Producer: Rebecca Huntley   Director: Mike Mitchell  Screenplay: Jonathan Aible, Glenn Berger and Darren Lemke  Cast: Jack Black, Awkwafina, Viola Davis, Bryan Cranston, James Hong, Dustin Hoffman, Ian McShane, Ke Huy Quan, Ronny Chieng and Lori Tan Chinn   Distributor: Universal Pictures

Grade: C

There are plenty of fights but surprisingly few laughs in this latest installment of the DreamWorks Animation franchise that began in 2008 and has grown to include not only four features (thus far) but TV and web series, video games, books of various kinds, and even arena shows.  But despite the surfeit of action and spiffy visuals, “Kung Fu Panda 4” proves a pretty pedestrian addition to what’s become an increasingly by-the-numbers money-making machine.

In this installment, which feels rather like an uninspired reboot, Po (voiced by Jack Black) is enjoying his role as Dragon Warrior in the Valley of Peace, overcoming opponents and promoting the noodle shop run by his fathers, goose Ping (James Hong), the adoptive one, and panda Li (Bryan Cranston), the biological one.  But diminutive red panda Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) informs him that it’s time for him to move up the ladder to become the Valley’s spiritual advisor and pass the Staff of Wisdom to a new Dragon Warrior, whom he will choose from a group of able applicants.

Po, content with his current position, demurs at selecting any of the obviously capable candidates and seizes on the reported return of his old enemy, snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane), from the Spirit Realm to undertake one last great mission—a journey to Juniper City to vanquish a new villain, The Chameleon (Viola Davis); she aims to become all-powerful by taking Po’s Staff and recalling other great warriors from the Spirit Realm to siphon off their skills.  To find the way, he enlists the help of Zhen (Awkwafina), a thieving little fox with a bad attitude and a tendency to jabber defensively.

The trip is naturally an eventful one, the major stop along the way at a gambling emporium run by Granny Boar (Lori Tan Chinn), a mean-tempered sort with extractable tusks, where a massive fight ensues.  But it’s also there that they link up with Captain Fish (Ronny Chieng), who lives in a pelican’s beak and can ferry them to their destination.  Reaching Juniper City, Po learns that Zhen is a wanted criminal and becomes a fugitive with her, pursued by a gang led by pangolin Han (Ke Huy Quan) and menaced by a tiresome trio of malevolent rabbits.  Eventually they make their way to the tower where The Chameleon awaits for a final confrontation—accompanied by a twist that comes as no surprise, an equally predictable reversal, and Po’s ultimate triumph.

The action is periodically interrupted by cuts to Ping and Li, who take it upon themselves to follow their boy and engage in a succession of slapstick adventures before joining him for the finale.

There are snatches of amusement here.  Hong and Cranston make a good comic pair, and the moments with them are pleasant interludes.  Occasionally a good sight gag slips in, like a chase through Juniper City that suddenly slows to a careful crawl when it moves into a shop loaded with delicate glassware.  And the efforts of the DreamWorks animators and production designer Paul Duncan result in some lovely wide-screen images and some imaginative touches as The Chameleon shape-shifts.  But the slower scenes—and the humor that goes along with them—play second-fiddle to the elaborate fight sequences, which, as staged by director Mike Mitchell and editor Christopher Knights,  are pretty repetitious and rather dull, despite the exertions of the score by Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro to rev up the energy level.

One can find some compensation in the mostly agreeable voice work is mostly agreeable.  Black is nicely laid-back as a still-naïve Po, Hoffman contributes his gruff tones to the exasperated Shifu, and though Davis is reduced to one-note hissing malevolence, she manages it well.  It’s also good to hear McShane’s darkly seductive tones again.  Unfortunately, there’s a major exception is Awkwafina, who’s become almost omnipresent nowadays, and whose chattering, snide fox is irritating from the get-go, and grows more so as the film progresses.

The movie is bound to be a major box office success; children brought up on the character are bound to want to see him again and again, and parents will dutifully cater to them.  But this is a series in need of a major overhaul, and on the evidence of this entry, Zhen the Fox isn’t the answer, despite what the makers might think.