Debuting in the 2008 eponymous film, the Kung Fu Panda franchise has been an enormous success for DreamWorks Animation branching out into other media including television. In the new series Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight, Po the panda, once again voiced by Jack Black, is on an all-new adventure that takes him out of China and around the world on a quest to obtain four powerful weapons. Joining him is his father Mr. Ping, voiced by James Hong, as well as new friends like Wandering Blade, a no-nonsense English knight voiced by Rita Ora.
The second season just premiered on Netflix and we had the chance to chat with executive producer and veteran animation writer Peter Hastings about the series and what’s in store for everyone’s favorite panda.
Taimur Dar: Obviously this isn’t your first venture with Kung Fu Panda having worked on the previous series Legends of Awesomeness a decade ago. You’ve been at DreamWorks for a number of years on other projects like Captain Underpants. How did this project come about?
Peter Hastings: Like you said I had previously done a Kung Fu Panda show which was a lot of fun. It’s a great character and world where you get to do comedy and action. After I had done Captain Underpants at DreamWorks, they had the property but there was a pause. Then they asked me if I wanted to come on and do it. Working with this character and this world is super fun so I said, “Yes!”
Dar: I know you developed Dragon Knight with Mitch Watson, whose animation work I really enjoy. In fact, I interviewed him previously for the Nickelodeon Big Nate show. What was the process of developing the show with him?
Peter Hastings: I’ve known Mitch for years. We’ve worked together several times. Mitch started the process of the development. The fundamental idea of this series was development that Mitch had done. Then Netflix put a hold on it and Mitch went off to do the Big Nate show. So when they said “yes” to doing this series [and] he wasn’t available. So they called me as the ringer to continue it. We actually worked separately on it.
Dar: The basic premise for Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight clearly takes cues from classic buddy comedy films like Plans, Trains and Automobiles. I don’t know if you looked at that specifically but I’m curious what else inspired this series.
Hastings: Certainly, that dynamic of that buddy cop opposites. I’ve heard it described as “chalk and cheese” of creating a partnership of two people who are very different then learn from each other. There’s a lot of comedy involved in the conflict. Then we have all this other stuff like a panda who does Kung Fu in ancient China and this knight who has come from medieval England to pair up with him which gives a lot of fresh, new and interesting details. In the development we looked at all those movies like 48 Hrs. to look how they handle it. What you want to do is embrace the genre but make it your own as you move forward.
Dar: As you said this is a different kind of story for the franchise taking Po outside of China. How is it to work on this series without all the familiar characters like the Furious Five?
Hastings: Po really is the fundamental part of the franchise. Those characters are all fun. We had them when I did the Legends of Awesomeness series. Po just takes up and fills so much space in a good way. I was happy to do this sideways trip. This doesn’t interrupt anything in the timeline of the franchise. The only characters coming back are Po and Mr. Ping. We wanted to introduce a bunch of new characters to have this adventure where Po is traveling around the world.
Dar: Before I get into my next question, I want to know if you’ve seen Everything Everywhere All at Once?
Hastings: Yes, I did!
Dar: It amazes me that James Hong, the voice of Mr. Ping, is still working at his age both on-camera and in animation voiceover. How does the experience working with James Hong compare between ten years ago and today?
Hastings: Honestly there’s no difference between ten years ago and today. James is amazing. I just worked with him this week. He’s about to turn 94 in February. He’s so much fun to work with. We talked about Everything Everywhere All at Once which just recently was nominated for Best Ensemble for a SAG Award. He was very funny when I told him I watched the movie and he said, “I thought it was a little long.” [Laughs]. The other fun thing he told me about it was when he said, “I wasn’t really sure what the story was about but they said, ‘You looking bewildered is good for your character.’ Every time I didn’t know what was going on, those were the takes they ended up using in the movie.”
James has been in every version of Kung Fu Panda. He’s just so unique and wonderful. As is Jack Black who’s come back to do this. The two of those guys are so great. I don’t have to explain anything to them so we can just explore stuff and look for the comedy and comedy beats that are true to those characters.
Dar: It goes without saying voice recordings have been remote for the last few years. However, I learned one animated show production used the opportunity to have as many actors as possible, almost a dozen, over Zoom sessions. As the voice director for the Dragon Knight series, what did the voice recording process entail?
Hastings: When you have a show where you are primarily using all of the super fantastic, experienced voice actors who are in town and are used to showing up at sessions, it’s easier to get everyone together under one room at one time. On this show, partly because we have all these British, Indian and Chinese actors in other countries, it’s hard to get them together. Our sessions are pretty much all solo. I’m also the voice director and directing over Zoom. You don’t necessarily get the interaction that you always want when they’re in the room together. But then that becomes my job to know what that interaction is supposed to sound like.
Dar: One of the big changes in not just in animation but entertainment in general since you started in the industry is the growth of serialized storytelling. The previous Legends of Awesomeness was mostly episodic. I’m curious if you prefer one over the other.
Hastings: I prefer serialized. The whole setup we have now with streaming on Netflix is creatively so much fun. I like that the episodes come out at once because it turns it into a very long movie. People who are into the show will watch it all the way through over a weekend. When these series come out they almost play like a movie because people watch it pretty quickly. Also, we don’t have any commercials which I love. It’s fun and interesting writing challenge. Instead of coming up with the singular idea of this episode, you can play out stories much longer. It can be challenging because you can set up things like signposts and then you have to figure out how to weave your whole story all the way through there.
Dar: With a project like this where you’re portraying cultures, you want to be historically accurate but also be entertaining. How did you approach it for Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight?
Hastings: At the beginning of the second season, we head out to India and then we end up in Central America. And then at the end of the season it looks like we’re launching off into new territory. We wanted visually story-wise to be historically accurate and respectful with every place we go to. We have consultants for Central America and India and China. We’re running things by them. We’d be very specific like with food someone would say, “That’s more northern India than Southern India.” We were very much into that and stuck to it. Same thing with the design team. They had a blast going into all these different cultures and times and bringing everything into our show with our style both technically and creatively.
Dar: What can you tease for the next season?
Hastings: In the third season we are hoping to branch out into new and exciting adventures. The show is going to continue to travel as long as they let us put out more episodes. We’ve set up a lot of tremendous adventure stuff and questions that need to be resolved with some crazy action and fun comedy.