Story Theater Movie of the Week for March 8-10

Staff Writer
Story City Herald
Story Theater Movie of the Week for March 8-10

Family Matters

When we met Po in the first film, he was an outsider who didn’t quite fit in. He loved his dad, Mr. Ping, but didn’t share his dreams of running a dumpling restaurant. Po fantasized about kung fu glory, but seemed to lack, among other things, the athleticism and body type to become a martial arts master.

That feeling of being an outsider was immediately relatable to audiences, no matter what the demographic and location. Says Cobb: “Every single person, almost every single day, feels like an outsider and like they don’t belong because they think they’re just not good enough. It doesn’t matter how old or accomplished you are; everybody has those experiences.”

But Po soon learned that he had the one essential requirement to become the world’s first kung fu panda - a heart bigger than even his turbo-charged belly. And as his mastery of the martial art form grew, so too did his feeling of becoming part of an extended family. There was, of course, devoted dad Mr. Ping; then Po was taken under the wing of Master Shifu and became a member of the Furious Five family; and in KUNG FU PANDA 3 (rated PG for mild action and humor; and with a running time of 95 min., will be shown at the Story Theater this Friday, Saturday, Sundauy, March 8, 9, 10, at 7 p.m. only), Po meets his biological father Li, as well as a community of pandas that become another extension of his ever-growing clan.

These different kinds of families give Po both physical and emotional strength, and point to the limitless value of being part of one, no matter how “unconventional” it may seem. “Audiences really embrace the fact that there are many different ways to define family, but it can be a real source of strength,” says Cobb.

Lucy Lui adds: “A community can create your family. It’s not just about who you’re connected to, genetically.”

Just as family plays a huge role in Po’s journey, it also came to define the behind-the-scenes team. The KUNG FU PANDA films have been created by a family of filmmakers, many of whom have been working together since the trilogy’s inception twelve years ago. Their love for martial arts movies mirrors Po’s passion for kung fu, and led the filmmakers to pay homage to the genre while reinventing it with humor and heart.

Yuh Nelson, who says she grew up on kung fu pictures, compares the making of KUNG FU PANDA 3 to “visiting family, because we’re been working together and nurturing the characters since way-back-when. We love the characters so much and make sure they’re treated with respect and a sense of fun.”

Before taking the directorial reins on the second picture, Yuh Nelson was an Action Supervisor and Dream Sequences Director on KUNG FU PANDA. “If anyone knows this world and characters, it’s Jen,” says Cobb.

Carloni, too, has been with the team since the first picture, which facilitated a creative synchronicity and give-and-take with Yuh Nelson. J.K. Simmons likens the Yuh-Nelson/Carloni pairing to another filmmaking duo - the Coen brothers. “Like Joel and Ethan, Jen and Alessandro are always on the same page, but have different things to offer at the same time. It gives an actor the freedom to go as far as you want with the character because you’re confident they’re going to make the right choices.”

The screenwriting duo of Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger, who wrote all three films, point to the creative shorthand among the filmmakers that facilitates the ability, says Berger, “to always go for the best idea, whether or not it’s yours. That’s ultimately what’s going to make the best movie.”

Adds Aibel: “We know each other’s strengths and there’s a tremendous amount of trust. The back-and-forth of ideas goes very smoothly.”

Echoes production designer Raymond Zibach: “There are no communication ‘walls’ to break down, so we’re always able to hit the ground running and execute ideas.”

“We develop a kind of quiet language, especially with Jen. Without a word being spoken, I knew if she likes something or not. It’s been an extraordinary journey,” offers editor Clare Knight.

Knight’s journey across the three pictures has been not only extraordinary, but “all-encompassing in terms of life and work, and life-work balance.” And for good reason: During the making of KUNG FU PANDA, she met, got engaged and got married to her husband, actor Wayne Knight, who voiced a role in the picture. On KUNG FU PANDA 2, she gave birth to her son (who voiced the role of Baby Po), and now her husband and son voice roles in KUNG FU PANDA 3.

Other veteran “family” members include Head of Character Animation, Dan Wagner, who established the style of animation for each character; Head of Story, Phil Craven, who worked closely with the writers and directors to brainstorm ideas for the story; Animation Supervisor, Rudolphe Guenoden, a longtime martial arts practitioner who also served as the films’ kung fu advisor; and the Oscar winning composer Hans Zimmer, whose film scores beyond the KUNG FU PANDA trilogy include “The Lion King,” “The Dark Knight Trilogy,” “Gladiator” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series.

Zimmer sums up his attraction to the franchise as, the juxtaposition of the two titular notions: “Kung fu and pandas! I’ve been going to kung fu movies since I was a child, so obviously these films are right up my street.”

While the films’ martial arts and comedy aspects remain a draw to the famed composer, he also notes that its roots in Chinese culture, specifically music, have become increasingly important. In fact, with KUNG FU PANDA 3 Zimmer collaborated with no less than four world-renowned Chinese musicians: pianist Lang Lang; cellist Jian Wang; pipa performer Wu Man; and erhu musician Guo Gan.

Zimmer says that working with these celebrated artists is very much in line with the film’s playful spirit. “It was an opportunity to be experimental. We would dampen the strings and do quite dastardly things to a poor Steinway. It was like going on a big adventure with these wonderful players.”

The biggest challenge to Zimmer, as it was for many of the filmmakers, was to expand upon and even top what had been accomplished in the first two pictures. “We always want to give the audience an experience,” he explains. To that end, he makes special mention of the Panda Village sequences. “The Panda Village had to feel like a place where you always wanted to be. The reveal of the village, as Po, Li and Ping arrive there, was especially important. It’s a heavenly sanctuary in the middle of nowhere; it’s incredibly beautiful and exotic.”

On those rare occasions when Zimmer encountered creative challenges, “all I needed to do was remember, ‘It’s Jack Black,’” he says. “So much of the appeal of these films comes from his special comedic swagger and timing. So, for me, the keystone to the music is to watch Jack’s performance. What’s he going to do next?”

Complementing Zimmer’s score is the sound design from Oscar-winning supervising sound editors Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van Der Ryn (“Argo”), which builds upon their work in the first two pictures. For the martial arts sequences, “our challenge was to balance the visceral quality of the fight scenes with a sense of whimsicality and playfulness,” notes Van Der Ryn. Adds Aadahl: “We wanted the sound to have a playfulness and beauty so audiences would experience an aural feast.”

The film’s electric fight scenes provided plenty of opportunities for the two acclaimed filmmakers. “The thing that struck me with the first film was how musical and rhythmic the fighting was,” says Aadahl. “With that as a starting point, we wanted to create playful, musical sounds that would add to the fun. We expanded the classic iconography of kung fu movies - you know, the “whoosh” kind of sound - and for KUNG FU PANDA 3 we created over a thousand “whooshes” for the fight scenes.”

Aadahl and Van Der Ryn employed some unusual methods to create Po’s signature’s flying and jumping. “On a 20th Century Fox soundstage, we set up an array of microphones the length of the stage, and then released a taut bungee cord,” Aadahl explains. “So you get this incredible five-second-long sound, which has an elastic and spongy quality. That sound connected Po’s soul to me.”

For scenes set in the Spirit Realm, Aadahl and Van Der Ryn created unique sounds for Kai’s bad chi and Po’s good chi. For the bad chi, “we wanted to a corrupted, almost sour tone,” notes Aadahl. “And we wanted Po’s chi to have this kind of beautiful, golden quality. We wanted it to be powerful but also sparkly and shiny, so we used different Chinese musical instruments to create that palette of sounds.”

With those scenes, sometimes it was more about what you didn’t hear. “We pulled a lot of the sound out in the Spirit Realm,” says Van Der Ryn. “Those scenes were often about the stillness within, which means focusing on the few sounds that really depict the emotional state of the characters. So it’s really more about negative space.”

The sound palette for the Panda Village was…pandas, says Aahdal. “One of my favorite sounds is that of pandas rolling and bouncing and that was something we began to play with in the first film,” he explains. “We experimented a lot to get that kind of tubby, bouncing quality, and built what we called a ‘gut-bucket’ musical instrument, which is basically a big, overturned tin wash basin with a hole punched in the top, with an attached stick and thread we could pluck.

“And one my favorite sequences in this film, is where all the pandas are going to eat, and come rolling down a hillside in a kind of landslide - and it’s this kind of symphony of rolling sounds.”

Among the newcomers to the KUNG FU PANDA family are the artists, technicians and consultants at the Shanghai-based Oriental DreamWorks, which worked closely with the Glendale, California-based team. Together, the companies have broken new ground by making two versions of KUNG FU PANDA 3, in which the film’s characters are animated so that their speech is in sync with both English and Mandarin. Essentially, they have created two different films with the same story and characters. The separate Mandarin version - Teng Huatao is the Chinese consulting director - facilitates more nuances in the jokes, as well as improvisation by the Asian voice actors, to a degree not possible with subtitles or dubbing.

Creating the Mandarin-language version took additional resources and time, but it was well worth it. Moreover, 200 Oriental DreamWorks employees helped provide a greater level of authenticity. “Previously, we had to do things through research and extrapolate,” says Yuh Nelson. “Now we have a Chinese team of actual creators.”

Ultimately, KUNG FU PANDA 3 is the result of collaborators spanning two continents, and including an army of gifted actors, filmmakers, artists and technicians. But the focus remains, as it has since the inception of the franchise, on the Kung Fu Panda - Po. That continues to resonate with the actor who’s brought him to life.

“Po is very close to my heart,” says Jack Black. “He’s really just me. When people ask me to do the ‘Po voice,’ I’m, like, ‘What do you mean? That’s just me.’

“I’m not hiding behind a facade,” he adds. “I’m showing a little bit of my soul.”