Interview: Kung Fu Panda 4 director Mike Mitchell and producer Rebecca Huntley on what we can expect in this brand new adventure

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 (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.

As the anticipated sequel debuts its first-look trailer online ahead of its release next year, Peter Gray spoke with the film’s director, Mike Mitchell, and producer, Rebecca Huntley, to discuss what fans can look forward to with this new adventure, their love of all things animation, and, perhaps most importantly, “the art of the fart”.

I’m just going to say straight up, fart jokes get me every time! So that final gag in the trailer did its job.

Mike Mitchell: (Laughs) We had a whole team of technicians working on that.

Rebecca Huntley: It was a meeting called “The Art of the Fart Department”…

Mike Mitchell: And they showed us five different versions and we had to discuss it.  Yeah, it was intense.  We put a lot of work (in). Never say “No” to a fart joke, by the way, as long as you can do it differently, right?

Because it got me thinking about universal comedy, and you have these jokes that are for kids and jokes for adults.  How do you find that balance in making sure your target audience is entertained, but older crowds will be just as amused?

Mike Mitchell: I think it’s just the way that Rebecca cast this film.  We are a bunch of kids.  Like, no matter how old we are, we’re just making the film for ourselves.  We never want to pander or make something specifically for kids.  There’s really no age range.  We’re all a bunch of nerds laughing.  Like, Jack Black is so energetic! He’s a fanboy and he’s enthusiastic.

Rebecca Huntley: We take our humour very seriously (though).  We have to be able to (make sure) that you are enjoying it.  We spend years making (it), so we want it to be able to have it stand the test of time.  And what’s really important to us is to recognise that the first movie came out in 2008.  We are spanning different generations of audiences, so we want to make sure that we’re always mindful of delivering a movie that reaches all ages.

Obviously Jack Black is back as Po.  I’m assuming the gang is all here?

Mike Mitchell: Everyone is back! Dustin Hoffman is there as Shifu.  Bryan Cranston as (Po’s) biological father, Li, and then, most importantly, James Hong as Mr. Ping.  He’s 94 years old, this guy.  He is the heart and the comedy of all these films.

Rebecca Huntley: You will get a glimpse of the Furious Five…

Mike Mitchell: You’ll hear from them in our movie.  They’re all off on their own individual missions.  So you’ll see them, and the amazing Ian McShane is back as Tai Lung, which just makes me crazy! I think this franchise created the best villains of any DreamWorks franchise.  I’m just so excited that we see every one of them.

And I know I heard Awkwafina in there.  Am I correct in saying Viola Davis is in this too?

Mike Mitchell: Yes! Viola Davis! She’s the villain (and) she’s the smallest villain Po’s ever gone up against, but with Viola’s voice you never consider what size she is.  She has such a big presence.  She’s so commanding and, quite frankly, she’s kind of funny, but mostly terrifying and scary.  She’s the smartest villain Po’s ever fought.

Rebecca Huntley: She’s very calculating and manipulative in her level of sorcery.

Mike Mitchell: She can shape-shift into any size creature.  She’s more supernatural than any villain Po’s faced.  We love this villain.

Rebecca, I believe your history with animation goes all the way back to Aladdin. Am I correct?

Rebecca Huntley: Yeah, that is absolutely correct.  It’s one of my favourites.

And Mike, you’ve had a history with the Kung Fu Panda films having had differing roles with each production.  Was it daunting knowing you would be overseeing this film as director?

Mike Mitchell: It was this easy, I didn’t want to direct this movie until I was sure that we were telling the best story.  You can’t just tell another one.  You can’t just make another one.  We had to be making the most epic continuation of the saga.  And it was three things.  One is the story should be big and deserves to be seen on the big screen.  Two, is Po evolving? Is our theme resonating and making sense with the past three movies? And third, which we already talked about, is our villain kick-ass? Because, as I said, I was most intimidated by this franchise because it has the coolest villains, and I needed this villain to be cool.  So when we nailed all those, I was in.  I wanted to direct this one.  I’m going to fight to do this one because we had a good story.

And Rebecca, where did that love of animation come from? I’m an 80s baby, a 90s kid, so Aladdin was peak for me! There was no one that didn’t love that movie at that time.  I mean, I still love that movie.

Rebecca Huntley: Sometimes you work on shows and you would think that you could tire of it after a while, and I have to say, that’s the beauty of (this industry) in that I’ve been really fortunate to have had the opportunities to work on the (movies) I have, because I feel like they’re the movies that stand the test of time.  I think that’s what I learned really quickly getting the opportunity to start on Aladdin, and seeing the passion that goes into making animated movies.

This isn’t just a bunch of people who get hired and come together, and they do three months of making a movie and then they all go off and disband and go on with their lives.  Animation is a real community.  As big as an industry it may be, it’s a relatively small industry where people know each other and connect with each other, and stay connected for years.  The fact that I’ve been in this industry 30 years and I’m still close friends with people that I was on Aladdin with…

Mike Mitchell: Everyone gets together, and they’re very comfortable arguing for the best movie.  In fact, the animators recently took a vote over one story thing.  There were debates and arguments happening, and it’s really interesting, because we all know each other so well it’s why these animated films are really well made.  It’s the people, you know, it’s people that are passionate, and they feel comfortable around each other to discuss how do we make the best film.

Rebecca Huntley:  Everybody wants the best.  So when you’re making an animated (movie) we’re all on the same page.  We all have the same end goal, and on this movie we had the most collaborative environment across all our departments.  We always had an open door.

Mike Mitchell: And speaking of 80s babies, we had some, all huge fans, in the studio that remember seeing Kung Fu Panda in the theatres, and they were almost weeping at getting to work on some of these sequences.  They couldn’t believe they were working on their favourite franchise.  So that was kind of special.  I worked on all the Kung Fu Panda (movies), but Rebecca knows more than I do about (this) franchise.

Rebecca Huntley: And that’s what was so special to me about being able to join this (movie) was because I hadn’t gotten the opportunity prior to this to work on a Kung Fu Panda, so when the opportunity came, I was like, “Oh my gosh, here is this beloved franchise that everybody loves, and I love Po and the stories we’ve told in the franchise thus far…” So to have that opportunity to be a part of Number 4 was, for me, without question.  I had to be a part of this.

Kung Fu Panda 4 is set for release in Australian theatres on March 28th, 2024.


Peter Gray

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