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‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ kicks up enough laughs to justify bringing it out of hibernation

Coming 16 years after the original movie and eight since the most recent sequel, “Kung Fu Panda 4” actually benefits from what feels like pent-up demand, coupled with “The Simpsons” effect that animated characters don’t grow older. Slick and briskly paced, the film incorporates its origins while conjuring enough laughs and fun to effectively deliver for parents and their cubs.

One of DreamWorks’ most agreeable franchises peaked early with its story of the unlikely Po (voiced with the usual gusto by Jack Black) rising from humble roots to become the Dragon Warrior, while facing off against a truly excellent and formidable villain in Tai Lung (Ian McShane). The sequels were fine but proved less memorable.

This time, Po is reaping the rewards of his exalted status – even using it as a marketing come-on to assist his adoptive dad and birth dad, Ping and Li (James Hong, now 95, and Bryan Cranston) – when, inevitably, a fresh threat arises: The Chameleon (Viola Davis), a shape-shifting sorceress with supervillain-worthy ambitions that endanger the Valley of Peace.

Po also gets a surprising instruction from Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), telling him that he must identify and begin to groom a successor. Yet he’s not only reluctant to give up the job, but distracted by this latest challenge, especially after a fast-talking thief, Zhen (Awkwafina), offers to lead him to the Chameleon’s stronghold.

Although the best gags, involving some adorable but violence-loving bunnies, have been playing on a loop in the teaser trailers, the film still manages to combine muscular action with a healthy dollop of comedy, much of it having to do with Po’s posse and his seemingly unquenchable appetite. The A-list voice cast really boosts the way the characters play off each other, with most of the key players back (including McShane), Davis sinking her teeth into the venomous baddie and Ke Huy Quan among the other additions.

Granted, there’s only so much that can be done at this point with this kind of concept beyond recycling it, but director Mike Mitchell (“Trolls”) keeps the story moving even during the relatively flat exposition, and the chase sequences and fights have considerable energy and visual flair.

As noted, part of that might just have to do with the adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder, or in this case, “Panda” fans hungrier. Given that, looking at the growing intervals between movies, people should have worked up an appetite for bringing “Kung Fu Panda 5” out of hibernation somewhere around 2036.

“Kung Fu Panda 4” premieres March 8 in US theaters. It’s rated PG.

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