When Jack Black took on the role of enthusiastic kung fu fanboy Po the Panda, he couldn’t have known that he’d still voice the character nearly 15 years later. But Black is back as Po in Netflix’s new animated series Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight. Even though Black voiced the character across all three Kung Fu Panda movies, beginning with 2008’s Kung Fu Panda, he hasn’t reprised the role for the two previous television shows. In honor of his return to his excitable martial-arts-master panda character, Black reflected on how he got the role all those years ago.
As he tells Polygon, back in the mid-2000s, he’d never done voice acting before. But DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg sold him with a specific pitch.
“Jeffrey Katzenberg told me, You don’t have to worry about creating some new character. I want you to be you,” Black explains. “And he got some footage, I think it was audio from School of Rock, or High Fidelity, one of my earlier movies, and he had the animators do a short animation using that audio. And I was like, Oh, all right, now I get it. So when I first started, it was a fun opportunity to just be myself, and let the animators do all the cool fighting sequences. I got to be kind of a superhero, but with all of my natural instincts.”
Fourteen years, three movies, and two television shows later (not to mention a handful of short films and video games), the Kung Fu Panda franchise still has staying power. It’s partly the epic kung fu, partly the fun comedic shenanigans, and partly the endearing characters — especially Po.
“He’s eternally this nerdy kid,” says Black. “[He] just loves kung fu and the action figures and the mythology around it, and all the great kung fu masters. And I think it appeals to the childlike fascination, sense of adventure that we all have.”
Aside from Po and his goose father, Ping (James Hong), not many of the previous characters return for the new show. There’s a reason for that, though. Po teams up with an English knight known as the Wandering Blade (Rita Ora). Together, the two of them embark on a globetrotting adventure that takes them far from China, in a journey across the world. It’s a much more expansive setting than the movies, and one Black was particularly excited for.
“I joked with Peter [Hastings], our director, that every time we went to a new place, whenever Po went to a new land, I needed to sample the cuisine,” says Black. “Needless to say, I tasted many delicious new dishes. Got the flavors. It was part of my research as a professional actor. I needed to go there.”
Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight hits Netflix on July 14.