Return of the Kung Fu Beast from the East

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Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson reveals how DreamWorks is bringing back Po and the Furious Five for a 3-D rematch in Kung Fu Panda 2.

Consider the panda: a majestic creature, a humble and unassuming beast. Mostly regarded as a docile, bamboo-chewing, living plush toy, it seems an unlikely candidate to star in an epic Kung Fu action flick. Unless of course one of the top animation studios in the U.S. steps in and makes an insanely successful franchise out of just that premise.

Now, nearly three years after the first film, which was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar and grossed over $600 million world wide, DreamWorks Animation delivers Kung Fu Panda 2—a hilarious, action-packed stereoscopic romp through ancient China laced with magic and martial arts.

The sequel finds Po the panda (voiced by Jack Black) enjoying life as The Dragon Master, protecting the Valley of Peace with the help of his friends and fellow Kung Fu masters The Furious Five. But when a formidable new villain with an unstoppable weapon threatens to conquer China, Po must delve into his past and uncover the secrets of his mysterious origins in order to defeat this new evil.

Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Jennifer Yuh Nelson

The film’s talented director, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, is a multi-picture DreamWorks veteran. She’s served the studio as a story artist on Madagascar and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron as well as tackled head of story duties for Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas and the first Kung Fu Panda. But in speaking of this new project, Yuh Nelson seems to be recounting an afternoon having tea with friends rather than her first stint in the director’s chair on a high-profile, multimillion dollar production.

“I was on the first movie from the very beginning, so I’ve been in the Panda universe for seven and a half years,” she shares, “When the second movie came up with the possibility to direct, I was excited because I just enjoyed the film and the characters so much.”

Re-Mastering the Masters

It’s no surprise then that when asked what elements of the first feature Yuh Nelson felt were crucial to maintain, her answer is immediate. “Definitely the characters … They’re such great characters, and everyone on the crew just loved them. They’re real people. In the case of Po, he’s such a sweet, vulnerable, geeky, funny guy that I think everyone identifies with him,”

Po (Jack Black, center) and The Furious Five (left to right) Crane (David Cross), Tigress (Angelina Jolie) Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and Viper (Lucy Liu) are back in DreamWorks Animation's KUNG FU PANDA 2 to be released by Paramount on Thursday, May 26, 2011. Photo credit: Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation KUNG FU PANDA 2™ & © 2010 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.

But this new film demanded amping up the action: “He’s still geeky and sweet, but he’s also a Dragon Warrior and gets to be a hero. But he’s still himself, he’s still going to geek out at any cool thing that happens around him.” The director adds that audiences will also get to delve deeper into the stories behind the rest of the Furious Five in this larger scale adventure.

Po, and in fact all the familiar Panda faces, underwent more than a slight attitude adjustment for this outing. Yuh Nelson explains that while new and better technology allowed the team to take their furry fighters to new heights, it also meant remodeling all the characters almost from scratch. Luckily, a majority of the original crew returned for this production and were able to rebuild the rigs (using DreamWorks’ proprietary software) to match their previous abilities, with the added bonus of allowing for more subtle, emotive acting.

In addition to the under-the-hood character updates, the entire world Po inhabits was amped up thanks to technological advances. “We wanted to push the scope of the world,” Yuh Nelson explains, “Po is now in that Kung Fu world, and we wanted to push it so it’s more of a challenge for him and gives more of a view of all the stuff we developed–over developed, really–in designing Kung Fu Panda.”

Po (Jack Black) uses a few non-traditional instruments in his Kung Fu when battling one of Wolf Boss' men in DreamWorks Animation's KUNG FU PANDA 2 to be released by Paramount on Thursday, May 26, 2011. Photo credit: Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation KUNG FU PANDA 2™ & © 2010 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Yuh Nelson cites a few practical differences in the studio team’s ability to craft the blockbuster action sequences that pepper both films:

“In the first film, there’s a sequence where the characters are running across rooftops that was really hard to do because we couldn’t get an entire block of the city to animate through, so we had to do it shot for shot. With the new technology, we can build entire cities, and that frees us up to have a more vast scope of animation. Also, in the first film we have one building explode, and every piece of shrapnel had to be done by hand. In the new film, we can do a lot more of that–as long as the story telling demands it. We’re free to do what the story demands, instead of what the technology dictates.”

The New Dimension of Kung Fu

The major shake up between Kung Fu Panda 2 and its predecessor has been the explosive emergence of theatrical 3-D. While the early stops and starts of the new-breed stereoscopic film may make you queasy trying to imagine zipping chase scenes and complex fight sequences with the added dimension, the DreamWorks team is confident they’ve hit the perfect note.

Po (Jack Black, center), Tigress (Angelina Jolie, right) and Monkey (Jackie Chan, left) are back in action chasing a runaway rickshaw in DreamWorks Animation's KUNG FU PANDA 2 to be released by Paramount on Thursday, May 26, 2011. Photo credit: Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation KUNG FU PANDA 2™ & © 2010 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.

“I consider [3-D] very much a filmmaking tool,” says Yuh Nelson, “It allows us to give a more inclusive feeling. We still have all the ‘crayons in the box,’ all the tools that make Panda great, but now we have this inclusiveness … Especially for a Kung Fu film, we get to be there in these amazing action sequences–not in a gimmicky way, just an immersive, enjoyable way.”

Yuh Nelson points out that some of the greatest advantages of stereo 3-D can be felt in the quieter moments of the film, when the depth can bring the audience in to the emotions of a character, and make the viewer feel like they are really there.

Of course, this added element makes itself known throughout the entire production process. Early on the film was conceived as a 3-D effort, and Yuh Nelson notes that at every step along the way, through every session with the animation dailies, she and her crew would be goggled and ready to look for any inconsistencies in the stereo animation. This applies both to the movement and placement of the characters as well as the depth of field in the environments.

Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) is a ruthless peacock who tries to defeat Po and the Furious Five and take over China in DreamWorks Animation's KUNG FU PANDA 2 to be released by Paramount on Thursday, May 26, 2011. Photo credit: Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation KUNG FU PANDA 2™ & © 2010 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved

Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) is a ruthless peacock who tries to defeat Po and the Furious Five and take over China in DreamWorks Animation's KUNG FU PANDA 2 to be released by Paramount on Thursday, May 26, 2011. Photo credit: Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation KUNG FU PANDA 2™ & © 2010 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved

Luckily for Yuh Nelson and her crew, Kung Fu Panda 2 comes at a time when DreamWorks is becoming an old hand at the foibles of 3-D production. “It’s always challenging in the beginnings of an entire field,” she admits, “We’re fortunate to be many movies in, and the audiences are more savvy with 3-D … We’ve learned from a lot of peoples successes–and mistakes–and we wanted to make sure it was a positive, good experience and that it was enhancing the film.”

Mo’ Power to the Po

Ultimately, when Yuh Nelson looks back over the three years of production, which involved between 300 and 400 people, all of the triumphs and tribulations of the film come back to one thing: Characters count.

“In addition to being a bigger scale move, and with stereoscopic as well, without giving too much away it’s got a lot of emotion in it and we get to know a lot more about the characters … We were push really hard to make the characters act in such beautifully subtle ways.”

She adds with a knowing laugh that the biggest challenge was making sure the highly self-critical crew, who she describes as being “super protective” of the Panda characters, maintained a balance between scrupulous dedication and just plain fun filmmaking. “There was a whole lot of concern about making sure we stay honorable to the story and the characters, and I think that’s wonderful with that much passion behind the project. I hope the audience enjoys the film as being the Po that they find familiar and are happy with, or else I want them to feel surprise by how much further we go with him, because it’s the same Po—but more.”

Paramount sneaks Kung Fu Panda 2 at the Cannes Film Festival and releases it nationwide on May 26. For info, activities and dates for promotional events, visit www.kungfupanda.com.