HomeBad Ass AsiansKung Fu Panda 4 brings East Asian voices to the fore

Kung Fu Panda 4 brings East Asian voices to the fore

By Jana Monji

The Kung Fu Panda franchise has managed to present Wuxia (martial arts in fiction) in a warm and appreciative context since the animated giant panda Po first appeared in 2008. East Asian actors voiced a few minor roles, but the hero and the villains have been predominately voiced by White actors in this cinematic series. Kung Fu Panda 4 brings back the old villains from the previous film, but also introduces a new major character, Zhen, voiced by Awkwafina.

Set in an anthropomorphic version of Ancient China, the series takes place in the Valley of Peace. Po’s (voiced by Jack Black) adoptive father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), is a noodle-making gander. In the first film, Po was chosen by the elderly tortoise, Master Oogway (Randall Duke Kim) to be the Dragon Warrior, much to the surprise and disappointment of the red panda Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and Furious Five–masters Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Mantis (Seth Rogan). Besides gaining the respect of Shifu and the Furious Five, Po must learn kung fu in order to defeat a former student of Shifu, Tai Lung (Ian McShane)., in order the maintain order in the Valley of Peace.

Oogway dies in the first film, although his character is brought back in the following films. Mr. Ping, like Monkey and Viper, are supporting characters. The main conflicts are between Shifu and Po and Po and Tai Lung.

In Kung Fu Panda 4, Tai Lung will be joined by the baddies from the other installments. If you haven’t seen the previous installments, the bad guys were all voiced by White men.

Before she won an Oscar, Michelle Yeoh voiced the soothsayer in Kung Fu Panda 2 in 2011, who predicted the defeat of an evil peacock Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman) by a warrior in black and white.

In the 2016 Kung Fu Panda 3, Bryan Cranston voiced Po’s biological father, Li Shan and J.K. Simmons was jade zombie animating malevolent yak, General Kai, who returns from the Spirit Realm. Po meets Oogway who gives him the Staff of Wisdom. This is important for the next film.

In Kung Fu Panda 4, the Furious Five are off on other adventures as Po continues his developmental journey. After becoming the legendary Dragon Warrior (2008), finding inner peace (2011) and then learning chi (2016), Po must now name a successor and that character is voiced by Awkwafina. That means if the Kung Fu Panda franchise continues with a projected two more films, it looks like an East Asian actor will voice one of the primary characters.

While half-heartedly trying to find his successor, Po catches a corsac fox bandit Zhen stealing ancient weapons. Po has a bigger problem: Tai Lung has come back from the Spirit Realm. Zhen (Awkwafina) tells Po that Tai Lung has not really returned, but a powerful sorceress Chameleon (Viola Davis) has taken on his shape. Zhen takes Po to the city where the Chameleon headquarters. Along the way, they visit a dangerous tavern run by elderly Granny Boar (Lori Tan Chinn) and meet a fish in a pelican’s mouth (Ronny Chieng as a green arowana called Captain Fish) who help them to the city.

Chameleon needs the Staff of Wisdom to magically steal the kung fu from the masters of the Spirit Realm including Lord Shen and General Kai. To defeat the Chameleon, Po through Zhen reaches out to the Den of Thieves leader, Sunda pangolin Han (Ke Huy Quan) who convinces the thieves to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.

The choreography of the actions scenes are humorous and dynamic (directed by Mike Mitchell). Fans of animation will want to check out the amazing job done on the Chameleon.

The Furious Five appear in the ending credits, training Zhen. This won’t surprise fans of the Kung Fu Panda franchise who have followed the three TV streaming series: Legends of Awesomeness which ran for three season (2011-2016 on Nickelodeon except for 2016 on Nicktoons), The Paws of Destiny (2018-2019 on Amazon Prime Video) and The Dragon Knight (2022-2023 on Netflix).

The Paws of Destiny takes place after Kung Fu Panda 3 and follows Po and four panda cubs on various adventures. The Dragon Knight takes place after The Paws of Destiny and Po teams up with brown bear Luthera (Rita Ora) who wants to avenge her brother’s death. During their journey, they do travel and fight with and against a thieving lion-tailed macaque, Rukhmini (Rahnuma Panthaky).

The theme of the film Kung Fu Panda 4 is that change in inevitable and while sometimes challenging, often for the better. The change in the casting has brought the first female villain to the cinematic Kung Fu Panda universe and brought the possibility that future installments will feature East Asian voices more prominently.

DreamWorks Animation, the studio behind the Kung Fu Panda franchise, also produced director/writer Jill Culton’s 2019 Abominable, a story about a Yeti and a Shanghai teenage girl Yi (voiced by Chinese hapa Chloe Bennet), as well as the 2023 Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken which features Vietnam-born American actress Lana Condor voicing the lead character (with Toni Collette voicing her mother, Colman Domingo, her father and Jane Fonda, her warrior queen kraken grandmother).

Animated films like Kung Fu Panda and Abominable, like the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender have also allowed older East Asian actors roles. Randall Duk Kim (Oogway) is now 80 years old. James Hong (Mr. Ping) is 95. Tsai Chin, now 90, voiced the grandmother, Nai Nai in Abominable while Hong voiced a yak herder. Oscar-nominated Mako, who died in 2006 at the age of 72, voiced the Uncle Iroh on Avatar: The Last Airbender, a role that Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is portraying in the current live-action Netflix series. Gordon Cormier (Ang) and Dante Basco (Zuko), both of Filipino descent, voiced main characters of the animated series as well.

In 2010, Jeffrey Katzenberg, former Disney executive and one of the three founders of DreamWorks, stated that there were six chapters to Kung Fu Panda. That was before Universal Pictures acquired DreamWorks in 2016. Yet despite the changeover, with Kung Fu Panda 4 topping the North American box office two weekends in a row, it’s highly likely there will be a more films in the series.

Kung Fu Panda 4 was released on 8 March 2024 and will later stream on Peacock and Netflix. The film is set to be released in China this weekend (22 March 2024 in China and 28 Hong Kong on 28 March 2024). It won’t be released until April in Taiwan, Vietnam and South Korea.

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