Kung Fu Panda by Stevenson and Osborn

Whether its an ogre trying to regain what is rightfully his or a group of displaced zoo animals finding their way back home, audiences of all ages love to root for the underdog. Anyone who has ever struggled against the odds empathizes with the heroes in these entertaining, morally resonant tales.

So how about a panda who dreams of becoming a kung fu master A plump, drowsy, huggable black-and-white bear who has one, and only one, aspiration in life–to become an expert in a martial art that relies on agility, mental prowess and lightning-fast reflexes. Its a formidable, some would say foolhardy, quest.

When directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne and producer Melissa Cobb were presented with this unlikely storyline, they immediately responded. The obstacle-strewn journey of Po, the Kung Fu Panda, touched a chord in each of them.

Director Stevenson explains, Were all parents, you know I have two daughters and Mark and Melissa have kids. We wanted the film to have something that our kids could take away. Be your own hero, which means dont look outside of yourself for the answer. Dont 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.

It was important to all of us, from the start, Osborne continues, 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.

Stevenson adds, In essence, we knew where we wanted to go, but perhaps even more importantly, we also knew how we wanted to get there. We were aiming to craft a film that had timelessness to it–while the story is set in our version of ancient China, the tale doesnt only apply to those characters at that time. The greatest stories are timeless. And we clearly wanted ours to have that quality, a classic heros journey. The film would be entertaining, and fun, and the fighting will be cool. But our goal 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.

In deciding that the tale of a panda pursuing his dream would provide both entertainment and a message, filmmakers were out to create a fable of sorts–and even the genesis of Kung Fu Panda sounded like the beginning of some ancient Chinese fable.

I was directing a TV show at DreamWorks called Father of the Pride, says Stevenson, a seasoned story artist and illustrator who previously worked with Jim Henson and joined DreamWorks in 1999. While I was prepping the season finale, I was asked if I wanted to work on a project called Kung Fu Panda. So, I went to look it over. I loved kung fu movies from when I was growing up in the 1970s, as well as the Kung Fu television show with David Carradine. I thought it would be an interesting challenge, so I immediately said, Yes.

Stevenson was looking for an alternative to some of the more formulaic talking animal movies of recent years. Something about the concept of Kung Fu Panda struck a chord with him. In many ways, it reminded him of the feelings that stirred inside him a decade earlier, when he was working on another project at PDI/DreamWorks–a film few had paid attention to (at first), but which also inspired passionate commitment from its talent.

That little movie was called Shrek. A few years before Shrek was released and made animation history, another filmmaker, Mark Osborne, had created a sensation at numerous film festivals with his stop-motion short film More, which garnered an Oscar nomination and opened doors for the aspiring auteur. Notes director Osborne, One of the doors that opened was at DreamWorks. I came in here as a director looking for a project and worked in development for a few years, making notes on projects and developing stories they werent sure what to do with. Then, I heard about Kung Fu Panda. And I thought it was a great concept. I wrote some notes on the project and, after a while, they brought me in when they began to seriously shape the project. We already had the characters, some locations and some major concepts in place, but they werent quite sure the direction it should take. I saw it as a thrilling opportunity to jump into feature filmmaking and explore working with CG and a larger crew for the first time.

That alternative storytelling point was also a key to the films producer, Melissa Cobb. We really wanted to do something different with Kung Fu Panda, she says, to make it stand apart from the other recent animated films. We loved a lot of those movies, but we wanted to break with what had become a trend and make a film that was more timeless. So, there werent going to be any pop culture references in this movie. Of course, it most certainly was going to be a family comedy, as well as an action-packed kung fu movie that was respectful of the genre. But our biggest goal was to make a movie that could play as well today as it would in years to come.