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Kung Fu Panda 4 Director Teases Epic Fights & New Characters From Awkwafina, Viola Davis & More

Director Mike Mitchell went deep on the next Kung Fu Panda film, the new trailer of which is out now. 

By James Grebey
(from left) Po (Jack Black) and Zhen (Awkwafina) in Kung Fu Panda 4

Po, the titular Kung Fu Panda of the DreamWorks Animation franchise, has mastered the martial arts. So, what’s the next challenge for a Dragon Warrior who is already fast as lightning? Becoming a “Spiritual Leader” — and having to travel to a new land and partner up with a thief of dubious morals to defeat a threat until any he’s ever faced before. 

Kung Fu Panda 4, the trailer of which premiered today ahead of the film’s March 8, 2024, release date, is Po’s “most epic adventure ever,” according to director Mike Mitchell. Along with producer Rebecca Huntley, Mitchell spoke with NBC Insider about the upcoming film, letting fans know what to expect from some of the new characters and stars joining the popular franchise and teasing new heights for the comedy and action the movies are known for. 

Kung Fu Panda 4 Is a Brand-New Journey for Po

The upcoming film, the first since 2016’s Kung Fu Panda 3, sees Po (Jack Black) attempting to find a new Dragon Warrior to train at the request of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) before he can transition to being the Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace. However, there’s a new villain, Chameleon (Viola Davis), a crime lord from another land who has the power to steal the abilities of Po’s previous opponents, including Tai Lung (Ian McShane). With the help of a corsac fox named Zhen (Awkwafina), Po must defeat Chameleon while learning how to work alongside a different sort of ally — and he’s on his own spiritual journey. 

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Mitchell, director of films like Shrek Forever After, Trolls, and The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, says Kung Fu Panda 4 is a “love letter” to the first movie, but that it changed things quite a bit for the character. 

“We’re taking him to this brand-new location, this Juniper City that’s crowded with animals and rooftop fights, and even underneath the city is a whole other city that’s filled with thieves and criminals that he has to work with to defeat the villain,” Mitchell said. “We always say Po is black and white, and he sees the world in black and white. Like, heroes and villains. And now he’s with this gray corsac fox, played by Awkwafina, and she’s kind of a villain. She’s a thief, but she’s also a friend helping him fight the bad guy and giving him information.” 

New and Returning Characters Appear in Kung Fu Panda 4

Jack Black as Po in Kung Fu Panda 4

In fitting with the fourth movie’s reverence for the previous films, while also expanding the Kung Fu Panda world, several returning characters make appearances alongside new faces. Though they’re not glimpsed in the trailer, Mitchell says the Furious Five —  Tiger, Snake, Crane, Monkey, and Praying Mantis — make an appearance, as do characters like Shifu, Po’s adoptive father Mr. Pin (James Hong), and his biological father Li (Bryan Cranston) from the third film.

New to the franchise is Zhen, and Mitchell said voice actor Awkwafina is “as funny as Jack Black.” She shows off a new side of the Dragon Warrior.

“It’s usually Shifu who is being frustrated by Po, and it’s kind of interesting to have Po frustrated by someone who doesn’t play by the rules,” he says. 

Chameleon, the first female villain Po has fought, is a more supernatural type of baddie compared to his previous foes, and she can steal the abilities of some of Po’s most ferocious opponents. 

“She’s very small in stature, which is interesting because usually it’s brawn, but this one is brains. She’s manipulating and calculating. There’s a lot of twists and turns in our film,” Mitchell said. “And she’s voiced by Viola Davis, which makes you just forget about her size. She’s the biggest, most commanding, terrifying character.”

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Ke Huy Quan, who won an Oscar for his role in Everything Everywhere All at Once, voices Han, a Pangolin leader of a den of thieves. 

“He’s such a charming guy in real life and he’s got such a charming voice that it’s interesting to see that he’s got range and can be kind of villains but at the same time he’s kind of funny and still charming,” Mitchell said of Quan. 

He also teased two additional characters. Lori Tan Chinn voices Granny Boar, who fights by taking out her tusks and using them as weapons, and Ronny Chang plays an angry boat captain who is a fish that lives inside a pelican’s mouth and seems to speak with one voice. 

Kung Fu Panda 4 Features New Martial Arts Styles

Kung Fu Panda 4

In addition to new characters, Kung Fu Panda 4 will have even more of the martial arts and fight scenes the movies are known for. Mitchell said the film’s fights reflect not only advances in technology but advances in actual martial arts moves, too. 

“In fact, we had stunt performers from the Marvel films come in and give us very specific, authentic moves,” he teased, explaining that these experts helped develop choreography for Po to use with the staff he obtained in the previous film. “We had a really cool stunt team that came in and did specific staff moves for our animators. That’s something I don’t think we’ve done on any of our films before, to have real live-action fight techniques, and then we took them into animation and elevated them even more and made it even crazier.”

Kung Fu Panda is a major, successful franchise, and it’s always foolish to think such a major series will ever really end in this day and age. Mitchell and Huntley noted that this fourth movie opens up the world in a way that makes it easy to explore future spin-offs focusing on different characters. But, while this might not be the last we see of Po, Kung Fu Panda 4 seems like it could be a worthy conclusion to Po’s story, as Mitchell said they put everything they could into it. 

“I don’t think it will ever get boring to watch Jack Black voice Kung Fu Panda. But I have to say, I feel sorry for the next filmmaker team that has to do this because we have done everything we possibly can,” he said. “It is going to be hard to top this one.”

Kung Fu Panda 4 premieres in theaters on March 8, 2024.

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