Andrew Osmond on the subtle changes to Kung Fu Panda 3.
“We were doing drawings of the dress of Mei Mei the girl panda,” remembers Alessandro Carloni, co-director of DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda 3, which opens in Britain on Friday. However, Carloni says his Chinese partners on the film spotted a problem. “We were told, ‘Well, this is clearly the wrong dynasty.’” Carloni’s fellow director Jennifer Yuh Nelson chimes in. “And they said: everyone will know!”
Any DreamWorks animated film is an occasion – they have to be, with their huge budgets. And Kung Fu Panda is one of the studio’s biggest franchises. But its threequel is an especially pivotal film, as it’s the first DreamWorks animation to be an official co-production between America and China. A third of the film was reportedly made on the Chinese side, at the new Shanghai-based Oriental DreamWorks studio founded in 2012. It’s a joint venture between DreamWorks and three local venture partners: China Media Capital, Shanghai Media Group and Shanghai Alliance Investment.
“There were about 200 Chinese artists (on Kung Fu Panda 3); they were basically scattered through every department,” says Nelson at a screening of the film at London’s BFI Southbank. “For us it was a very seamless experience. For example, the modelling department had a certain number of people in China and a certain number of people here [meaning at the US DreamWorks studio in Glendale, California]. For the first two movies we had to do our own research: internet and everything, and it was very hard to get right. This time we could just pick up a phone and say, ‘Hey, could you figure this out?’”
“They told us, ‘Why is the lady panda Japanese?’” adds Carloni. “I said ‘What?’ Apparently the design looked Japanese to them, so they helped us find features that were better representative of Chinese pandas.” Nelson adds that, “There was a sleeve issue…” In the film, Mei Mei is voiced by actress Kate Hudson; you can get an idea of her final costume from this clip.
Oriental DreamWorks could be huge. Arguably, it already is: as of writing, Kung Fu Panda 3 is the biggest animated hit ever in China, surpassing the local film, Monkey King: Hero is Back. Of course, that reflects an established brand name which has been rising meteorically in China since 2008. The first Panda earned $26 million in China, the second film nearly quadrupled that, earning $92 million in 2011. As of writing, Kung Fu Panda 3 has earned around $150 million in China, so Po’s trajectory is up and away.
However, DreamWorks has found a truly new way to appeal to the Chinese audience – by making a distinct version of the film. Rather than dubbing the film as normal, DreamWorks has animated a Mandarin version of the film, with the characters perfectly lip-synched to the Mandarin actors. It’s not the first time that animation has been localised – there was a change of vegetable in the Japanese release of Pixar’s Inside Out – but it’s by far the most extensive modification.
You can see the result in the clip below, released by the Animation Scoop blog. It shows the Chinese and American versions of an early scene in the film, when Po encounters his panda father. In the American version, the dad is voiced by Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, the American Godzilla, Trumbo and The Wings of Honneamise). But in the Mandarin version, Po’s father is voiced by Jackie Chan, who voices Monkey in the US track. Chan had an advantage; the father character is new to the film, and was still being “built” when he began voicing the character. The animators hence had more room to shape the Chinese performance around Chan’s voice.
The Mandarin version is even having a limited release outside China, as this California radio report notes. The film is screening in seven American cities, chosen for their large Chinese populations. The report notes how the two versions have different senses of humour. At one point in the American version, Po gets overexcited and confesses to have “peed a little” (well, what do you expect from a Jack Black character?). His Mandarin counterpart, though, says something tamer, more like, “This is too much!”
As of writing, it appears that individual cinemas in London may be showing the Mandarin-voiced version of the film too. However, it also appears that some cinemas will show “Mandarin version” prints with Mandarin subtitles and English voices… so check carefully before you buy to avoid disappointment.
With Kung Fu Panda 3 done, Oriental DreamWorks will continue on twin tracks, says Nelson. “It will be doing some local productions, for release in China in Mandarin, and then we’ll have the global projects like Panda, that will be made there but also have an appeal round the world.” This January, Melissa Cobb, who’s produced the Panda franchise since the beginning, was named Oriental DreamWorks’ Head of Studio and Chief Creative Officer.
At the time of her appointment, Cobb said, “It’s clear the animation industry in China is at an inflection point.” This blog has commented on the ramshackle state of that industry, which has until now had “immense potential coiled within it, but all the rigour and finesse of an out-of-control clown car.” The question is if Oriental DreamWorks – sharing its name with its Hollywood parent – will be essentially a foreign venture into a lucrative market… or whether it will generate something truly new in China itself.
Kung Fu Panda 3 goes on UK-wide cinema release on 11th March.