Everybody is Kung Fu Panda fighting… eYAAA!

Jeffrey Katzenberg delivers a kick arse new animation with Kung Fu Panda

Having resurrected Disney Studios as an animation force to be reckoned with and as one third of the Dreamworks SKG partnership, you would expect that Jeffrey Katzenberg would have developed a affinity with animation at an early age. Not so my friend…. Not so… In fact according to Katzenberg he only ever “saw a couple (of animations) as a kid growing up – but nothing out of the ordinary” and never expected to be heading up Disney’s Animation Studios much less to later embark on his own endeavor, Dreamworks, with partners in crime, Spielberg and Geffen…

“I’m not sure I ever really knew I would end up here… Probably as a kid I wanted to be a fireman or something like that,”Katzenberg shrugs. “But I love what I do. I feel like I found that special something that is so rewarding and intelligent and exciting – so I feel lucky that it found me or that I found it – but I’m grateful for it.”

Grateful and modest. Since he and his pals launched Dreamworks back in 1994 and its spin off company, Dreamworks Animation SKG, the trio have been responsible for some of the biggest 3D animations to hit the big screen, including Antz, the Shrek trilogy and Madagascar. Now the company plans to add another string to their bow with the Paramount Pictures/Dreamworks film, Kung Fu Panda.

Given the rate at which Katzenberg’s Blackberry bleeps in the background – I’m fairly certain he’s pitched all manner of projects day and night– so how was it that Kung Fu Panda floated like cream to the top of the bowl?

“First of all it was the title,” says Katzenberg. “Just the three words, Kung – Fu – Panda” he enunciates slowly. “They make me smile, if not laugh. So it all kinda began with that. And the more the creative team came together on this and the more that the story revealed itself – it was a great story…
“And having Jack Black on board – having Dustin Hoffman, having Ian McShane. Many people will say these films are only as good as their villains – so having a great villain also really made the movie appealing…

Kung Fu Panda doesn’t just have a great villain, it’s the whole package – action, laughs and a story with heart.

“Thanks,” says Katzenberg. “We try but we don’t always get there. It’s certainly more rewarding when you’ve got that sort of subtext or there is a lesson or values beneath it all. As I say sometimes they reveal themselves and drift to the surface and it becomes very natural and organic and sometimes they don’t. And this one was like that – it wasn’t something we forced into the story it was there from the beginning.

..watching Jack in the studio – he was genuinely a whirling dervish…

The story revolves around Po, a rice cake loving Panda who works in his father’s noodle shop and dreams of being a Kung Fu warrior just like his idols the Furious Five (a band of Kung Fu masters – Crane, Monkey, Tigress, Mantis and Viper). Cast as the lovable Panda, Po, is comedian Jack Black – it’s a match made in heaven.

Katzenberg agrees: “It was kinda like the perfect glove on the perfect hand – they were really made for each other.”

So did Black’s penchant for ad-libbing find its way into the script?

“We encouraged that a lot,” says Katzenberg. “So there are a lot of improvisational moments in the film. There’s a great script and we can appreciate that – but watching Jack in the studio – he was genuinely a whirling dervish. So there was a lot of detail and performance already in the writing but there was a lot of improvisational stuff that came from him. Which is why Jack and this character seem so inseparable.”

Given that Katzenberg has been instrumental in bringing some of the world’s highest grossing animated films to the screen – does he keep a fairly tight rein on production?

“Actually I try and keep a bit of distance,” says Katzenberg.

But that wasn’t always the case…

“I find it easier now that we have such great creative teams and good creative leadership in the studio. I find it best now if I come in during key processes and challenge the team and bring a bit of objectivity. I get involved with the early stage particularly the casting of the film, but after that I just tend to check in along the way – I’m not part of the day to day process.”

Watching Po’s on screen shenanigans it’s hard to imagine any other actor voicing the role.. Was Black always at the forefront to play Po?

“The filmmakers had Jack in mind from the very beginning,” offers, Katzenberg “but the first time I approached him he said ‘No’.
“He was really busy making Shark’s Tale for us and didn’t really want to take another animation on.”

Katzenberg persevered however… “I came back six months later and asked him again. We actually did a piece of test animation so he could see what Po would look like – we took a performance of his from another movie and animated it – and showed it to him and he was like “That really is me’ and so he agreed to do it…”

Assembling the rest of the cast was a little easier. Dustin Hoffman came on after a chance meeting on a flight from Mexico…
“We were on the same plane and we’d been talking for a while and at the end of it I said ‘Dustin, you know you really ought to do one of these animated movies – your voice is so rich and beautiful; it has matured in such an extraordinary way’.

And he said ‘Well you never ask…’

So I went back to the studio and said – ‘We’re gonna ask…’.

And Angelina – she had such a ball on Shark’s Tale, so she said ‘Please – invite me again – I love it…’
Jackie Chan – I don’t think it would be possible to make the first Kung Fu animated movie and not have Jackie Chan along.

Indeed Katzenberg has found it’s often easier to get an actor to accept a role in an animated feature than in their live action counterparts…”It’s less demanding” he explains. “It doesn’t take the same kind of time commitment. It’s very liberating. People can get really silly in these movies – and we provide an environment where we protect the actors really well so they aren’t afraid to be silly – and sometimes that silliness is gold.”

So does he have a favourite moment in the movie?
“‘Yesterday is history. Tomorrow’s a mystery. Today is a gift and that’s why it’s called the present…’
When I heard that the first time I went ‘Wow’…

Kung Fu Panda is now showing at cinemas.