Kung Fu Panda 4 – A butt-kicking new chapter in DreamWorks Animation’s beloved action-comedy franchise

Spanning almost 16 years, the The Kung Fu Panda franchise has amassed a staggering nearly $2 billion in global box-office success, continues to captivate audiences worldwide. At its core, the saga revolves around the endearing panda, Po (Jack Black), who embodies and imparts profound lessons of self-discovery, overcoming fear and the power of teamwork.

As the franchise launches into a new era with Kung Fu Panda 4, the narrative takes a compelling turn, guiding Po on an internal journey of growth and change. “The Kung Fu Panda world continually evolves and expands,” DreamWorks Animation President Margie Cohn says. “Of all the journeys Po has been on, this story is his most emotional and exciting. As Po faces new challenges and characters like Zhen, and the most menacing opponent the Valley of Peace has ever seen in The Chameleon, this film takes him, and in turn the audience, on a fantastical new adventure.”

After three death-defying adventures defeating world-class villains with his unmatched courage and mad martial arts skills, Po, the Dragon Warrior 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, The Chameleon, a tiny lizard who can shapeshift into any creature, large or small. And The 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, 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 The 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.

Ensuring the continued success of this monumental franchise required the expertise of a director deeply immersed in its essence. Enter Mike Mitchell, a seasoned director with an impressive repertoire that includes iconic franchises Shrek and Trolls, and contributions to all the previous Kung Fu Panda films. The film’s co-director is Stephanie Ma Stine (She-Ra and the Princesses of Power).

Mitchell saw Kung Fu Panda 4 as an opportunity to direct a story that deviates from its predecessors. “I’ve been part of Po’s adventure every time and have watched him grow,” Mitchell says. “I was an executive producer on the third film, and I’ve always wanted to direct one, but I wanted to wait for the perfect story to tell. This story was a departure from the previous three, which made it a really exciting opportunity to direct.”

Mitchell’s vision was to reconnect with and rediscover the charm that first endeared audiences to Po in 2008, while also elevating the thrill and spectacle of the franchise to new heights. “My goal in any franchise, especially my favorites, is to remind everyone of what made the first film great,” Mitchell says. “Kung Fu Panda has a timeless quality, and we wanted to emphasize that. We wanted to infuse even more action, pushing boundaries with new camera techniques not explored in animation before. Think of cool GoPro-style action, typically seen in live-action films. We aimed to bring that dynamic energy into the animated world, and what better canvas than a Kung Fu Panda film? Our aim was to create the biggest and best installment of this franchise, with a grander scale, more humor and the best action yet.”

Kung Fu Panda 4 became more than just a project for co-director Stephanie Ma Stine; it evolved into a symbol of personal transformation. “Working on this film, I learned to speak up more and be more authentic to myself,” Stine says. “The acceptance from this passionate and dedicated team has meant the world. Everyone here loves Po and resonates with his stories of overcoming adversity and embracing one’s true self, and this shared passion has truly changed my life. I hope our dedication shows through every shot, movement, line of dialogue, everything.”

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The filmmakers took their time crafting the story and characters and were mindful of the expectations set by the previous films. The screenplay was crafted by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger (Kung Fu Panda franchise)and Darren Lemke (Shrek Forever After).

During the collaborative process of finalizing the story, the Kung Fu Panda 4 crew fostered a vibrant creative environment. “Around 500 people contributed to this movie and brought diverse perspectives to its story,” Huntley says. “Being on the same page with a shared end goal made the process exciting and allowed us to introduce new ideas while maintaining the traditional look and feel of the first three films.”

In initial discussions, the filmmakers noticed that Po rarely leaves the Valley of Peace, so they decided to bring him out his comfort zone and into a new environment, Juniper City, where he meets the crafty Zhen, voiced by Awkwafina. “We wanted to design a film where Zhen represents the city mouse and Po the country mouse,” Mitchell says. “He’s coming to the big city for the first time ever. So, we’ve created, essentially, New York City’s Times Square in an ancient fantasy China world. With crowds of animals—more animals than you’ve ever seen—rhinos, sheep, boar, pigs, goats, crocodiles, bears.”

“This immense scale triggers a change in Po, making him realize he was perhaps a big fish in a small pond,” Stine says. “As he explores this vast new world, he discovers the diversity of people and embraces the sub-theme that the world is not black and white. It’s a journey that leads Po to wisdom, seeing beyond the simplistic hero-villain narrative, a realization mirrored in Zhen, a grey Corsac fox representing the shades of grey in the world.”

Since its inception, the Kung Fu Panda franchise has demonstrated the perfect blend of comedy, action and heart. “I’m a huge fan of franchises, and the Kung Fu Panda franchise is one of the best of all time,” Mitchell says. “What excited me the most was exploring that unique blend of comedy and action, especially as a big kung fu movie fan. The narrative of this installment calls for extreme kung fu action and being able to merge that with comedy and animation…I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect opportunity.”

As Kung Fu Panda 4 reached its final stages of production, the cultural intricacies of Stine’s own upbringing became a source of shared joy and learning among the team. “I grew up surrounded by my family from Taiwan and China, so I had fun teaching the crew how to play Mahjong, a game my father jokingly warned would lead me down a path of destruction,” Stine says. “Yet, there I was, imparting the joy of this Chinese game on my peers. And within our film, from the rural Valley of Peace to the bustling Juniper City, we’ve worked to capture the vast spectrum of this culture. The smallest details, like featuring authentic foods, create a richness to the Kung Fu Panda world that I think has continued to resonate with audiences around the world.”

A primary objective for Mitchell and the team was to focus on authenticity, and the result is a love letter to Chinese culture, the art of kung fu and the entire Kung Fu Panda franchise. “Since the last movie, so much has evolved, and we were mindful of those changes, striving to bring more representation into our cast, crew and the filmmaking process,” Mitchell says. “Even kung fu has evolved! Many of our animators and artists vividly remember watching Kung Fu Panda as kids, and the emotions they felt about contributing to this new installment of this franchise they admired growing up were truly remarkable.”

© Dreamworks Animation & Universal Pictures

In the Valley of Peace, panadas, geese, rams, pigs and bunnies inhabit the world. By contrast, in the bustling enclave known as Juniper City, seemingly childlike bunnies, with their cute appearance, can transform into terrifying monsters, which was inspired by the evil rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and by real-life creatures like wolves and wolverines. Lead animator Tyler Phillips led the team, emphasizing the hilarious contrast between their cute appearance and vicious nature.

To capture authentic kung fu moves, head of character animation Sean Sexton, who has a background in Taekwondo and Hapkido, integrated real-world mechanics into Po’s movements. Collaboration with a stunt choreographer and performers provided precise reference footage for Sexton’s team to blend with animation.

For inspiration for camera moves, character animation and action sequences, the filmmakers turned to stunt coordinator and martial artist Don Thai Theerathada to serve as a kung fu consultant. Theerathada and his stunt crew curated fight scenes and choreography from a variety of the best films in the action genre. Additionally, the stunt team performed sequence reference for the animators, using props designed to mimic the characters’ unique features of clothing, costumes, horns, tails etc., in order to study natural movement.

Animation technology has advanced tremendously over the course of the Kung Fu Panda franchise. These technological advancements allowed dynamic camera movements, lighting enhancements and an unlimited number of controls for facial features for Kung Fu Panda 4.

Despite the advancements in technology, animators returned to hand-drawn pencil sketches for action sequences, blending old-school with new-school techniques.

The film incorporated insights from biologist and vertebrate paleontologist Dr. Stuart Sumida to help shape The Chameleon and her army of Komodo dragons. The characters were designed with attention to their physiology, movement and the independent movement of their eyes.

Shaping The Chameleon’s physical transformations involved a complex process, drawing inspiration from films such as The Ring, X-Men, Night Crawler, and Minions. The character’s rig boasts more than 8,000 controls for detailed transformations.

Addressing clothing during The Chameleon’s transformations, the design was adjusted to seamlessly absorb into her skin.