Kung Fu Panda 3 is Po’s biggest comedy adventure yet, as he finally comes face-to-face with his long-lost panda father. Once reunited, Po (voiced by Jack Black) and Li (voiced by Bryan Cranston) travel to a secret panda paradise where they meet tons of fun new panda characters, including confident ribbon dancer Mei Mei (voiced by Kate Hudson), who has a major crush on Po. But when the supernatural villain Kai (voiced by J.K. Simmons) sweeps across China, defeating the kung fu masters, Po realizes that he must train a village of fun-loving pandas into the ultimate band of kung fu warriors, in order to thwart Kai’s evil plan.
Collider (along with various other entertainment outlets) was invited to check out some scenes from the January 29th release that is sure to be the most fun, most epic Kung Fu Panda movie yet. The scenes and footage that we were shown (some in final form and some in storyboard form) clearly demonstrated how this story will see Po fulfilling his highest potential, making the transition from student to teacher, as he builds a panda army to defeat Kai’s zombie army.
While we were at the DreamWorks animation campus, we got the opportunity to chat with the filmmakers about all things Kung Fu Panda, one of the most successful animated franchises in the world. Directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni, along with producer Melissa Cobb, spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about when they started developing a third Kung Fu Panda film, telling a story worthy of Po, why a directing team is an asset on an animated feature, how much the story evolves, adding a love interest for Po, re-recording the voice for her character, having a scary villain, and the possibility of Kung Fu Panda 4.
Collider: At what point, along the way, did you decide there would be a third Kung Fu Panda film, and when did you start working on it?
MELISSA COBB: It was a good six-month break. We wanted to make sure that we had a story we were excited about telling. You don’t want to make a sequel because there’s a story you’re excited to tell. We definitely needed some time to really think about it.
NELSON: Whenever we come up with an idea, it’s always based on what the characters ask us. The characters are like real people to us. We’ve been working on these movies for 10 years. It’s always based on what Po has to find out, and that guides us on how we start creating the idea for a movie. With this one, people kept asking, “Is Po going to meet that guy?” So, we had to answer that question. With the first movie, people kept asking, “Why is Po’s father a ghost?,” and that’s what led us to the second movie. But, it’s alwaysd based on a question that’s circling around Po. If there’s a strong enough question that we want to know the answer to, that’s when we start pursuing the movie.
By the time you get to a third movie with the same characters, is there more pressure or less pressure? Are you more assured that the audience will come back again, or do you worry about that?
COBB: We do have a strong loyalty to the audience and wanting to make sure that, when they come back, they’re going to be surprised and excited and see something that they’re glad they spent their money to go see. But we’re also equally loyal to our crew, who want to be involved in a great movie, and to our characters, who are like family to us, by this point. We want Po to be in a really good movie. He creates as much pressure as anything. We want to make something that’s worthy of him because we’re particularly fond of him.
Jennifer and Alessandro, how did you end up teaming up to direct this?
ALESSANDRO CARLONI: We’ve worked together since Panda 1, in different capacities throughout the different movies. Jen was actually directing this movie herself, and she asked me to come help her.
NELSON: It came down to the fact that there is so much work on these movies, and Alessandro has been on Panda, since the very beginning. We were there creating it together, from the very beginning, 10 years ago. So, we both know the characters and we both know the world. There’s very much a shorthand on how we would create this world. So, when it comes down to how much work there is, in making an animated film, it’s insane how much work there is. There is just a great way for us to split duties. We both know what the other one is thinking and what those characters will be doing, but he can take care of something and I can take care of something, and both will get done at the same time, which is great.
CARLONI: Making a great sequel comes down to telling a great story and making a great movie, but it’s also that we love these characters. Once you create these characters together, from Panda 1, you truly know who they are.
NELSON: We’ve worked on this together forever, so it was just a no-brainer for us to share the labor on this third one.
COBB: Alessandro was in the animation department and the story department, and was somebody that we would regularly go to when we were wrestling with story questions. He’s always had such great insights, in terms of how to build the story, that the partnership really made sense. He stepped into the role with a lot of ease. This is a very ambitious movie, too. There are a lot of characters, a lot of new environments, and a lot of new stuff.
How much has this story evolved, since you first started working on it? Is it close to what you always thought it might be, or has it changed a lot?
NELSON: I think it’s definitely evolved. These movies always do. You should have seen some of the ideas we had at the beginning of Panda 1. It was a totally different story. We always have a very long development process on these films. During that, we explore many different options, and the right story always rises to the top.
COBB: But the big core ideas of Po’s father returning, the villain from the spirit realm, and Po actually battling the villain were always there, from the very beginning. It really comes down to execution and the best way to tell this story. There are always many paths and many ways to tell any story, but it’s about finding the one that feels right for the characters and right for the movie. That’s the funnest part of the process.
Were there any major story points that had to go by the wayside?
NELSON: There always are things that disappear. For example, on the first movie, we had over built so many character designs, but didn’t have room for them all, so we managed to sprinkle them into the second and third films.
CARLONI: For awhile, we were worrying too much about how to portray the villages, but nobody cares. You can over-think certain things and create story problems.
NELSON: I think it’s actually helpful to over-develop worlds because you get something that is more real. You know more about exactly what they do than you ever get to show in the movie, but people notice that there is a reality to what is there. It’s a little bit more realistic.
This film has the addition of a love interest for Po, with Mei Mei. Why did you want to bring that character into the story?
NELSON: It was always the idea that Po would meet other pandas, at some point in his life. At that point, you have to meet a girl panda. I think of Po as a little kid, in some ways. He doesn’t really know what to do with a girl, and we found that as a great source of comedy. It’s a whole new angle to things. Finding who she was going to be was really, really fun.
CARLONI: What sequels mostly come down to is what situation it would be fun to see your beloved character in. Would it be fun to see Po playing chess? Nah, pass. Would it be fun to see Po next to a girl? That would be interesting. Immediately, that creates an image in your mind of this awkward little goofy boy next to a girl, and you want to know how that will work out.
Was it challenging to get into the recording process with Rebel Wilson, and then change actors and have Kate Hudson voice the character? Did you have to rework the character’s personality?
COBB: You always take a lot of what the actor brings to the recording sessions. Every single one of our actors doesn’t just come in and read the lines. They do create the character, the personality, the tone and the attitude, and they have their own style of comedy. In her case, we absolutely took what Kate Hudson brought to us in the recording sessions and integrated that into a character that we’re super excited about.
What does Kate Hudson bring to Mei Mei that is uniquely her?
NELSON: She’s so confident.
CARLONI: 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.
COBB: She was fearless in the recording booth, which is always fun. She has a great time doing it.
How tricky is it to have a villain that’s scary enough to feel dangerous, but not too scary for the younger audience?
NELSON: That’s a very, very big consideration. We want to make a villain that’s fun for a Kung Fu Panda movie, and the thing that’s great about J.K. Simmons is that he’s got such great comedy sense, but he also can scare you. You need to have a villain raise the stakes. He just plays in the recording booth. There’s a vulnerability in him, and he gets all upset and cranky. He’s really funny and, at the same time, he’s this big, scary guy with huge horns on his head.
CARLONI: The vulnerability of that character really came from his collaboration.
COBB: We try to capture what the actor can bring to it that’s unique and is very much them. Jack Black is the perfect example of that. We’ve blurred together Po and Jack Black, and that’s true of all the actors.
CARLONI: Each character in our movie has one specific animator that leads the performance style, and it always comes down to the recording and the actor’s mannerisms. We always try to incorporate it.
By the time we get to the end of this story, will it feel like the conclusion of Po’s journey, or could there be a Kung Fu Panda 4?
NELSON: We always try to make the very best movie that we’re working on. It’s one at a time. We want to make this a perfect jewel, and then we’ll see what happens after that. Right now, we’re really focused on making this the best film possible. 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.
COBB: There’s a huge evolution that he goes through, as a character. It’s quite enormous, what he goes through in the movie. I think it’s a very satisfying end of a movie, where you feel like, “Wow, we just had a whole ride together!”
CARLONI: 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.