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These guys didn't panda to audience
If you're going to make an animated film — OK, a cartoon — about martial arts, it helps to be a fan of the genre.
So it's no surprise that John Stevenson, co-director of Kung Fu Panda, had some meaty martial-arts cult films to look to for inspiration.
"The first kung-fu movie I ever saw was [Tsui Hark's] The Butterfly Murders," says Stevenson, a Brit veteran of everything from The Muppet Show to Madagascar. "We studied Jackie Chan's fights, frame by frame. Stephen Chow. The Shaw Brothers. All those guys.
Mark Osborne, his American co-director, is a bit more down to earth in his inspirations.
"The Pink Panther movies, the early ones with Peter Sellers and Kato, gave us great ideas," he says with a laugh. "Those were the first comedic kung-fu movies I had ever seen."
Osborne laughs. He's the half of the directing duo with Spongebob Squarepants experience.
Together, the co-directors covered all the bases for Panda, making an animated martial-arts comedy that mimics the moves and conventions of the genre but with a taste of the wacky.
"We respect it too much to make it just a joke," Stevenson says.
"What's funnier than a panda trying to learn kung fu?" retorts Osborne.
The idea is a gem. Any martial-arts fan can tell you there are lots of kung-fu styles that are named for animals — "tiger," "mantis," "crane," "snake." Why not make the masters in a kung-fu tribute comedy the actual animals?
And if you start there, which member of the Chinese animal kingdom is least like a fearsome fighting machine?
Pandas. Rotund, docile, bamboo-munching pandas.
But it took a lot more than casting rotund, excitable comic Jack Black to voice Po the Panda to make that work. How do you make a panda a martial arts master?
"The weight is something you want to feel real," Osborne says. "When we made Po run on rooftops and do these unreal feats, we wanted his weight to be so real that we actually believed a panda could do those things."
Po, they decided, would not physically change to become a great martial-arts master. He would still be more into munchies than martial-arts moves. Po would be a passive force for good.
"One of the things that helped us was that poem from the Tao Te Ching, when we came across the poem that says that the tree that bends is stronger than the rigid tree. It ends with a couplet that says, 'The hard and strong will fall. The soft and weak will overcome.'
"That helped us feel that this soft, big, roly-poly guy could legitimately best someone who is rigid and inflexible."
Another thing that helped them was Jack Black. The comic, so good at playing fanboys and enthusiasts, was a natural for playing pudgy kung-fu fan Po. But he brought a layer to the role that Osborne says surprised the Dreamworks production team.
"His reputation means that you can believe he's a big panda who dreams of being a kung-fu master," Osborne says. "From that first frame of him dreaming on the floor of his bedroom, you feel for the guy."
"We had in our minds a slightly more snarky, acerbic Jack, more like the Jack of Tenacious D," says Stevenson. "But when he started playing around with the lines, he found this character who was more self-aware of his shortcomings. It was there that we realized that this was going to be a stronger and much more interesting choice. He's easier to get behind on this underdog's journey. That wounded self-awareness is always there in his characters, but hidden. He brought it out in the open for Po."
Does it work? The film's dazzling visuals — it begins with a 2D hand-animated "dream sequence" — are winning raves. "Younger audiences are the bread and butter here, but their parents won't be totally dozing off either," notes Box Office's critic. And The Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt wrote that "the filmmakers have clearly studied the best Asian martial-arts films."
"You couldn't make a movie like this," says Osborne, "if you didn't love the genre."