It was eight years ago that audiences first met DreamWork Animation‘s lovable Kung Fu Panda, Po, and five years ago that we last saw the character (voiced by Jack Black) on the big screen. On January 29th, Po is back alongside the Furious Five (voiced by Jackie Chan, David Cross, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen) and about to come face to face with his birth father (Bryan Cranston). Unfortunately, the “Dragon Warrior” is also about to become targeted by a dangerous new foe, Kai (J.K. Simmons), who has powers and abilities unlike anything Po has ever faced before.
I had the opportunity to chat with directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni who discussed bringing Po’s third adventure to the big screen and why it was important to step up every aspect to make this the biggest journey to date.
Now that we are on the third film, it’s evident that everyone loves Po and Kung Fu Panda. What do you think it is that draws people to these characters and why do we love these films so much?
Jennifer: I think it’s because Po is such a geek, and he is so relatable. He is so excited by life and is excited to learn new things. I think that accessibility is something that we all can relate to, there are so many things we wish we could do but don’t have the means to achieve it. Po’s unending enthusiasm is something we wish we could have. We can’t help but root for him because of his geek energy.
Alessandro: Everything comes out in his character and I agree, there’s something about Po that everyone can relate to. We could have easily failed at Po and his adventure, but if we succeed at Po and who he is then people will enjoy these movies. In a way I might try to go through the post office with a fantastic friend, a beautiful adventure with someone I can’t stand. That would be awful, so we strive to make Po entertaining so that everyone wants to go on an adventure with him. I think the most important thing we strived to achieve was making a fun story and great development with the character.
What was the most important thing to do with the story to bring it forward?
Jennifer: I think we had to push forward to make sure it was different, do something that we had never done before and yet still have the consistency to stay in the same world. This was our chance to do all the things we didn't get a chance to do before. We’ve been working on these movies for twelve years and we have to keep things exciting for us in order for us to devote that many years of our lives to do this. So we wanted to push things get even bigger, and more epic and do the things we’ve always dreamed of and go for it with this film.
Alessandro: In the language of Kung Fu movies there’s often the supernatural element like tai Chi and the power to control things that we never did that in the two previous films….
Jennifer: There were little hints of it but we never went full force with this theme so we felt it was time to step it up.
Alessandro: When we were making the first film we had something all scripted out and ready to do in the movie but we just didn’t have the chance so now we totally went for it and i have to say it was really cool!
You have both been working on these films from the very beginning, and Jennifer you directed Kung Fu Panda 2, but for this one you both took on the directing responsibilities. So how did that work?
Jennifer: Well, he’s a lot louder than I am! ( laughs) You’re right, we both have been working on these films forever and we know these characters so well that literally we will react to the same note in the same way. We will have the same answer most of the time. So literally it came down to the division of labour because there was a lot to take care of on this film and it was great to have someone to divide things up with, To be honest, it was very seamless and we got along very well.
Alessandro: The movie became very big, there is no way we could have done it with just one director.
Jennifer: Three countries, hundreds of people...
Alessandro: It grew to be this massive project but it we wanted it to. We had to go there if this was going to match what we envisioned for it and push it to the next level.
Talk about pushing the limits because we don't have one or two pandas in this movie, we see a lot of pandas. So I am sure then when you are working on something so precise there has to be a lot of panda research involved.
Jennifer: We went to a remote Panda Base which was insane because inside there were several cribs which held about twenty baby pandas. They were all different sizes and they were all lying there in a long row. It was so cute, I could hardly stand it. I wanted to take them all home with me. They also allowed us this huge honour of holding a baby panda on our laps. It was an amazing experience. They had such nice fur and they were shaped like little balls. So when you see all of the pandas in this movie, they are rolling because that is exactly what they do. Not only were we able to watch the pandas play but we had free range to walk around and get a feel for the architecture and get a sense of where they lived ,so there's a lot of firsthand exploration.
Po becomes a teacher in this film which I think is an important development for his character.
Jennifer Yuh: It’s also the thing that he’s the least suited to do. One of the things we love about Po is that he’s vulnerable. He’s someone that we can all identify with because he has those insecurities. He’s an outsider feeling guy. He’s never comfortable in positions like that. You see him become this guy, this Kung Fu guy, and it’s important to ask, “What is that next step?” He’s always moving. When he becomes a teacher, he’s following a path spreads beyond himself.
You also got to bring back the wonderful cast that you've had along and having someone like Jack Black in the driver's seat must have been so comforting. By now he can play this character with his eyes closed so are you at a point now with him where you can just let him go and trust what he is going to do?
Jennifer: He does and he adds so much and we try the best we can do give him something good to start with. It's totally accepted that Jack is going to take it off book and we never know what he's going to do but it's always wonderful. He knows the character so well, all the actors know their characters so that they can add pretty much anything they want.
Alessandro: Not that we should ever be but we like being a little lazy sometimes so we appreciate it when the actors bring their “A” game to a scene and give us such great stuff that we might not have thought of. We could really count on Jack and his co-stars to give us so much more that we ever expected. A lot of the other stars like Lucy Liu and Seth Rogen have relatively smaller roles compared to Jack but they were all so excited to come back and be a part of Kung Fu Panda 3. As a matter of fact, we were talking to Jack Black about the cast. There are actors who are big names who come to voice relatively minor characters. Jack was saying how impressed he was that people like Angelina Jolie and Seth Rogen commit to their characters. Seth is a producer and a director, but he still makes the time to come in and voice these lines because he really cares about the character. It’s wonderful for us. We are really complimented by the fact that they love the franchise.
Dustin Hoffman is back too.
Jennifer: Wow what a legend. We were so thrilled that he wanted to return as Shifu. He gets recognized a lot by kids and of course his own grandchildren love that he is in the films. We could sit around all day and listen to that man's amazing stories. He's got thousands of them and it was just a thrill to listen to him talk.
Plus you have some great new voice talent to add to the mix, including Bryan Cranston.
Jennifer: We got the best actors imaginable. If we could have made a wish list I don't think there would anyone else we would have added. Yeah, we’ve been blessed with exactly how amazing a cast of actors we have. To have someone like Bryan Cranston, who is not just an amazing actor, but who has such a range. He was just coming off Breaking Bad when we asked him to be in the movie and we were thrilled when he said yes. He can make you fall in love with someone like his father character, but he can also make you laugh. He’s that great of a comedy actor. The play between him and Jack is just amazing. I can’t imagine anyone who could be a better father for Po.
Alessandro: My theory was that Cranston had so much comedy pent up after making Breaking Bad he was dying to unleash it on this film! (laughs)
We can't forget about JK Simmons who is also extraordinary as your villain.
Jennifer: Yes, he had just come off Whiplash and again someone who probably dying to do a little comedy after that role. He won the Oscar right after he did a recording session for us. JK Has a comedy background so it was a challenge not to make the character too scary for kids, so instilled some of his comedic background and some insecurity in to the character that worked perfectly.
Alessandro: We did write the character to be a little insecure but he just brought it to another level and made him funny too. Less intimidating for kids and hilarious to watch.
What did the fabulous Kate Hudson bring to the Panda Mei Mei that you loved?
Alessandro: She brought a little Broadway diva to the character. No matter what she does, she is still so charming and likeable. The character could be off-putting, but she’s cute and charming, and you want to snuggle her and give her a big hug, even though she’s this diva. The animators truly embraced this amazing diva that still makes you want to be friends with her. She'd crack herself up after each take.
Jennifer: She has so much confidence and she was fearless in the recording booth, which is always fun. She has a great time doing it. The fact that she is this big bombastic ribbon dancer, she just had so much fun with it. It was hilarious to just watch her in the recording booth, she really got into it.
It's nice too because all of the actors are parents now so they are doing this for their own kids to enjoy.
Alessandro: Jack had his first kid during Panda 1. He kept his phone by his side at all times in case his wife went into labor. Angelina was also pregnant, so it was constant baby watch going on. As a matter of fact, now all of those ids have small roles in Panda 3. They are all around 8 years old now and they all have opinions!(laughs)
So, what are the chances we are going to see a Kung Fu Panda 4.. after you've both had a good vacation of course!
Jennifer: Yes, a vacation is definitely on the schedule. We always try to make the very best movie when we’re working on and we can only think one at a time. We want to make this a perfect jewel, and then we’ll see what happens after that. We want to be proud of our work and make sure it’s worth the talent of the animators, who spent four years of their love, sweat and tears on it.
Alessandro: There’s a huge evolution that Po goes through, as a character. We think it’s a very satisfying end of a movie, where you feel like, “This was fun. We had a great journey together.” With the sequels, we don’t want to try to have them feel open-ended. We want it to feel like a completed journey, and we feel this movie does. And then, if a fantastic story presents itself, great.
Kung Fu Panda 3 opens in theaters on January 29th.