How ‘Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight’ Expands a Nearly 15-Year Franchise

Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight is the latest entry in one of DreamWorks Animation’s more fruitful universes. The third TV series in the franchise born from 2008’s animated feature film Kung Fu Panda (followed by big-screen sequels in 2011 and 2016), it marks nearly 15 years of storytelling around Po, a giant, energetic and endearing — if imperfect — panda who becomes a master of Kung Fu after being prophesied as the Dragon Warrior.

Arriving on Netflix this July with the weight of more than a decade worth of adventures proceeding it, The Dragon Knight manages to set itself a part in Po’s ever-growing story, taking Kung Fu Panda in new directions.

Executive producer Peter Hastings tells The Hollywood Reporter that the concept for the series began “with the idea of a road trip,” specifically a buddy road comedy that “naturally takes you all over in pursuit of their goal, which is to try and catch bad guys.”

Voice of Po and star Jack Black notes that the EP “had a cool vision for what an epic journey this would be” — one that still manages to be full of “all the magic stuff that made the first movie so great: it’s Kung Fu, it’s comedy, it’s adventure and in the end, it’s got some cool messages for the kids.”

While it keeps many of the elements viewers loved about previous installments, Hastings notes that the show gets to go narratively and visually to places the franchise has never been.

“Just within the realm of TV animation, the picture that we’re delivering and coming up with and designing looks fantastic,” Hasting shares. “Then also related to storytelling, we’re doing basically a single story through the first 11 episodes — a serialized thing which hasn’t been done with the Kung Fu Panda television stuff before.”

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A story that sees Po lose a title he’s spent literal years with, The Dragon Knight puts him on a journey that tests not just his own understanding of himself, but see him teamed up with and “challenged by somebody who doesn’t get him.”

“Part of this was my desire to knock him down and to put him in a bit of a hole where he feels like he’s lost this important thing,” the Dragon Knight EP explains. “But in the journey, of course, it’s about realizing that it’s not the title and it’s not what other people call you and that everything he thought made him the Dragon Warrior and the Dragon Master he still has.”

Hastings adds that being able to take a darker, more mature tone with the show versus past chapters also marks how the series is expanding the franchise. “To not be afraid and be approved to be able to go into some emotional places and some dark backstories — what motivates these things and bring the emotional life — that’s been really fun.”

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Black, along with his fellow voices actors James Hong and Rita Ora, Hastings and fellow EP Shaunt Nigoghossian, as well as art director Ellen Jin about how Po’s latest journey is a celebration of where Kung Fu Panda has been and where it’s going.

James Hong as Mr. Ping and Jack Black as Po in Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight. COURTESY OF NETFLIX

I. REUNITING JACK BLACK AND JAMES HONG 

The Dragon Knight might be the newest chapter in the franchise, but it’s also one full of familiar voices. The Netflix series marks the return of Jack Black as the voice of Po, after Mick Wingert took over the role for the prior TV shows. Hastings tells THR getting Black back was the result of the pandemic shutdown in Hollywood.

“The starter for it is the idea that Jack is probably not that busy right now because nobody was, except for animation,” he explains. “Then there are also people involved with the movies who are also working at Netflix, and so we had connections in that manner.”

Hastings, who also served as the series’ voice director, says Black really responded to the show’s storytelling, “which is more mature than where a lot of this stuff has been,” and is more in line with what the first movie’s “really great emotional stories” were. 

“A typical actor says their lines and they give you the opportunity to do a little acting or something but with Jack, you have to do 90 poses for one line. It’s fun and it’s challenging,” Nigoghossian adds. “He tells you when to go wide because he’s doing something with his body. He really is great at getting emotion, too, so sometimes I’m going to turn the lights down here, put a shaft of light right on his sad head.”

For Black, his return to the franchise was an exciting venture into new creative territory as his first TV animation stint in the Kung Fu Panda universe. That he said, presented a different kind of experience than working in film. One where he didn’t feel like he was just slightly tweaking the same material for an extended period of time.

“It’s so much more fun to go in every week or every couple of weeks and work on a new episode. Because with a movie, you’ll work on the same story — the same one-and-a-half-hour story — for two years. You’ll just drill down and you’ll like tweak a line or a word is different, and it can kind of drive you insane,” he explains. “With a series, you’re coming in and you don’t have time for that crap. You’re moving on to the next episode. What’s happening next? When you start the thing, you have an idea of the broad strokes of the whole arc of the series, but you don’t really know what’s coming. You’re watching it unfold every week. It’s a really, really lovely job. I had so much fun over the last couple of years doing it.”

Black wasn’t the only returning cast member for this go-around. For James Hong, who has also been with the franchise since the first film voicing the character of Mr. Ping, the latest TV installment marks an impressive personal milestone.

“I’ve never done the same character for 15 years,” Hong tells THR, adding that he’s likely voiced upwards of 10 different roles across the franchise. “In that respect, growing up with Mr. Ping and Kung Fu Panda has opened my eyes. In the beginning, we didn’t know where this thing was going. We just did our bit, right? We did our best, and then we just kind of put it aside. But who would dream that in 15 years, here’s Jack and I coming back? We have grown up ourselves.”

Nigoghossian says Hong’s creative improvisation is particularly impressive, with the actor doing “things that just no one would ever think to come up with.” 

“James Hong has done every single version of Kung Fu Panda. He’s remained fantastic to work with. He’s 93 years old, and he’s been nothing but enthusiastic and fun on this on this whole show,” Hastings adds. 

Rita Ora as Wandering Blade in Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight. COURTESY OF NETFLIX

II. ADDING RITA ORA AND WANDERING BLADE 

While The Dragon Knight reunites cast and friends, it also introduces the brand new character of Wandering Blade, voiced by Rita Ora. Hastings says the character is the opposite to Black’s Po, and through their Dragon Knight journey, both characters come to find that they “kind of need each other a little bit.”

“She’s this contrasting force to [Po]. She’s rigid and she doesn’t smile and her movements are very limited. He’s bouncing around Wandering Blade like a little dog,” he adds. “They both kind of become like each other. She loosens up a little bit as she gets to know him and he becomes a little more serious and understands that life is not always so easy.”

The singer and actress’ first animated TV voice role, Ora called her time working on the series a real experimental experience. “I’ve really surprised myself with what I could do with my voice,” she says. “I know I sing but speaking and shouting and whispering [in voiceover] — it’s like a completely different world. It’s really nice to expand my knowledge of what I think I can do confidence-wise.”

Getting to team with Kung Fu Panda veterans Black and Hong was the easier part, she says, as a fan of the franchise. “It didn’t take a lot to go in. I know these characters and know I need to match the power,” she says. “I had the best time just learning and coming in fresh with no expectations.”

Hastings says Ora’s “musician’s ears” and “great work ethic” meant she picked up voice acting really fast in a very short period of time. “The quality of her voice was great, and that’s why she was cast. I heard a whole bunch of people read for the role and then her voice just popped. But being a voice actor is very much like being a singer because it’s a vocal performance and everything exists in your voice,” the EP says. “She has a lot of studio experience singing and I think that really helped her a lot. In just a couple of episodes, I’m like, ‘You’re just as good as any professional voice actor out there. You’re giving me two takes that are great and then we’re doing one for fun and nailing it.’”

But Wandering Blade wasn’t just a new journey for Ora. She also presented new design opportunities for the team, according to Jin. When discussing the character’s stature, the art director notes that “the designers on the original films they’re really great about the shape language,” and so she and the show’s design team for The Dragon Knight built off of that.

“Po is traveling next to Wandering Blade therefore, we have to design Wandering Blade to complement Po and at the same time, [be] unique in her own way,” she explains. “So if you look at Po’s body shape, he’s very bottom-heavy. He’s got a water drop shape. Wandering Blade had to be top-heavy because she is that counterpart. So she’s got the wider shoulders, she’s taller than Po. She’s supposed to be a very strong Knight, physically very fit.”

When it came to what Wandering Blade donned, and the team — like much of their work — researched design options, weighing both period accuracy and how it could be reflective of the character’s personality, before settling on her final look. 

“We didn’t want to quite give her metal armor because I think that just makes her personality look a little bit harder. So we went with a fish scale leather armor and then gave her a gold leaf to pop so that you can recognize her armor wherever you find her image,” Jin says. “Her sword also was designed to represent her. It’s not just a regular English sword that was really common around the time. It’s got beautiful intricate designs, carvings and engravings that are very unique.” 

(L-R): Rita Ora as Wandering Blade, Jack Black as Po, James Hong as Mr. Ping and Rahnuma Panthaky as Rukhmini in Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight. COURTESY OF NETFLIX

III. TAKING ‘KUNG FU PANDA’ BEYOND CHINA

For the first time in the franchise’s history, its characters are stepping outside the boundaries of China for journeys that take them to other parts of the globe.

“That gave us a really fun opportunity to design all kinds of new things constantly,” Hastings tells THR. “Rather than building six sets and using them endlessly, we were able to design a new thing with every episode. It was a huge challenge, but also really fun and kept everybody on their toes in terms of doing research for where we’re going — what kind of animals lived there, deciding what these characters are going to be like.”

Nigoghossian adds that taking the narrative to new places was an opportunity to play in a bigger creative sandbox within the Kung Fu Panda universe style. “There is a style to Kung Fu Panda where lighting is really important, even the character designs. So how do we now take that idea and do it in the desert? How do you make a cactus in this style? How do you make a palm tree in the style?” he says. “How do you make a different animal like a snake and how do you make them move and fight when they don’t have arms?” 

The EP, who also directed on the animated series, said that expanding the universe was one of “the funnest things in the show” for both the design and writing teams. “We researched and made sure that every animal was from that specific location and even the culture of that land was taken into account. Especially the fact that this is in the past. It’s not the culture today. It’s the culture of the past in that area.” 

To capture all of this, The Dragon Knight team relied on artists, writers and a hired cultural consultant for each location the series goes to, but also for the regional and cultural influences of its various characters. Both England and India are notable stops in season one, and Jin tells THR the team really researched how people live — from clothing and architecture to everyday items and weapons.

“They’re all different depending on which century they’re from or which region of their particular country,” she says. “And the consultants were always there to catch us if we go in a bit of a different way that is not really correct.”

By the end of season one, Po and Wandering Blade are entering a new area on the Asia content: India. The Dragon Knight art director is already looking towards that next journey and what potential lies ahead for the Kung Fu Panda team if they get a season two.

“India to me is the most exciting place to go to,” she says. “Look at their wells system that they built. It is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen to collect water … The architecture — it couldn’t be more different [than China] the way they build castles and towers … India cultivated so many different spices that the rest of the world didn’t have. Their food culture is amazing.”

Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight is now streaming on Netflix.