Directors Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh join producer Melissa Cobb to talk about Po’s latest big screen adventure
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.
ComingSoon.net got an early look at Kung Fu Panda 3 during a special press day on the DreamWorks Animation campus in Glendale, California. There, we had the opportunity to chat with directors Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh as well as producer Melissa Cobb. Read on for their thoughts about the continuing the Kung Fu Panda legacy and check back soon as we’ll be sitting down with the film’s cast for a behind-the-scenes look at the January 29 release.
CS: It feels like each chapter in the Kung Fu Panda series has a certain element of growth for Po. Is figuring out what that is going to be the first step in building the story?
Jennifer Yuh: I think it is.
Alessandro Carloni: Yes, it usually is, but it also sometimes reveals itself through the making. The franchise is always based on self-empowerment. Po has to defeat the villain, but he also has to find out who he is and how to become a better person. In each movie, that is accomplished in a slightly different way. How do you phrase it? How do you spell it out? That sometimes reveals itself through the movie-making process.
Melissa Cobb: Yeah, it’s definitely an evolution. We have an idea of what we think it’s going to be, but, as you get farther into making the movie, it starts to tell you what it wants to be.
Jennifer Yuh: And it always begins with a character question when we’re coming up with the idea. What does that character need? What does that character want? We may not be able to articulate it in a nice, succinct sentence yet, but that journey that that character has to go through is something that guides us every single time. It’s always based on “What does Po need in this particular moment? What would Po do if he was surrounded by pandas for the very first time?” That grows and his journey becomes something that guide us.
Melissa Cobb: We definitely started with something we knew, which was that his dad was going to come to this movie.
Jennifer Yuh: After the end of “Kung Fu Panda 2,” we knew the audience would be really mad if the dad didn’t show up.
Alessandro Carloni: Plus, coming face to face with your father connects to a universal theme about identity and about the search for self, which perfectly fits within the franchise.
CS: There’s also Po becoming a teacher, which seems like 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.
Melissa Cobb: When you become a teacher, you’ve reached a point where you yourself have something to impart. For a character that’s so insecure, that’s a big step. To be good enough to teach others? That’s a big thing for him.
CS: There are also a lot of kids who have grown up watching Po. Do you change your approach at all, knowing that the fans are growing up with Po?
Alessandro Carloni: We try not to. It’s always wrong to shape a movie for your audience. You need to make a movie that you yourself like. Hopefully everyone will like it, too. Of course, we have to be aware that we cannot touch certain things that would be frightening for our core audience of young adults and young children, but other than that, we just want to focus on making a good movie. Yesterday, J.K. Simmons came to see the movie with his daughter, who is 14, and she was the perfect age to fall in love with Po when the first one came out. Now she has grown with these movies. It’s funny to see people grow up with the character they love.
Melissa Cobb: We’re hoping that people will want to come back and revisit a character that they saw when they were five or six or seven years old. Maybe now they’re a young teenager. But I think that the things that Po struggles with are as relevant for a young teenager as they are for a kid as they are for an adult. We all have those movies of insecurity where we ask, “Can I really do this?” How he overcomes that is something that I think that any age can take something away from.
CS: On the more aesthetic side, I wanted to ask about the Jade warriors. That’s just a cool visual. How did that idea come about?
Jennifer Yuh: That particular thing was Guillermo [del Toro]’s idea. There are these little jade amulets that people actually wore traditionally in China. They’re beautifully little carved amulets of all these animals. We thought that it would be such a cool thing for the villain to have. Originally, we just had them on his belt. He would take them and put them on his belt. But, of course, it’s a Kung-Fu movie. You’ve got to fight! The next step is finding out how you get a really cool, supernatural bent to the fight sequences that you haven’t seen before. The jade zombies were just awesome. They’re just so awesome. Ramone [Zibach] has been the production designer for all three films and he just went to town on these guys. They look like you should be punching those things.
CS: It’s fun to just see how the different animals fight. I liked the porcupine’s use of his quills as a bow and arrow.
Melissa Cobb: I’m glad you noticed those things! That’s so nice to hear.
Jennifer Yuh: It’s one of the things that I think sets us apart from the regular martial arts movie. These are animals. These are not mo-capped humans doing these moves. They’re actually harnessed to what each animal can do in the context of a martial arts movie. You have a porcupine using his own quills. You have Tigress fighting her way. There’s nobody that you could mo-cap to harness what Viper does when she fights, unless you want to kill them. It’s a beautiful format for animation to play with the Kung-Fu theme.
Melissa Cobb: Our art department has been exploring the animals from China for so long. Our designer, Nico Marlet, has does such a beautiful job interpreting all the different animals native to China. We were like, “Ooh! Which ones can we put into his army? How can we get some more fun characters?” There’s a chicken and a bear, which are just briefly in the movie, but they were such beautiful designs that we just wanted to find a place for them.
Alessandro Carloni: The porcupine was born from a sketch by Nico were he was a doctor doing acupuncture. He was using his own needles.
Melissa Cobb: That was from the first film.
Jennifer Yuh: Yeah, we’ve been waiting for a chance ever since then to put the porcupine in the movie.
CS: Tell me about the voice cast. The series has always featured an impressive list of talent and it has managed to keep these big names while adding new ones.
Jennifer Yuh: 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 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 Carloni: We were talking to Jack Black about the cast. There are actors who are big, 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.
Melissa Cobb: There’s definitely a family feeling because it’s been such a long time. Everyone has been working together and they all feel such an affect for the franchise. They want to be a part of it in whatever capacity that is.
CS: Do you get to interact with actual animals at all?
Jennifer Yuh: We went to the biggest preserve of pandas in China. It’s a breeding center in Chengdu. We went to see a room literally filled with dozens of baby pandas. You could be the coldest hearted person in the world and you would just melt into a little puddle surrounded by these baby pandas. They’re so cute! There are dozens of babies just laying around and then ones slightly bigger playing around like little children. We actually got to hold a little baby panda. It’s the cutest thing in the world.
Melissa Cobb: Yeah, it’s very cute. There are pictures where we’re holding them and we have to wear scrubs because they keep everything so clean. It looks like we’ve just given birth to baby pandas.
Jennifer Yuh: A lot of what we saw there, we brought into the movie. How they move. How they roll. How fun they were. All that went into the movie. We had to create an entire world based on what a panda village would be like. That’s all based on what we saw when we were there.
Melissa Cobb: There’s a scene in the movie where they roll down a hill and that’s exactly what they do in real life. We enjoyed seeing it so much, we thought that people would enjoy it in the movie, too.
CS: Tell me a little bit about J.K. Simmons’ character, Kai. He’s almost a minotaur.
Jennifer Yuh: He is pretty cool looking.
Alessandro Carloni: And scary! Our designer, Nico, was at first pushing him even further. Should he have forearms? Officially, he’s a bull.
Jennifer Yuh: Each time, we try to make a new villain very different to keep them fresh and interesting for fight scenes. In the first film, Tai Lung is very much a brawler. He’s going to come in and punch you in the face. He’s going to tell you he’s going to punch you in the face. The second time, it was a smart guy with technology, which was something that Po wasn’t ready for. For the third one, this guy is supernatural. He’s twice as tall. He’s way physically intimidating. But he also has that supernatural angle. That’s something that Po is not yet ready to fight. Anything that Po has tried to do up to this point just isn’t good enough. The thing that’s really great about him, though, is that he has a sense of humor. There’s an insecurity to him that J.K. Simmons plays into the character. Some of the best jokes in the movie come from Kai.
Alessandro Carloni: Basically, we wanted to make this guy super scary. But his problem is not necessarily so much something that he wants to attain as he’s a bitter, bitter guy. He’s petty and he wants his name to be known. When people don’t remember him, it’s hysterical because you see how vulnerable he is.
Jennifer Yuh: You kind of feel for the guy.
CS: It’s revealed very early on that Po’s birth name was Little Lotus. That’s a great tease of him becoming the Dragon Warrior. How did that come about?
Jennifer Yuh: It just snuck in there somewhere between the many revisions of the script writing process. Obviously, he wouldn’t be named Po because it’s not like he came with a name tag. That seemed like a completely appropriate and totally emasculating name for him.
CS: It seems like Po’s adoptive father, Ping, is also a character who has a lot to deal with in this one.
Melissa Cobb: James Hong is such an amazing actor. He comes in and works harder than anybody I know. He has really brought so much to that character. There’s so much humor, being that passive aggressive type of character. He’s so fun to watch. But there’s also this thing where you can see exactly how much he loves Po. He would really do anything for him.