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Movie Review: 'Kung Fu Panda 4' is a sweet, fun and well executed passing of the torch

“Kung Fu Panda 4” finds our trusty, rotund hero Po at a career crossroads and he's nervous. "Change doesn’t have to be a bad thing,” he is told. “Kung Fu Panda 4” also finds the franchise at an inflection point, but there's no reason for us to be nervous. DreamWorks knows what it's doing.

The series' first new installment in eight years is a reliably funny, sweet and wonderfully realized passing of the torch, with a paw in the past and another into the future — an elegant goodbye and a hello. Many other filmmakers — ahem, Marvel and DC — might learn a thing.

When we meet him, Po — voiced as always by a lively Jack Black — is being asked to give up his dream role as Dragon Warrior and pick a successor. He's being kicked upstairs to be Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace. (This is basically the Peter Principle illustrated in animation.)

Except Po doesn't want to go into management. He loves smashing skulls and still has that lovable imposter syndrome he's had since the franchise began. He tries to short-circuit any succession plans, change being too frightening.

A new enemy threatening an existential crisis offers a reprieve — The Chameleon — a wicked, powerful sorceress voiced by Viola Davis — looks like the lizard from the GEICO commercials who spent too much time at Graceland.

Po teams up with a new character — a Corsac fox named Zhen voiced by Awkwafina — who is an orphan-turned-thief and teaches the too-trusting panda to trust no one. The movie then becomes a buddy road movie as these two hunt The Chameleon and a chance to bundle their home and auto insurance.

Wait a minute, you might be asking: Where are The Furious Five — Tigress, Viper, Monkey, Crane and Mantis — who have been in each “Kung Fu Panda” iteration so far? They're not really in “Kung Fu Panda 4,” but the film reaches back to the first installment to bring back the snow leopard, Tai Lung, voiced by the sonorous Ian McShane.

Bryan Cranston is also back to voice Po’s goofy biological father and James Hong returns as his spirited adoptive goose dad, while Dustin Hoffman reprises his role as eye-rolling master Shifu.

It's a good balance of new and old characters but a masterstroke is coming: The Chameleon finds a way of accessing the spirit realm and bringing back every villain Po has ever faced. That results in a greatest hits-like fight scene that may be hard to top if there's a “Kung Fu Panda 5.”

The third installment's writers, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, are also back this time, joined by Darren Lemke. The film is helmed by “The Lego Movie 2” director Mike Mitchell and co-directed by Stephanie Ma Stine, who worked on “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

The last three movies have largely stuck to the rural Valley of Peace, so the filmmakers change it up this time and take Po and Zhen to an urban environment, Juniper City, packed with busy animals, rickshaws, and bulls as police officers (watch for a hilarious bull-in-a-jade-shop joke).

As always, it's the animators who are the real heroes here. From the thick fur on the pandas, to clay tiles smashing on roofs to rain splashing on stones, barroom brawls and petals wafting from cherry trees, this is a visual delight.

Creating The Chameleon — and her scary Komodo dragon guards — gives the animators a chance to show a tiny lizard metamorphosize into an elephant in a few seconds and they relish it. They also sometimes dip into different animation styles, giving a viewer a visual break.

There are some missteps, like a pelican character controlled by a fish in its mouth and three cute bunnies who appear adorable and yet are deeply psychotic. (“Violence makes my tummy tingle,” one says.) Plus, the teaming up again of Po's dads, while welcome, is also sort of pointless here.

But, as Po would say, “Skadoosh!” The filmmaker have managed a very tricky assignment: Pave the way for a new franchise direction, find new ways to entertain us, remind us of lessons like “It’s never too late to do the right thing” and end the whole thing with the Black-led cover by Tenacious D of “...Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears. Embrace the change.

“Kung Fu Panda 4,” a DreamWorks Animation release that hits theaters Friday, is rated PG for “for mild violence, martial arts action, scary images and some mild rude humor.” Running time: 94 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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MPAA Definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested.

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Online: https://www.dreamworks.com/movies/kung-fu-panda-4

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits