'Kung Fu Panda 4' balances redemption, change, judgment with kid-friendly humor: director

Kung Fu Panda 4
Kung Fu Panda 4 | Universal

When creating films, "Trolls," "Lego Movie 2" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks" director Mike Mitchell always has the same goal: entertaining families with clean content while balancing humor with life lessons. And according to the 53-year-old director, his latest film, "Kung Fu Panda 4," continues that trend. 

"I don't think any film needs to be offensive; there's a way to have fun and laugh, and that's something that stands the test of time and it never goes away," he told The Christian Post. "It's probably why I work in family films. It's just something that comes natural to all of us at DreamWorks. We love jokes, we love humor and we always just want to make sure that we're never offending anyone, and it's something that I think comes naturally to us."

The latest installment in the DreamWorks Animation "Kung Fu Panda" franchise follows Po (Jack Black) as he's tasked with training a new warrior and chosen to become the spiritual leader of the Valley of Peace. However, when a powerful shape-shifting chameleon (Viola Davis) sets her eyes on his Staff of Wisdom, he suddenly realizes he will need some help. Teaming up with a quick-witted but troubled corsac fox Zhen (Awkwafina), Po soon discovers that heroes can be found in the most unexpected places.

At the heart of "Kung Fu Panda 4" is the theme of change, a concept Mitchell said resonates across all age groups. 

"We try to make these films for everyone, and when we came up with change, we figured that was something relatable to kids … and adults," he said. "What we wanted to get across through our story and Po's lesson is that he is moving on to something else, and changing isn't leaving yourself behind. It's just maybe building upon who you were and maybe becoming something even better than you already were. I get really inspired, and I think it's great for families to discuss it."

The film's emphasis on entertaining and meaningful content plays a crucial role in child development, according to Mitchell. He highlighted the importance of balancing humor with life lessons, adding, "It's important for kids to have that sense of play and be playful." 

"This is the time when you should be fantasizing; maybe you can be the Dragon Warrior, or maybe you can become like a troll like Poppy and save the day at the end of the day with a song. Who knows? But it's one of those fun, silly things that I'm not so sure it's for kids. I think adults could tap into this as well and have a really good time."

New characters, like Zhen the Fox, bring fresh perspectives to the franchise. She's meant to contrast Po's black-and-white worldview to introduce nuanced themes of redemption and judgment, Mitchell said.

"Zhen is kind of a friend, and she's helping them take down the villain, but at the same time, she's a thief," he said. "She's kind of a bad guy, and she hangs out in the den of thieves with a lot of people that commit crimes. We thought that was an interesting thing for Po to explore, and to change his worldview and maybe not judge a book by its cover and consider, especially in this internet world that we have now where you have to point fingers and say something's bad or something's good, it's kind of nice to explore and keep an open mind and maybe consider that someone is able to change."

To keep the franchise fresh — the first "Kung Fu Panda" came out in 2008 — Mitchell and his team embraced technological advancements, including "GoPro style" cameras and detailed motion capture for fight sequences.

"We wanted to be four times as funny and action-packed," he said. "A combination of all the new technology and new things we figured it would really help make this film, update this film and make it make it impressive."

Mitchell expressed his hope for "Kung Fu Panda 4" to be a communal family experience in theaters, emphasizing the effort put into visual and auditory elements designed for a theatrical experience.

"I would love everyone to go see it in the theater," he said. "Usually, it's a communal family experience, and we love that. Everyone usually goes as a family … and what happens afterward is they discuss it whether they like it or not. It's great to get the family talking or friends talking and having a discussion, and that makes me happy."

"Kung Fu Panda 4" hits theaters Friday. The film is rated PG for mild violence, martial arts action, scary images and some mild rude humor.

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Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at:

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