‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ – How Viola Davis’ Villain Transformed the Whole Movie

Mar 11, 2024

The Big Picture

Building upon the villain was key to making Kung Fu Panda 4 a success, allowing for unique transformations and epic battles.
The animation team had to get creative with shots, like the paint splash before fights, to add depth and intensity to scenes.
Audience reactions guide decisions on what jokes and moments to keep in the final cut.

[Editor’s Note: This following contains spoilers for Kung Fu Panda 4]Kung Fu Panda 4 director Mike Mitchell (Trolls) has been involved in numerous animated projects across the board, from working as an animator to writing to voice acting. He knows the ins and outs of what it takes to make an animated feature top-notch, so when he tells Collider’s Steve Weintraub that the Kung Fu Panda movies are one of the best animated franchises to date, we’re inclined to agree. So what gives this fluffy fighter franchise a leg up on the competition? Some seriously unforgettable villains, that’s what.

In Kung Fu Panda 4, Po (voiced by Jack Black) is appointed the mantle of Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). His first line of duty is to discover the next Dragon Warrior and train them up, though he’s reluctant to do so. Meanwhile, a wicked sorceress, known as the Chameleon (Viola Davis) devises a plan to take control of the world, unleashing the spirits of the master villains Po already vanquished. In addition to franchise newcomersAwkwafina and Ke Huy Quan, Kung Fu Panda 4 brings back the vocal talents of Bryan Cranston, James Hong, Ian McShane, and more.

Check out the interview in the video above or in the transcript below to find out why Mitchell believes these master villains make Kung Fu Panda movies the Dragon Warriors of animation, which surprising scenes wound up being a challenge to get on screen, how Disney’s The Sword in the Stone inspired the final battle, and more.

Kung Fu Panda 4 After Po is tapped to become the Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace, he needs to find and train a new Dragon Warrior, while a wicked sorceress plans to re-summon all the master villains whom Po has vanquished to the spirit realm.Release Date March 8, 2024 Writers Jonathan Aibel , Glenn Berger Studio(s) DreamWorks Animation

Read Our ‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ Review

COLLIDER: You show the film to friends and family or test screenings — who is the person or group that gave you the best feedback or the best notes that you were like, “Oh, I need to incorporate them?”

MIKE MITCHELL: That’s a great question. You know what? It’s almost like when you watch it with an audience you don’t even have to hear the notes, you just feel the energy in the room. And the great thing is, usually when it’s a parent with their kid and the dad is laughing at one of your jokes and he looks down at his daughter and the daughter is laughing at the same joke, to me that’s gold, which is difficult to do. That shows us we’ve got to hang on to that moment, because as I work on this film, we’re all gonna get sick of this joke and we’re gonna question it and we’re gonna cut it out of the film. So that’s my favorite thing to do is to see what’s working and then to try to hang on to it — loosely. Hang on loosely to all these ideas.

How the Villains Shape the Kung Fu Panda Franchise
Image via Dreamworks Animation

One of the things I’ve learned about animated films through the years is that they go through so many revisions, and what can start and where you ultimately end up can dramatically change. With Kung Fu Panda 4, what was it like at the beginning, like the inception, versus what ultimately audiences are going to see?

MITCHELL: It seems like the biggest thing was just building upon our villain, for the most part. I think this is one of the best franchises ever in any animated film, and I think the reason it’s so great, one, is Jack Black, clearly, but two, are the villains. I think this franchise has created the most interesting, the best designed, the best voiced villains I’ve ever seen in any animated film. So when it came along with this, and we found the voice, and we had the design of the Chameleon, and she could shapeshift and all these things, this is something early on where, for the end, we’re like, “Okay, she can shift into anything. Is she gonna shift into a whole bunch of animals that Po fights,” which should be fascinating? We always compared it to The Sword in the Stone. Do you remember that old Disney film?

Of course.

MITCHELL: The best fight sequence — Madam Mim and Merlin. “Is she gonna transform into a beast of a monster made up of a whole bunch of creatures,” which we thought was also cool, and we had a design started for that, or, “Is she gonna transform into him,” which is also just kind of a really cool trope to mess with Po’s head and turn into him? We kept trying each one of these, and they were all better than the next. At the end of the day, we’re like, “Let’s do it all.” [Laughs]

That’s a cheat. “It’s all good.”

MITCHELL: We cheated. We’re like, “Let’s do it. We’re just gonna do it.” It was not fun for the producer, by the way. The producer was like, “What have we done? We have to pay for all this. How are we gonna do it?”

Forget Shapeshifting, This Is the ‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ Animation that Nearly Broke the Bank

It’s funny that you just said that because I’ve spoken to a lot of people that have done animated movies and they talk about how the shots you don’t think are expensive can be backbreaking.

MITCHELL: Yeah. Every time.

So what shots in the movie are more expensive than what people might think?

MITCHELL: I know exactly what you’re saying. The obvious ones are what they would think, and we knew it too — the transformation scenes. Every time she transforms into something, I don’t know if you noticed but the Chameleon retains her lizard skin, even though she’s turning into a furry snow leopard, the snow leopard’s not furry, it’s her creepy lizard skin in the shape of a snow leopard. So that was something we knew was going to be a pain and we started that early.

That’s not answering your question. Let me think… Oh, I know what it is. We did this new thing where, before a fight happens there’s sometimes a paint splash that goes through the camera, which was kind of a fun new thing that we haven’t seen before in the Kung Fu Panda franchise. That was something that became debatable after a while, like, when does that paint stripe show up? It’s expensive to do since we moved it around, and eventually we called it the paint swipe of, “It’s on!” So anytime that shows up, you know that things just got real in the fight. So that was something that once we figured it out, we started to save money because we knew where it was. Does that make sense?

100% actually.

MITCHELL: It was fun.

Kung Fu Panda 4 is in theaters now.

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Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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