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'Kung Fu Panda 4' team didn't want to start making the film without 'perfect villain,' voiced by Viola Davis

"We're not just doing it to make a babysitter plop the kid in front of an iPad to watch," director Mike Mitchell said

With the massive success of the Kung Fu Panda franchise, starring Jack Black as the voice of lead character Po, there's certainly something to be celebrated for a story that has appealed to audiences since 2008. With the DreamWorks film Kung Fu Panda 4 now available to own on digital, 4K UHD, Blu-ray, director Mike Mitchell and Sean Sexton, head of character animation, continue to push the boundaries to create new stories, but never lose the essence of the first movie.

"The first thing I think of is the very first film that was made, because that's the reason we're all here," Mitchell told Yahoo Canada. "So we go back and really study, what is it about that film that makes it special and lasts so long, ... and a lot of it ... was Jack Black, of course, but it's the look of it."

"It's got such a unique, beautiful look, ... so we didn't want to reinvent that. We love that, everyone that worked on it. ... But we have to be better, we have to be four times better than that look. ... Our villain's got to be four times as cool and our design has to be four times better. ... What are the new elements that we're going to add to this without destroying the past?"

DreamWorks Animation

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The never-before-seen bonus content that's now available to watch provides more insight into how Kung Fu Panda 4 was crafted, and there are a number of interesting additions to the film that the team behind the movie made to make it feel unique.

One element was the introduction of a team of stunt people who did fights and action choreography for reference, including having martial artists wear tails as they did the fight moves.

Chameleon (Viola Davis) in Kung Fu Panda 4 directed by Mike Mitchell (DreamWorks Animation)
Chameleon (Viola Davis) in Kung Fu Panda 4 directed by Mike Mitchell (DreamWorks Animation)

As much as everyone loves to root for the hero of a story, there is something critically important about crafting a great villain. In the case of Kung Fu Panda 4, it's Chameleon, voice by Viola Davis.

"I think this franchise has the best villains of any animated film," Mitchell stressed. "We didn't even want to start making this thing until we had the perfect villain."

Sexton added that Chameleon was a "fun" but "super difficult" character to animate, with 8,131 individual controls that could be moved.

"What we really cared about was we wanted her to be serious," he said.

"Many of us had come off of [Puss in Boots: The Last Wish] and we loved the wolf, the wolf was really scary, and the reason it worked so well is because he's not funny. He's very serious and he takes his job seriously. So we felt like the characters around the Chameleon could be funny, but we wanted her to be serious. And then when Viola came in and she brought that gravitas, we were blown away at her performance."

The ability to create these characters, animated with great complexity and detail, is also impacted by the advances in technology. When Sexton started working at DreamWorks 22 years ago as a 2D animator, things were much different, and have also changed significantly since the first Kung Fu Panda film.

"On the first Kung Fu Panda, the way the animators worked, our software was very archaic and it looked like a grey and white spreadsheet, so every time you wanted to move the character you had to go to the control, and there was sometimes 3,000, 4,000 controls for these characters, and type in values to move them," Sexton said.

"[Now] it feels more like you're sculpting. So you can just grab the character and move them. So it's more fun, it's a lot faster, and it allowed us to make the animation even more fluid and nuanced."

Po (voiced by Jack Black) in Kung Fu Panda 4 directed by Mike Mitchell (DreamWorks Animation)
Po (voiced by Jack Black) in Kung Fu Panda 4 directed by Mike Mitchell (DreamWorks Animation)

But for movies like Kung Fu Panda 4, the goal of the filmmaking process has never been to create a film that feels like it's just for kids, or content that is really crafted in a way that babies its viewers, no matter how old they are.

"We're making it for everyone and we're making it for ourselves," Mitchell said. "We're not just doing it to make a babysitter plop the kid in front of an iPad to watch. I think that's disgusting."

"We also really considered themes. I directed this film called Trolls, which I think everyone would think was just a colourful singing and dancing and film. But we got into Eastern religions and we had intense discussions about being addicted to drugs, and where does happiness come from? Is happiness something you can get from someone else? ... I'm really into making these films that are not just for children."

This also goes back to making choices like having Chameleon in Kung Fu Panda 4 actually be "scary."

"When I worked on Shrek, I always saw Shrek as the Tony Soprano for children," Mitchell. "We never pull our punches, we really just tried to tell a great story for everyone."

"One thing that we always find too is sometimes you're afraid to make the character a little scary, like kids are going to be scared of it," Sexton added. "I have a 14-year-old now, but when she was small she loved the scary stuff, ... and I think a lot of kids are that way as well."

But Mitchell added that there is also a balance to find where there isn't a significant "softening" in movies for children, but they're not "too adult" for the whole family to enjoy.

"I do worry ... a little bit that some of these stories are becoming too adult, not with rated-R action and scary stuff, just not funny. ... It's getting a little somber," he said. "Maybe there's an audience for that, but I like ones that are funny."