***This article originally appeared in the 35th Anniversary Issue of Animation Magazine (June-July ’22, No. 321)***
You have to hand it to Po, the sweet-natured, bumbling hero of DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda franchise: he doesn’t waste time. In the premiere episode of the new series Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight (11 x 22′), which drops on Netflix July 14, it takes mere minutes for him to go from universal recognition as “The Dragon Master” to being a village-wrecking pariah. And that’s only the first domino to fall in what threatens to be the destruction of the world as he knows it.
“When we came onto the scene, Po was sort of at the height of his fame, so I had to knock him down and find a reason for him to lose his stature,” says Peter Hastings, who developed the series with Mitch Watson, and serves as an executive producer. “I wanted to put him in a hole and start this new series where he’s kind of lost everything, because his innocence and his need to get better at something are so much fun and so charming.”
In an attempt to try and redeem himself for allowing a mystical, all-powerful gauntlet to fall into the hands of evil sibling weasels named Klaus and Veruca, Po (voiced once again by Jack Black) talks himself into serving as the page to a no-nonsense, female British knight named Luthera of Landrith, a.k.a. Wandering Blade (singer Rita Ora). While Blade, who is already tracking the two dangerously manic mustelae, does not want Po as her “Sancho Panda,” she eventually acknowledges he might be useful in her quest.
An Emotional Journey
With its 11 episodes structured as an ongoing saga, The Dragon Knight follows Blade and Po on their quest across China as they meet up with a variety of characters, but with a heightened emphasis on emotion.
“I wanted to make it a bit more mature and play to a bigger audience,” says Hastings. “We’re delving into the emotional aspects to elevate the show from being a silly cartoon into being a bigger adventure that will appeal to many ages. To me, the comedy is built in with Jack and with Po, so it was really about pushing other emotional elements.”Adds fellow executive producer Shaunt Nigoghossian: “In a movie you have only a couple hours, but we have an entire series, so we have room to get into the characters’ minds a little more. You’re seeing more of Po than you’ve seen before, and a lot of character traits are added to him that you haven’t seen before.”
A major factor in Po’s emotional hero’s journey is his evolving relationship with Wandering Blade, which begins with a “buddy cop” dynamic, but grows much deeper. “While Po’s a nerd about all things kung fu, he’s also very curious about what it takes to be a knight,” says Gregg Goldin, DreamWorks’ VP of current series.
Star Jack Black, who is also credited as an executive producer, has a lot of latitude in fleshing out the character. “Typically, Jack will read what’s written,” Hastings states, “but very often he’ll say, ‘Let me do one more,’ and then go off on it. A lot of that is so much a part of the character and in the tone of it, that I’m always encouraging him.”The incomparable James Hong is also back as the voice of Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping. “Everything James Hong does is genius,” says Hastings. “Every take he did was different, and they all worked.” Hong is the only voice actor to appear in every iteration of Kung Fu Panda since the original film in 2008. Also in the principal cast are Della Saba (Ralph Breaks the Internet) as the lethally unhinged Veruca; Chris Geere (Animaniacs 2021) as her slightly more sensible brother, Klaus (the fact that both of these characters are English, like Wandering Blade, informs a major backstory); and Rahnuma Panthaky (Modern Family) voices the team’s secretive, forced ally Rukhmini.
Given that there have been so many prior Panda productions, one might assume that a wealth of resources are being reused to help give The Dragon Knight its sumptuous visual look (guided by art director Ellen Jin). But one might be wrong, and for an obvious reason. “We don’t have the resources from the films other than what we know of the designs, because the quality of CG has risen since then,” Nigoghossian says. “If you have a movie from four years ago, it doesn’t look quite as good, or rig as well, or move as well, or catch the light as well.”Even so, a few resources were able to be recycled from Kung Fu Panda: Paws of Destiny, which premiered on Prime Video in 2018, “but not that many,” Nigoghossian declares. Goldin, meanwhile, states, “The secret weapons are our amazingly talented artists, who have a high bar for quality themselves and who pushed to make this show look exceptional.”
While essentially a 3D production, some episodes contain scenes rendered in 2D styles, which vary, depending on the setting and situation. One such is rendered as comic graphic art, since an unpublished comic book is the central icon of that particular chapter of the story. Nigoghossian adds, “In the second episode we have a sort of British-looking, lithograph kind of look, which we did in house.” Writing, storyboarding and most of the pre-production is also done in house at DreamWorks Animation, with the production work split between two Indian animation shops, Technicolor Bangalore and 88 Pictures in Mumbai, as well as DAVE Enterprises in Sydney and Stellar Creative Labs in Vancouver.
On one level, production for The Dragon Knight took place all over the world; on another, it happened in the same exact place: in everybody’s home. “We are the first fully-pandemic show from start to finish,” says Nigoghossian. “We have not gone back to the office.”
While the production experienced the usual bumps as a result of the global health situation (“The thing you miss is being able to pop your head in somebody’s office and say, ‘Hey, did you want this to be this way?’ and they say, ‘Yes,’ and you walk away,” says Hastings), the team discovered advantages to working from home as well. “I find people are more punctual and meetings are pretty efficient,” he says. “I don’t mind voice directing remotely because I can speak more directly with an actor, in a way. My microphone is always open, so I can talk to them without having to push a button and have it sound weird in their headphones.”
Even though the final episode lays the groundwork for the quest to continue in far-off lands, it is too early to promise that a second season is imminent. For his part, Hastings is content to focus on the first. “I was interested in bringing to the series three main elements that I love in the first movie,” he says, “which are Po as a loveable loser who can kick ass, action set pieces, and the emotion.”
Adds Goldin: “The bar is set pretty high for Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight. We wanted the show to have as much visual awesomeness as we could give it … a look that would match the features.”
Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight premieres on Netflix on July 14.