchise’s three movies. It’s also never quite good enough to feel like an organic extension of this world. Must all recognizable brands return every two years? Why trot Poe out for his third series in a decade? Hasn’t he earned a rest?
Thankfully, The Dragon Knight‘s creative team has embraced taking the world of Po into largely new directions. That willingness to explore fresh faces and locations combined with a nuanced tone makes the season work better than expected. It’s hard to dismiss any TV show whose primary villain is a psychotic weasel with pink hair. Even if it’s not good enough to make viewers let out a triumphant “skadoosh!” Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight still lands more punches than it misses.
Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight starts throwing punches on Netflix July 14th.
Theres fart gags in this? Oh no… Dreamworms got to Kung Fu Panda now with their worst humor
There’s fart gags in this? Oh god, Dreamworks has gotten to Kung Fu Panda finally with their worst humor.