KUNG FU PANDA: Big Bear Cat was "PO-fect"
by Dr. Craig Reid
Any film critics who do not like KUNG FU PANDA are probably watching the film with a jaundiced, Western eye and will complain about the well-worn, philosophical clich?s that pop up in a movie that deals with the traditional teachings of kung fu. They will also undoubtedly gripe about the usual themes of having faith in yourself and your dreams, and of accomplishing great things by putting your mind, heart and spirit into it. Furthermore, if those critics have never seen the old kung fu films from the 1970's, the training sequences, the fighting for food gags, the student turning on his teacher, said teacher's resulting angst, and the typical student-master relationship of irreverence that turns into a father-son bond of heart-wrenching piety and kinship, they won't get it. Well, this film is not for them and it should not be.
Instead, KUNG FU PANDA is for the more than three hundred kids I saw packed into the theater dressed in their karate gis and kung fu uniforms, laughing their heads off at all the "awesomeness" and "pandamonium" unfolding before them. What these kids witnessed was giant panda Po, an overweight Ursid (bear) who not only eats when he is depressed but also dreams of learning kung fu and meeting his childhood heroes, the Fearless Five. But what is so cool about Po is that although Po saves the day, learns the secrets of kung fu and becomes a great fighter, at the end of that day, Po still is Po. His hero's journey takes him full circle as his weakness becoming his strength. Although Po loves to eat, he uses that love as a means to understand kung fu and himself. All the kids in the audience got this film because the bottom line is that KUNG FU PANDA is a fun film to watch and they were there to have fun, and like me?we did.
For any of us who have learned martial arts, whether traditionally or today's way, KUNG FU PANDA offers many different emotional beats, my favorite being the elation Po feels when he became "ru men zi di," which in Mandarin refers to that moment you "officially" become your sifu's real student. Although the filmmakers had no clue as to what all these things were, never mind understanding what the various animal styles of kung fu looked like or how to do kung fu action, they tried to understand.
Co-director John Stevenson says, "When you have a title like KUNG FU PANDA, you're totally setting yourself up. If we were going to do kung fu, it had better be really good. It was very important that we have really cool and accurate kung fu and not just floppy hand waving. There's a big difference between kung fu and the various other martial arts. We were determined that it be kung fu and not jujitsu or karate or tae kwon do or any other discipline. But, at the same time, we had to make it unique to our movie, because our protagonists are, after all, animals.
"We also just didn't want to create animal-based kung fu movements by animating humans in animal suits. In addition to marathon viewing sessions of old kung fu movies we asked wu shu instructor Eric Chen to lead us in kung fu classes and asked him to not go easy on us because we wanted to get a sense of how it was for Po, to be completely unsuited and unfit, as most of us were, and face somebody like Shifu."
The result? Long days of kung fu training and a lot of sore, banged up and bruised bodies. "But it was great in a way," co-director Mark Osborne relates, "because it really gave us a sense of how hard it really is to do some of those stretches and exercises. Even the simplest movements were very taxing for somebody as out of shape as I am."
So for those of the KUNG FU PANDA crew who partook in the huffing and puffing training days there was a great deal of empathy for their reluctant hero. As fate would have it, animator and story artist Rodolphe Guenoden, a long-time martial arts practitioner, was anointed as the film's kung fu choreographer where he essentially became the go-to guy to validate the action's authenticity.
"Because he's such a good animator, he was able to take our characters' animal qualities and figure out how a cat could get into the correct stance or execute the right move and make it look accurate. He was truly instrumental in defining the look of our kung fu," adds Stevenson.
Guenoden says, "I was in storyboard for two-and-a-half years, and then I moved to animation. So I was an animator first and now I was taking care of supervising the action and all of the kung fu onscreen. I've always been into martial arts, I've studied different styles for 18 years and always wanted to combine it with animation. As soon as they green-lighted KUNG FU PANDA, I jumped straight into the storyboarding, trying to do more of the action and all the fighting in the movie."
Since precision is necessary to achieve kung fu reality, foot position for stances and kicks, hip movement to create flowing body posture and correct martial technique, Guenoden held ongoing kung fu classes for the animators so they could understand the movements and positions themselves. "It gave me a way to talk to the animators. They could understand how the character's foot would be placed, how the spine would be curved, how the hips would lead. Before the sessions, I used a lot of drawings or I would mime it. But after these classes, I just instructed them on what it was supposed to be and they just did it.
"They eventually started to get it and that was cool. Bruce Lee said that martial arts are an expression of self. So, it doesn't have to be so academic or very strict. You have to trust your body and express yourself. So, it's really trying to open your mind onto more of the gesture. It's like teaching someone how to draw and then they evolve their own style. Not unlike Po's story."
And what is Po's story? In a fortune cookie, as compared to a nutshell, the film centers on enthusiastic, big, clumsy, out of shape and pathetic soon-to-be noodle-chef Po (Jack Black) who also happens to be the biggest kung fu fan in the history of kung fu-dom. When he is unexpectedly chosen to fulfill an ancient prophecy, Po's dreams become reality and he joins the world of kung fu to study alongside his idols, the legendary Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie); Crane (David Cross); Mantis (Seth Rogen); Viper (Lucy Liu); and Monkey (Jackie Chan)--under the leadership of their mentor, the lone-wolf Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). But Peace Valley is soon to be War Valley as the vengeful, twisted and treacherous snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) returns in search of an ancient scroll and it is up to Po to defend everyone from the oncoming threat.
Although from a historical sense it might have been more nostalgic to model the Fearless Five from Shaolin's original five animal arts (tiger, snake, leopard, white crane, dragon) as created by Jue Yuen, Li Sou and Bai Yu-feng during the 1200's, the filmmakers opted to make the leopard evil, use the dragon as the statuesque holder of the ultimate secret of martial arts, and replace them with two of the more recently created popular animals styles: monkey kung fu (late 1800's by Kou Zi) and praying mantis kung fu (mid-1600's by Wang Lang). It is of interest to note that since the Russians kicked off the cycle of events that led to the temple burnings at Song Shan and Jiu Lian Shan, a snow leopard (predominantly found in Siberia) made a fitting villain to attack Peace Valley from the frozen lands of the North.
To double-check the fighting every step of the way, Guenoden often rendered the kung fu in 2D, verified the consistency and authenticity, and then re-executed the scenes in the final CG version.
"Since the five styles of kung fu are human interpretations of the way animals behave, subtle ways of altering that style to fit an actual animal body were found. For example, the tiger style is from southern China, very grounded, very low stances, a lot of punching and hand combat. We wanted Tigress to be athletic and acrobatic as well, so liberties were taken, injecting jumping while toning down the aggressiveness of the style. On the other hand, for Tai Lung, a supremely bad dude, the level of aggression was dialed way up.
"Having been in jail for 20 years, his kung fu mastery would have basically rotted, so his observance of a single style would go out the window. As the ultimate fighting machine, the villain would be brutal without a shred of honor, utilizing anything, even elbows and knees, to be as devastating to his challengers as he could be. And where Tigress would never think of fighting with her claws, Tai Lung does not hesitate for a minute to draw his razor-sharp talons."
In Mandarin, the giant panda is called "Da Xiong Mao" (translated as "Big Bear Cat") and although there are indeed many different styles of animal martial arts that have evolved over the past 1500 years or so, there is no panda style?until now.
"Po's first attempt at displaying his kung fu abilities results in a little move he likes to call "crazy feet," Guenoden laughs. "If somebody's doing air guitar, it's not the same as knowing how to play a guitar. The Po we meet at the beginning of the movie is a big fan of kung fu, he has 100 per-cent enthusiasm for martial arts. But he doesn't have the coordination or the physical ability. He has a vague idea of what it's supposed to be, but not the physical abilities to do the moves. Crazy feet are one of his things he thinks is cool. It's the uncoordinated move of shuffling his feet. But to him, it's kung fu. We actually slightly incorporate it into his face-off with Tai Lung, because it reflects so much of his personality."
Po's eventual style is fluid, an all-encompassing use of whatever he needs to deflect Tai Lung's ferociousness. That includes maximum exploitation of his roundness, his belly, his butt, even his head; whatever will halt Tai Lung's efforts to destroy the Valley.
Stevenson was adamant about not making KUNG FU PANDA a parody, saying, "This was not only important to me but to anyone else who ended up working on this film because we really admired martial arts movies. We all wanted to respect and honor those movies. I loved kung fu movies from when I was growing up in the ?70s, as well as the ?Kung Fu' television show with David Carradine. I thought it would be an interesting challenge, so when I was offered the film, I immediately said, ?Yes.'
"We're all parents, you know? I have two daughters and Mark has kids. We wanted the film to have something that our kids could take away. ?Be your own hero,' which means don't look outside of yourself for the answer. Don't expect someone else to make things right. You are empowered to achieve anything you want, if you set your mind to it. Be the best that you can be."
Osborne adds, "It was important to all of us, from the start that KUNG FU PANDA would have a theme, a positive message that we really believed in. We wanted it to be a fun experience loaded with comedy and great action. But we also wanted there to be a takeaway that we all believed was a good one."
"So, in essence," Stevenson concludes, "we knew where we wanted to go, but perhaps even more importantly, we also knew how we wanted to get there. We were really aiming to craft a film that had a timelessness to it; while the story is set in our version of ancient China, the tale doesn't only apply to those characters at that time. The greatest stories are timeless. And we clearly wanted ours to have that quality?a classic hero's journey. Of course, the film would be entertaining, and fun, and the fighting will be cool. But our goal all along was not just to make one of those bright, shiny summer movies. We think Po and his journey, along with all of these appealing characters and inventive visuals, well, we were always striving to take it beyond that kind of film."
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Written by Dr. Craig Reid for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM