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Interview: Director Mike Mitchell Talks ‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ and What Sets the Franchise’s Fourth Installment Apart from Its Predecessors

May 21, 2024Ben MK

Before he was Bowser in The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Jack Black was just a panda with a dream. As the lovable and clumsy Po, who started off working in his adoptive dad's noodle shop but who was chosen as the Valley of Peace's next Dragon Warrior, Black embodied the classic underdog archetype — defending the valley from such fearsome villains as Tai Lung, Lord Shen and Kai, and helping to make the Kung Fu Panda franchise one of the most successful animated film series of all time in the process. Now, with Kung Fu Panda 4, Po is back to take on a dangerous new adversary called the Chameleon (Viola Davis). And thanks to a spunky new ally named Zhen (Awkwafina), he'll discover that there's more to being a legend than just being a mighty warrior.

I caught up with director Mike Mitchell to chat about Kung Fu Panda 4, from the various inspirations behind the franchise's fourth entry to the Easter eggs hidden throughout the movie, and more

This is the first Kung Fu Panda movie you've directed, but you previously directed such animated films as The LEGO Movie 2, and you directed a few live-action comedies like Deuce Bigalow. How did you bring that experience of working in both animation and live-action to the Kung Fu Panda universe?

Mitchell: For this one, I hired some stunt people to come in and show us some authentic moves and to help us with every fight sequence. So once a fight sequence was storyboarded, we would edit it together and we'd send it to these live-action people that had worked on a lot of Marvel films and worked with Jean-Claude Van Damme. And they performed and would elevate all of our action sequences. It was really great for the animators to watch them move. And Po is bestowed with this new weapon that we haven't really seen him use before — the Staff of Wisdom — so we wanted to make sure to use that weapon properly and make it not just authentic but really cool. So that was something that we hadn't done in the past, and it was really unique. It really made it cool.

There are a few new characters in this one, like Zhen, Fish, Han and the Chameleon, and you're working with a pretty impressive voice cast, including of course Jack Black, and also Awkwafina, Ronny Chieng, Ke Huy Quan and Viola Davis. Can you talk about finding the right actors to play these characters?

Mitchell: Awkwafina was a great find because she was already buddies with Jack Black. So that made my job easy, where they already kind of had this back and forth going on. And it was just so much fun to use her personality to help design her character. But the biggest concern, for me, before we even started this movie was the villain. I think this franchise has the best villains ever created, out of any animated film. I just love these villains — Tai Lung, Lord Shen — and the way they're voiced and the way they're designed is really spectacular. And so to move forward, I was very hesitant until we came upon a villain that could literally encompass the previous villains.

So once we came up with that idea, we hit on the animal the chameleon, and it really came together when we gave a presentation of the villain to Viola and she agreed to do it. She brought a lot to that character, like a gravitas. The chameleon was smaller than everyone else around her, but because Viola was such a presence, you didn't feel it. So that was very exciting. And then for the other characters like Ronny Chieng and Ke, that was just a blast to have them come along and really own the character. Similarly to Viola, they all helped the character evolve. It started with a great design, but every actor helped their character evolve even more.

You mentioned Jean-Claude Van Damme earlier, but some of the scenes reminded me of Mortal Kombat. Can you talk about some of the inspirations that went into this sequel?

Mitchell: Yes, very inspired by Mortal Kombat. And more so than the previous films, we were inspired by anime a lot in this one. A lot of our artists were really huge fans of anime. And I've noticed from working on the previous Kung Fu Panda [movies] that we had more of that in this film than I've seen before. Some of the camera moves too, that was another thing — in live-action, the camera moves have evolved to this Go Pro that can go anywhere and move anywhere, it's almost like this tiny camera on the end of a stick. And we're like, "Let's do some of that, we've never seen that." It's perfect for a martial arts film, so we incorporated a lot of that stuff too.

Like the previous entries in the series, Kung Fu Panda 4 features a good mix of comedy and action. But was there a scene in the movie that was one of your favorites to work on?

Mitchell: I loved that tavern fight, just the fighting styles of Po versus Zhen. Zhen is very fast, she fights a little dirty, she throws spices in people's eyes, and Po is constantly trying to return people's money as she's trying to steal the money. So it was a great fight sequence, and then it wasn't until we were done that another director came in — his name is Tom McGrath, and he directed Madagascar and Boss Baby and Megamind. He came and he goes, "You know, it would be cool if you guys had that tavern up on a cliff. What if that started to tilt back and forth?" And man, we were so excited, we were like, "Ok, let's go back to the beginning." And now everything's tilting. So it was one of those things where, because it's animation, you can really build on those ideas. You can always go back and redo stuff if it's just sketches and drawings. So that was a very exciting sequence for me.

And let's not forget the film's ending, which features Jack Black's rock and roll rendition of Britney Spears' '...Baby One More Time.' Can you tell me how that song came about?

Mitchell: I told Jack, "I would love to get Tenacious D to do a song at the end of this film. The only thing I ask is that it has to tie in to kung fu in some way." And he says, "Well, the next thing that Kyle and I wanna do is a Britney Spears song." And then the actors' strike happened. So when the strike ended, we literally had two weeks to record it. [Jack] did it in his garage, and we sent it to Abbey Road, where a group of 40 violins played along with the song, and Hans Zimmer weaved in the Kung Fu Panda theme. It's beautiful, but it happened very quickly.

Of course, this being the third sequel, there's a lot that has already been established in the Kung Fu Panda universe. Are there any Easter eggs that fans should look out for in this one?

Mitchell: There are so many Easter eggs. Like there's Kung Fu Hustle, the little boar pig was based on the landlady; there's a sequence at the beginning, one shot from Po fighting the stingray that we took from Jaws; in every film that I do, there's always a nod to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. So there's Easter eggs from top to bottom, mostly from kung fu films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and, like I said, a lot of anime.

Last but not least, what advice would you give to those looking to break into the animation industry?

Mitchell: It is so fortunate that we have this technology right in front of us where we can make our own films. This wasn't so easy to do when I was a kid. You'd have to get a camera, you'd have to get lights, you'd have to get a whole different editing machine. And now we've got it at our fingertips, so I would just encourage everyone to draw constantly. It doesn't have to be on the computer, it could be paper and pencil, whatever, just keep it with you and draw all the time. And then if you can, try to make your own storyboards or animatics, or film even. Even if it's just 15 seconds long, just get your hands dirty and do it. It's the quickest way to learn.

Kung Fu Panda 4 is available now on Digital and on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & DVD May 28th.

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