Think, if you will, back to a simpler time — 2008, to be exact. Beyoncé introduced the world to Sasha Fierce. Britney Spears made her first big comeback with the release of her sixth studio album, Circus. And the world fell in love with a giant cartoon panda named Po, who has a gigantic heart and appetite to match. That’s right; it’s been 14 years (just, how?) since the Kung Fu Panda franchise began. Now, in 2022, the saga continues with a brand new series adaptation on Netflix, Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight. Aside from the obvious excitement of getting to keep the Po fandom going in your family, you’ll be happy to know that Jack Black has returned to voice everyone’s favorite anthropomorphic fumbling foodie.
Scary Mommy caught up with Black to discuss, among other things, a shared love of dumplings, the possibility of a cuisine-based Kung Fu Panda spinoff, and the message he hopes kids take away from the new series.
This is your first time returning as Po since the third film in the series. What inspired you to come back now?
Netflix reached out and asked if I’d be interested in reprising my role, ‘cause it’d been many, many years since I’d played Kung Fu Panda. And I said, “I’m interested; go on.” And I jumped on a Zoom with Peter [Hastings, executive producer]. He told me the idea for the series and the arc of the story, and it sounded rad. It sounded like a fun adventure. There are new characters; there’s a real strong woman character [played by Rita Ora] who comes from England, and she’s a knight, and she’s also got, like, real intense highs and lows emotionally. She’s kind of the heart of the story, and she’s got some awesome personal growth.
We’re kind of partners — it’s Kung Fu Panda and the Dragon Knight. And she’s really the knight, and I’m the dragon. So, it’s kind of a buddy-comedy adventure. I was into it; I was like, Yeah man, let’s do this.
And you’re an executive producer for the series, too. How was that experience?
To be honest with you, I didn’t really do much producing. (laughs) I have a really good agent who got me the producing title. Really, I was 99% acting and maybe 1% producing.
I could get on board with that kind of job! Well, one of the best things about Po — aside from his undying affinity for dumplings — is how he’s just always himself, for better or worse. That really comes through in this series. Was that an important message for you to get across?
My love of dumplings? (laughs) Look, the cuisine is at the core of all of my characters. The first thing I explore is, like, “What does Po eat?”
Being myself is important in Kung Fu Panda because, from the very beginning, I was like, “Should I do a cartoon? What is he? He’s a panda that does kung fu? I don’t know; I’m not feeling it. I don’t understand it.” And Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was the original force behind Kung Fu Panda, was like, “No, you don’t understand; we want you to be you.” He got some sound from High Fidelity, and he had the animators do a short little scene with Kung Fu Panda with my vocal performance from High Fidelity — and it was really funny. And I was like, “Ohhh, you guys want me to be me, and you’re going to make the panda… OK.”
So I jumped into it, and ever since, that’s been my focus when I play Po. I just try to be myself, but like a younger version. The 13- to 16-year-old Jack Black — that’s Po. He’s got that youthful exuberance and kind of nerdy teenager lust for life. That’s the core of what Po’s all about.
You know, Jack, I’m sensing a pattern here. An executive producing job where you’re just yourself. A character where you’re just yourself. Is this the brilliance of Jack Black, figuring that out?
(laughs) Yeah, I guess so… it’s like, you know how it looks like pandas are a lazy animal? But then, as they lazily graze on their delicious bamboo and they look like they clumsily fall from the tree, and then they roll down the hill — you could say it’s lazy, but there’s also a gracefulness to it. And I think that’s my producing style. I’m just rolling down a hill. It looks like I’m doing nothing, but at the end of the day, by god, it works out.
I dig it. I’m glad you mentioned food — we’re all very invested in Po and Mr. Ping. Can we get, like, a Po and Mr. Ping animated kids’ cooking show? An officially sanctioned cookbook? Something?! There’s workshopping to be done here.
Wouldn’t that be good? Oh, yeah! I was talking about how this series opens up to a bigger world audience because Po goes — spoiler alert — all around the world, and I was talking to the director and was like, “Every time we go to another locale, I think we should have a dinner in that cuisine before we start recording anything.” And that would be cool to have a cookbook just for this series. I can’t tell you where we go, but there’s delicious flavors in store in the future.
That definitely sounds like something you should do. This is going to be such a fun watch for families this summer. What’s the big takeaway you hope kids walk away with?
Kind of the cool thing about it is the way that the stakes are raised. The movies all took place in China. In this [series], the world opens up; it’s more of a global story and adventure, and it’s kind of about how the different cultures of the world have to work together and make peace with each other to save the world. That’s kind of a cool takeaway.
I hope kids come away thinking, “Yeah, there’s a world out there with people that I don’t really understand their culture — they’ve had a whole different perspective and upbringing. Maybe I can make friends with some unexpected people from different cultures.” That would be an amazing thing for kids to take away.
Julie Sprankles is the deputy lifestyle editor at Scary Mommy. You can catch her on Twitter @JulieLSprankles.