Interview: Kung Fu Panda 4 directors Mike Mitchell and Stephanie Ma Stine on “The best franchise of all time.”

This autumn, for the first time in almost a decade, comedy icon Jack Black returns to his role as Po, the world’s most unlikely kung fu master, with a hilarious, butt-kicking new chapter in DreamWorks Animation’s beloved action-comedy franchise, Kung Fu Panda 4.

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 crime lord, 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.

As Po and co. prepare to take on the Australian cinema screens (you can read our review here), director Mike Mitchell and co-director Stephanie Ma Stine spoke to Peter Gray about the real-life martial artists that inspired the animated action, the necessity of bringing back their original cast, and why Kung Fu Panda is “the best franchise of all time.”

Hello again, Mike.  I spoke to you when the trailer originally dropped.  So, lovely to chat to you again, and to meet you, Stephanie.  I’m going to get two things out of the way.  First, the art of the fart department did great work here!

Mike Mitchell: The art of the fart! We got to remember that.

Stephanie Ma Stine: Why didn’t we think of that?

And Jack Black singing Britney Spears was something I didn’t know I needed, so thank you for putting that out there in the world.

Mike Mitchell: You know who else joined them? It wasn’t just Tenacious D doing Britney Spears.  We had Hans Zimmer and an 80-piece orchestra! And they weaved in violins doing Po’s theme.  So, next time you listen to it, listen out for that.  It’s beautiful.

I love that we’ve gotten to a point where Hans Zimmer is covering Britney Spears.

Mike Mitchell: Isn’t it great? That’s the world I want to live in.

When we spoke initially, I asked you, Mike, about directing Kung Fu Panda 4.  How was it for you, Stephanie, transitioning for story artist to helming this?

Stephanie Ma Stine: Actually it was a pretty smooth transition.  You know, working as a storyboard artist, you’re kind of like a mini director.  You’re working with camera angles, scripts…you’re kind of figuring out the initial acting on your own, and the pacing of everything.  It was like a training boot camp for eight or nine years, before I transitioned into directing.

One of the things I loved about Kung Fu Panda 4 was, even though this is animated, we can see the live-action detail in the movements and how specific the fighting is to each character.  If this was a silent movie, we would still understand all of that.  Are you working with stunt coordinators or real-life artists to determine how these characters move?

Mike Mitchell: Both, actually.  Yeah, we had stunt coordinators come in and give us some really cool moves.  Specifically, some authentic moves, because Po’s got that staff of wisdom, and he hasn’t used that previously.

Stephanie Ma Stine: Yeah, shout out to Don Thai (Theerathada) for choreographing so many amazing fights.

Mike Mitchell: Yeah, Don Thai and his team put together a whole bunch of movements.  In fact, the woman that was playing Zhen (voiced by Awkwafina) wore a big fox tail as she did the moves, so the animators could watch.  So, we took that and it goes into the animation.  Stephanie was really into the fight reflecting the personality, so we go even deeper with the animation to really make sure they took the stunt work and elevated it for the character.

Stephanie Ma Stine:  It was pretty easy for me.  All I did was talk to the story artists and the animators, and I would just ask what we could try? They’re the ones who actually did all the hard work.  It was just awesome working with everyone.  But yeah, we had a full team of people who just grew up loving action movies and TV shows, and they all brought that passion to this movie.

Mike Mitchell: A lot of the animators knew kung fu too.  They were really good at it.

Right from the get go of this, I was laughing.  The mountain goats all saying “He-e-e-e-y” to each other…

Mike Mitchell: (Laughs) Oh, I’m glad you liked that.

The sinister street bunnies, and one of Chameleon’s eye slowly catching up to the other.  Is there a joke or gag for each of you that stands out as a favourite?

Stephanie Ma Stine:  My favourite is when Po has to choose the next Dragon Warrior, and when he’s looking at the line-up and he does that (gestures finger towards herself) (laughs).  It knocks me to the ground every time.

Mike Mitchell:  My favourite part of that gag, specifically, is the cut between (Po’s) hand and you see Shifu catching up at the same time as the audience.  Like, “What is he doing?” (Laughs).  I love the look on Shifu’s face.  I was almost going to say Dustin’s (Hoffman) face then (laughs).

Working together as directors, do you find there’s an individual strength or expertise that you bring to the other?

Mike Mitchell: I don’t know if I’ve noticed that it was (that), it was just handy to go back and forth and get each other’s opinion.  I think Jack (really) tapped into it.  When we (record) the voices, I’m usually doing the other voices with Jack.  I’ll be reading the script, and Stephanie gets to really focus in listening to us play the scene.  So we’ll get goofy.  It was funny.  But Stephanie would make sure we got the emotional side of it too.

Stephanie Ma Stine:  The combination of Mike and Jack Black is almost too powerful.  They would try and make each other laugh so much! I’d be like, “Hey, guys, can you get back to work now?” (Laughs)

Mike Mitchell:  That happened quite a bit.

As you mentioned before, you have Dustin Hoffman in this.  The casting is next level!  When you’re building Kung Fu Panda 4 to fruition, do you know that this can’t be done without certain actors? Or do you have plans that if someone isn’t available, there’s back-up stories to uncover?

Mike Mitchell:  We had to get Dustin Hoffman.  We had to get James Hong.  95-year-old James Hong, who plays Mr. Ping, and we had to get Bryan Cranston.  I mean, I don’t know how we could move forward without bringing those characters back.  That seemed essential.

Stephanie Ma Stine:  To me, I think the one actor that was a little bit controversial for the crew, at first, was the casting of Ke Huy Quan as the Pangolin, Han, the Master of the Den of the thieves.  Because Ke is just so lovable.  He has this lovable voice, and he’s always played such wholesome, positive characters, and we’re like, “Here, play this sinister sounding Pangolin.”

Mike Mitchell:  It was actually great because he gave us a performance that had contrast to it.  He’s a sweet pangolin that could murder you.  Any added angle to that character we didn’t find until Ke’s voice came along.  That often happens where you realise, “Oh, this character is just Ke (now).”  It’s him doing his thing, just like Jack.  There’s no difference between Po and Jack (laughs).  They can both do karate kicks, by the way.  They’re both very good at kung fu.

Stephanie Ma Stine:  It’s true, I’ve seen it.

And given that this is coming eight years after Kung Fu Panda 3, would there be any other animated property you’d like to grant a sequel to?

Mike Mitchell:  That’s an interesting question.  I know that (Kung Fu Panda 4) is great.  I always it’s three things: It’s Jack Black as Po, and you can watch Jack Black do anything.  The second thing is, I think this franchise is the best franchise of all time.  Just based on villains.  I think it’s got the best villains I’ve ever seen in any animated feature.  And that stands the test of time.  And then thirdly, it’s the combination of humour and kung fu.  There’s no kung fu franchise that’s funny.  I mean, Kung Fu Hustle is fantastic, but that’s not a franchise, right? And it’s live-action.  It’s not animated.  So, if I’m picking something to keep going, I’ll keep watching these.  I don’t even have to work on them! I just want to keep watching.

Stephanie Ma Stine: Everyone loved you on Kung Fu Panda 4, so it would be weird if you weren’t asked back (laughs).

Well, I’m glad they asked you back for this, given what you created here.  As I said, I was laughing from the first minute, so it was a joy to spend time with these characters again.

Mike Mitchell:  And thank you.  You’ve given us two things.  One, you’ve given us the art of the fart, which we will now use in all of our interviews.  Thank you for that rhyme.  It should’ve been obvious (laughs).  And then we worked so hard to make this movie for the big screen, and we mix it with the Hans Zimmer music, so thank you very much for getting people interested to see it on the big screen.  That’s so important to us and everyone that works on it.

Sometimes critics do the right thing.

Kung Fu Panda is screening in Australian theatres from March 28th, 2024, following Advance Screenings at select locations between March 22nd and 24th.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.