By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Kung Fu Panda 3,” from DreamWorks, marks the third installment of the adventures of Po, an amiable and witty animated panda bear who, somewhat against his own nature, becomes a martial-arts expert and helps to defend his Chinese village from evil. The film’s two directors, Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni, sat down in Seattle to take some questions.
Yuh Nelson, a Korean American who was born in South Korea and moved to Southern California as a child, started out as a storyboarder for DreamWorks. She worked her way up to the position of head of story on the first “Kung Fu Panda.” She then directed “Kung Fu Panda 2,” which became the highest-grossing film solely directed by a female director. (Disney’s “Frozen,” co-directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, eventually outgrossed it.)
For “Kung Fu Panda 3,” Yuh Nelson was paired with co-director Alessandro Carloni. He is originally from Italy and had worked on the franchise as a story artist and animation supervisor, but had never directed before. Yuh Nelson explained that they never had a tough time collaborating.
“We’ve been working together from the beginning,” she explained. “We created Po together, with the crew and the writers, the story artists. We were all part of the same group. So we have very much a shorthand on how things work. It’s one of the reasons I asked for Ali to come on to this movie as a director, because we have such a shorthand on the characters.”
One new step for the movie was the co-production between DreamWorks and its sister company, Oriental DreamWorks. Among other benefits, a version in Mandarin Chinese was produced simultaneously with the English version. “It’s fully animated with Mandarin voice acting and lip-sync,” said Yuh Nelson, “so it looks seamless in Mandarin. There are no subtitles.”
Jackie Chan, who lends his voice as the character Monkey, is the only voice actor who could and does perform in both Mandarin and English versions.
The animators studied the look and ambiance of China to create the backgrounds and villages shown in the film. “What’s eye-opening,” admitted Carloni, “is that it’s not about shapes and colors as much as it is about atmosphere. A lot of the movie is about how moss grows on things and [how] mist fills every object. How the buildings are almost grown from nature.”
When asked about other influences for Po’s story, Carloni invoked “the comedy of kung fu.”
Yuh Nelson said they watched all of Jackie Chan’s films. “He does great found-object fight scenes, where it’s not all punching and kicking. He does a lot of great physical comedy choreography.”
Although inspired by Jackie Chan films, they didn’t pattern Monkey after Jackie’s real-life moves. “We can’t actually do much of that,” said Yuh Nelson, “because a lot of the characters are not humanoid-shaped. A monkey is humanoid, but he doesn’t move like a person. He’s got a tail, and he’s fighting with his tail.”
Of the returning cast from the first two films, the directors singled out the performance of James Hong, an 86-year-old Chinese American who has appeared in hundreds of films and TV episodes. Hong appeared in the first two films as the goose, Mr. Ping, Po’s stepfather. However, his role was expanded in this third film, especially after Po’s biological father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), shows up — the only other Panda Po has ever seen.
“It’s a touchy subject when you bring in the biological father,” Carloni mused. “[But] I felt we were really sensitive about it. Letting Mr. Ping be the bigger man, saying, ‘He needs both his Dads now.’”
A family affair
Another surprise is the contribution by Angelina Jolie’s children. Jolie voiced Master Tigress in all three installments, and for Kung Fu Panda 3, her kids Pax Thien (adopted from Vietnam), Zahara (adopted from Ethiopia), Shiloh, and Knox all chimed in with a few words and giggles for minor characters. Yuh Nelson recalled, “She was pregnant with her twins during the first movie and the fact that they’re now old enough to be characters became such an adorable thing. We have a lot of characters and so she brought [her children]. She was sitting on the floor with them. She was tickling them to make them laugh. They were very shy.”
“[One of] the reasons why actors say yes to a project like this,” added Carlino, “is so they can share it with their children. Jack [Black] brought his son in, to do one line. Dustin Hoffman brought in his grandson.”
As for the inevitable question as to whether a “Kung Fu Panda 4” is in the works, Yuh Nelson chuckled. “We focus on making each movie a satisfying experience by itself. But we overbuild, so of course there are more stories to tell.” (end)
“Kung Fu Panda 3” is currently in theaters. Check local listings for theaters, prices, and showtimes.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.