Interview: Director Mike Mitchell on the success and endurance of Kung Fu Panda 4; “We know that we made a film that we love.”

After three death-defying adventures defeating world-class villains with his unmatched courage and mad martial arts skills, Po, the Dragon Warrior (Jack Black), is called upon by destiny to…give it a rest already. More specifically, he’s tapped to become the Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace.

That poses a couple of obvious problems. First, Po knows as much about spiritual leadership as he does about the paleo diet, and second, he needs to quickly find and train a new Dragon Warrior before he can assume his new lofty position.

Even worse, there’s been a recent sighting of a wicked, powerful sorceress, Chameleon (Viola Davis), a tiny lizard who can shapeshift into any creature, large or small. And Chameleon has her greedy, beady little eyes on Po’s Staff of Wisdom, which would give her the power to re-summon all the master villains whom Po has vanquished to the spirit realm.

So, Po’s going to need some help. He finds it (kinda?) in the form of crafty, quick-witted thief Zhen (Awkwafina), a corsac fox who really gets under Po’s fur but whose skills will prove invaluable. In their quest to protect the Valley of Peace from Chameleon’s reptilian claws, this comedic odd-couple duo will have to work together. In the process, Po will discover that heroes can be found in the most unexpected places.

To celebrate the home digital release of Kung Fu Panda 4, which has now pushed the franchise to a massive milestone of grossing over 2 billion dollars at the global box office, Peter Gray spoke with director Mike Mitchell – you can read their previous chats for the trailer here and original release here – about the confidence of being involved in such a successful franchise, how one pitches themselves to Viola Davis, and who’s truly winning in the streaming vs. theatrical battle?

Having spoken to you before, it feels great that I can actually congratulate you on the film’s success.  You’re at over $530 million globally, and critics loved it, so it’s got to feel great to put it out there and know that audiences actually enjoyed it!

Can I tell you, Peter, it’s the greatest.  We know that we made a film that we love.  But that doesn’t always mean it’s going to perform.  This one has outperformed the last Kung Fu Panda, and it’s the second biggest franchise that DreamWorks has made next to Shrek.  I couldn’t be happier.

Can you ever go into the release of these films with a level of confidence? You know the other films have performed so well, can you allow yourself to think about the continuation of that trajectory? To be a little cocky about it?

You never know.  You can’t tell (anything).  No one knows anything.  It’s all such a weird math equation.  If I knew? I’d rule the world (laughs).  Here’s what I love going in, because I do work on a lot of franchises.  I like to go in at the beginning and explore why has this movie stood the test of time? It’s just fascinating to me.  Like, when I worked on SpongeBob (Squarepants), or even those Chipmunk movies, or Shrek…you’re just like, “What is it about these movies that you could keep doing them again?”  The confidence I had before (Kung Fu Panda 4) was that Jack Black is the greatest.  He’s so funny.  He’s so charming.  And there’s something about a character like Po.  He’s always a child, no matter how grown up he is.   Jack Black is a fanboy, so if we do parts 5, 6, 7, 8…that’s where my confidence is.

One of the things that I mentioned the last time I spoke to you was the fact that you had Jack Black singing Britney Spears, with Hans Zimmer orchestrating.  How does that form? It just blows my mind that such a combination exists.

Peter, I’m so glad you brought this up.  It was so dramatic.  We had the writers and an actor strike, so we couldn’t even discuss anything with the (cast).  We couldn’t record any music.  We could record the score, but we couldn’t record any songs.  And right before the strike we had very little time, because we’re still recording the dialogue for the movie.  I asked Jack if we could get a Tenacious D song.  He was all into it.  I said that it had to be a random song, and it has to tie in with kung fu.  He said, “Well, I really want to do a Britney Spears song.”  That’s when I said, “Well, do “Hit me baby one more time”, because (your characters) are hitting people all the time.”

He couldn’t work on it until after the strike, and then we had weeks to do it.  We were in London where Hans was doing the score.  I know you probably know this story, but I’m going to tell it anyway (laughs).  As soon as (Tenacious D) finished the song, we rushed it off to Hans Zimmer, who was at Abbey Road, and he added violins to it and weaved in the theme song of Kung Fu Panda.  It all just happened so last minute.  No one thought it would work.  The producer (Rebecca Huntley) was biting her nails and drenched in sweat.  We did it.  It was great!

I remember hearing it at my screening and just thinking “This is everything!” I think that song is one of the greatest pop songs of all time, and Jack’s voice is so incredible.  I think some people can often forget just how musically talented he is.

He can hit those notes, man.  And Max Martin is the producer, and I had worked with (him) on Trolls, fortunately.  He did one of our big hit songs for Trolls, so I felt like I had my toe in the door to ask him to help us.  “You want to give us this song, Max?” He was more than happy to do so.

Speaking of people you had involved; Viola Davis.  How do you just approach someone like her? I’m assuming she doesn’t audition? 

We have our animators, our designers, (and) we put together a whole design packet to present to her.  Since we’re still working on the story, we talked about how special and unique this villain is.  I felt very confident about how great a villain we had.  I think these movies have the best villains of any animated film.  I just love these villains.  They’re so awesome.  And once we landed on the Chameleon, I was very confident how cool this character was, and we needed to get someone cool to do this voice.  We’ve had some of the best voices actors of all time in these films.  So you put on your best britches and dress up real nice, and you had the packed to Viola Davis on one knee and you don’t make eye contact (laughs).

You slowly back out the door bowing, and you just wait and see if she sparks with the material.  The most intense part is the first record (though).  She comes in and plays with voices.  We kind of workshopped it and played around, and I’ve learned from working on these films that you allow time for the actor to just sink in to it.  She played around and found her voice within that, and then by the next time we record her she was spot on with that character.  We were all in agreement, holding hands, celebrating how evil this little Chameleon was.

I think it’s so great that Kung Fu Panda 4 is still playing in cinemas here (at the date of this interview), and it got me thinking about the theatrical versus streaming space.  You seem to be a champion of the theatrical experience.  But there’s always that worry that the theatrical experience is going away with services like Netflix dominating.  Are you seeing there’s a push for streaming? Or is there still a demand for cinema from your perspective as a filmmaker?

Yeah, I’ll be honest with you.  No one’s going to like me saying this, but Netflix has an art in trying to ruin the theatrical experience.  And just by their very successful business, they’ve ruined it like that.  They make features, but they’re not really features.  There’s something about the look of them…they all look the same.  Everyone wants to say the theatrical experience is over.  I don’t think that’s true at all.  I think it’s proven by these movies.  Dude, if you make a film for the big screen, with the sweeping score, and I think it helped we worked with Hans Zimmer, and you labour over every frame for the big screen to make it look fantastic? The theatrical experience isn’t over.  I just think people have gotten kind of flippant about it.

Maybe (studios) aren’t just trying as hard, or concentrating on making (films) for the big theatrical experience.  And I’m not convinced that it’s always got to be sequels, either.  I think you make a great film for the big screen.  People want to go out.  People want to get out of their houses.  Oh my gosh, how much can we sit on the couch and just watch and stream, and kind of half-watch?  That’s why the (Kung Fu Panda) fans are super special.  It’s great to see with a group of people.  It’s great to hear those laughs.  That might’ve been a negative way to answer your question, but I don’t think the (theatrical) experience is over.  Maybe we’re just making too many films. Maybe it’s got to be less? But make those for the big screen, and concentrate on making them good.

I think that’s the best way to go out on this one.  It’s always an absolute pleasure talking to you.  You’re always so excited about these films, which makes me excited, because I’m someone who will always choose theatrical.  It’s something so important to me.

And make no mistake, we do have those big-ass cool TVs now, and that’s something we didn’t have back in the day.  But I still say seeing (a movie) in the theatres is a very special, different thing.  And I don’t think it’s done.

Kung Fu Panda 4 is available to rent or buy at home on digital now.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.