‘Kung Fu Panda 4’ Director Mike Mitchell on His Big Return to DreamWorks: ‘It Is a Completely Different Studio’

As the movie hits Digital, the filmmaker looks back on his career of making challenging sequels like “Shrek 4” and “Lego Movie 2”

Kung Fu Panda 4
DreamWorks Animation

Mike Mitchell, whose “Kung Fu Panda 4” just hit Digital, is a director with a rare distinction: he’s the only filmmaker who has directed installments in two $2 billion-grossing franchises from DreamWorks Animation (“Kung Fu Panda” and “Shrek”). And it seems fitting, really, since Mitchell worked as a story artist on DreamWorks’ first computer-animated movie “Antz” back in 1998. He is something of a DreamWorks legend, having worked on a number of films under Jeffrey Katzenberg and now coming back after working on Warner Bros.’ “The Lego Movie 2” — and after Katzenberg sold the studio to Universal. Not that Mitchell would agree with the DreamWorks legend label.

Mitchell said that he watched, when Katzenberg sold the company, and understood that, in the aftermath “it’d be a little chaotic.” When he came back, Mitchell said, “It was nice because it is a completely different studio. It’s got completely different style of leadership.” This new version of DreamWorks, under president and CEO Margie Cohn, “hit a lot of hurdles” – the pandemic among them.

Although Mitchell thinks that people will go see good stories, wherever they are.

“It’s interesting how people keep saying that the audience has changed. And I’ve got to tell you, I’m not convinced. I think the audience always wants to see a good movie of course. Streaming came along and Netflix just absolutely destroyed the theatrical experience,” Mitchell said. “And people say animation has changed. I couldn’t disagree more. If you make a great movie with a great theme and a great story with excellent characters, everyone would want to see it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a franchise, it doesn’t matter if it’s a new movie. The industry is pretending that it’s going through a big change. And I just think that the change needs to be is we’ve got to make great, theatrical-worthy films.”

And according to Mitchell, it’s not easier to make a sequel than it is an original, thanks to the crushing weight of expectation. “If you’re doing a part two, it’s got to be twice as good, right?” Mitchell said. “You can’t repeat gags.” Sure, sequels are guaranteed to actually be made and, as he says, “I love to work.”

Mitchell says that he also loves analyzing these franchises. “Why have these f–king characters stood the test of time? It’s just so interesting to me,” Mitchell said. “And I feel that more so than any filmmaker in town, I have explored that question over and over and over. And there’s a different answer I have for every film that I work on.”

Still, Mitchell also worked on the first “Trolls” movie, “one of my favorite films that I worked on,” which required its own challenges since they were establishing an entire world based on the thinnest source material (the series of wild-haired, gem-belly-buttoned dolls). At the time, Mitchell said, DreamWorks leadership saw them as “baby movies.” “I love defying expectations. I love being the underdog. I love proving people wrong. And there was something about starting that franchise and being like, Look, see it can be done,” Mitchell said.

When it came to the fourth “Shrek,” he was facing an uphill battle. The third film, Mitchell said, “was not a good movie.” “Now everybody hates Shrek,” Mitchell said. “Again, I was the underdog. No one wanted to work on ‘Shrek 4,’” Mitchell said. “Now people look back on it and they think it’s really good. But it was dauting at the time.”

Not that everything has changed about DreamWorks. “The thing that has stayed consistent with DreamWorks is the animators,” Mitchell said. “Those animators are the best ever. And I would crawl through glass to work with them again and again. They’re just the best. They’re real filmmakers. They don’t just animate. These guys know filmmaking backwards and forwards. And it’s really humbling to get to work with them.”

When it came to “Kung Fu Panda 4,” which sends Po (Jack Black, of course) on a quest to defeat the evil, shape-shifting Chameleon (Viola Davis), with the help of a street-wise fox (Awkwafina), Mitchell was drawn to “the challenge of how to update it.”

He understood that the franchise is beloved; which is true. He wanted to stick to how wonderful those movies were. He also wanted to avoid the allure of aping something like the “Spider-Verse” movies. “I find that boring,” Mitchell said. “Anyone else that does that is just ripping it off.” (He does say that he loved “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” and its “scribbly scrabble style.”) “I was up for the challenge of like, how do we update ‘Kung Fu Panda’ and stick with the DNA that’s in the franchise and I feel that we did it,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell has a history of coming into projects late and turning them around, most recently on “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part,” when he replaced original director Rob Schrab. As it turns out, on “Kung Fu Panda 4” and “Shrek 4” he was only signed on as a producer initially. “That’s how they reel me in,” Mitchell joked. Initially he would just work on the story with the writers. “And then when the story starts to get really tight and really good, I started to get invested,” Mitchell said. In “Shrek 4,” it was the moment when they came up with the idea of Fiona, having never met or married Shrek, becoming the leader of a resistance ogre army. When the idea for “Kung Fu Panda 4” was formed, with Po going on a quest and this fabulous villain that could resurrect other villains in the franchise, he was similarly drawn in. “This idea was too fun and clever,” Mitchell explained.

With rumblings of a reinvigorated “Shrek” franchise on the horizon, would Mitchell return to the land of Far, Far Away? “I’m going to say this – ‘Shrek’ is one of my favorite franchises,” Mitchell said. The world of “Shrek,” according to Mitchell, was an extremely fun world to live in. Same with “Kung Fu Panda.” “’Shrek’ is phenomenal. It’s so fun and so funny. And donkey is the best character ever created,” Mitchell said. Get this man some waffles.

“Kung Fu Panda 4” is available on digital now.

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