Kung Fu Panda: Starring Jack Black

Jack Black as Kung Fu Panda

When it comes to pictures, both animated and live-action,-there is little doubt about Jack Blacks talent. Hes a gifted actor with enormous heart and hes really funny. Such hits as Shark Tale, School of Rock, Nacho Libre and The Holiday are evidence that his comic acting skills fit comfortably into a wide variety of projects.

So after his turn as Lenny the shark in DreamWorks Shark Tale, Black found that he had a voice fan in DWA head Jeffrey Katzenberg. Black relates, I had a lot of fun working on Shark Tale. One day, Jeffrey came to me and basically said, Hey, lets make another one. I had done a character voice, more of a nebbishy, New Yorker, kind of a Woody Allen-type of voice as Lenny. So I assumed Id be getting back into the character voice thing. But Jeffrey said, This time youre the big cheese, and its called Kung Fu Panda. So, it was like, they wanted me…they wanted to hear the real me. So I thought, Sure, I can do me. It was sorta like falling off a log into a recording studio.

As for the character Black would be taking on, Stevenson observes, If being a kung fu master is the highest pinnacle of achievement you can experience, Pos right at the very bottom. Hes the exact opposite. Though he loves kung fu, he works in a noodle restaurant as a sort of waiter.

Black explains, Pos father is a noodle chef and he loves noodles. But Po finds that all a little bland — he wants more excitement in his world — so he fantasizes about being a kung fu master. He idolizes those great kung fu artists like they were rock stars — theyre legendary in his mind. Hes ashamed to tell his father about his aspirations, because he knows how much it means to him that his son follow in his footsteps. So, he keeps it as a little secret. Also, Pos a bit embarrassed, because he doesnt think he really has what it takes to be a real kung fu master. So, he doesnt want people to know about this secret wish, because he thinks theyll make fun of him.

For Osborne, Blacks inherent qualities are carried through to his onscreen panda persona: There is an innate sweetness and goodness about Jack that we really wanted to show through Po — a gentle, good-hearted innocent soul, someone whos funny, appealing and charming — and we wanted the character to have all those qualities. Its hard to imagine anybody more like Po than Jack.

Stevenson adds that Jack has brought so much of himself to the character that its helped us create not only a believable world, but a character thats really real — genuine and vulnerable. It all comes directly from Jack and is inspired by his performance.

For Black, voicing a panda whos crazy about kung fu isnt too off the mark: Kung fu has always fascinated me. The graceful gymnastics of a martial arts master are a thrill to behold. So when Jeffrey [Katzenberg] asked if Id be interested in voicing the character of Po in Kung Fu Panda, it was a very tantalizing offer. When I was a kid, I took karate and judo classes. It was fun and good for my muscles. I even won a trophy in a judo tournament…but I must confess I outweighed the competition by a good 20 pounds. Although I never took any kung fu classes — I just saw it on TV and in the movies — it seemed to me that it was the most spiritual form of martial arts. And Po reminds me of myself as a kid — hes an innocent, chubby dreamer on a quest to find his destiny. There are so many wonderful characters, especially the little mousey kung fu master and instructor Shifu, voiced by my hero Dustin Hoffman. And the scariest villain since Darth Vader, Tai Lung, portrayed by Ian McShane. I was sold.

Following the successful early voice/character test, Black was brought in to explore the character of Po. The first session was eye-opening, Osborne recalls. During the first meeting Jack ad-libbed a lot and added things — all in the spirit of the sequence — that we had been playing around with. He brought this soulful and realistic quality to it. We took the session and started animating it. Right away, we saw we had a character with a great deal of appeal and likeability, someone truly genuine. The design of the film is beautiful and Jack brings so much as the central voice. The animation closes the deal by bringing his attitude and energy to the character.

Casting Black was wish fulfillment for the screenwriters, but it also kept them on their toes. Jonathan Aibel explains, We had come up with the idea of Po and then Jack Black was cast — so the character then evolved even more. We didnt sit around and think up jokes. What we did was look back at the work we had done on the character and then watch what would come out of the sessions with Jack. Then wed say, What did we learn about Po in that session

Glenn Berger: Wed go back and change the lines, based on this new aspect of the character that had started to emerge. And then poor Jack would have to record the scene for the 900th time, but maybe with subtle changes to reflect these new things we had learned about Po. So we were always in the character development stage, because the characters grew with the actors performances.

On working with his two directors, Black says: Mark is kind of the arty one –hes got arty roots, having gone to art school, hes really well versed in…arty things. And John is really great with coming in and helping me focus on the emotional aspects of the story. Hes got mad chops when it comes to envisioning animal behavior, animal voices and characters. Hes got a lot of experience. And they both have great brains and great hearts and, together, they make a great team.

Dustin Hoffman as the Teacher

A great team is not what master trainer Shifu envisions when Po is plopped in front of him as the prophesied Dragon Warrior — that honor should have gone to one of his prize students in the Furious Five. So, the small red panda immediately sets about doing everything he can to get rid of the flabby panda. Melissa Cobb relates, But because of Pos great zeal with simply being where he is — in the presence of his idols, the Five, in the Jade Palace — he is too enthusiastic, too thrilled to give up. Their relationship is combative from the start. However, that ultimately changes when they realize that the stakes of the role of Dragon Warrior are much higher than Po had first anticipated. And so, we find two characters who really need to solve a problem together, but they just dont know how.

Shifu is not only short in stature, but also short on patience. To bring their two-foot-tall kung fu master to life, the filmmakers approached one of cinemas finest actors, two-time Oscar(R) winner Dustin Hoffman.

Shifu is actually our most emotionally complex character in the movie, says Stevenson. He has the biggest back story and probably the biggest emotional arc, because hes sort of tormented by ghosts from the past. We knew Shifu was going to be a difficult and complex character, and it was going to require a really great actor to bring him to life.

When Hoffman was approached, he was told he could make suggestions about his character. He remarks, I liked the fact that they were looking at a collaborative way of creating Shifu. They would ask How do you like the face Well, I didnt know much about animation — they put a video camera on you when youre recording and they watch your gestures, and then construct the character and include little bits of your idiosyncrasies and gestures. I thought that was interesting. I made a couple of suggestions, because Im very nose sensitive. Why, I dont know. I wanted a little nose correction. I told them I demanded a nose change — I was just looking for a cheap joke. But they opened up the mouth and widened the teeth. I think that was their idea.

Producer Cobb enjoyed the difference between Shifus size and the power that he wields: What we loved about Shifu was that hes really small but incredibly powerful. With a tiny little finger, he can completely stop Po in his tracks. And just to see that dynamic with a very small character exerting power over a giant character, you never feel the lack of that power. You always feel that Shifus in control, even against this huge character, Po.

Hoffman found his job made all the easier by the direction he received from Osborne and Stevenson, who clearly had a specific sense of who Shifu was. They promised me at the beginning that anything I didnt like I could re-do — which you cant do on a regular film. You have to hit it right the first time in live-action, like a high wire act — if you dont, you hit the net, and they dont go back, they just keep on shooting. These guys have spent four years on this, and theyve always said that its constantly something you can change, you can re-animate. I allowed myself to be guided by them. Because otherwise, I would come in with some kind of predetermined idea that would be nowhere near as good as theirs.

Later, when filmmakers showed Hoffman the rough cut, he reminded them of their promise — but Hoffmans notes were negligible. I was stunned that they had kept the character in line the whole time.

From the directors points of view, Hoffman was always the perfect professional, always ready. Every time we did a recording session with Dustin, he brought something extraordinary to the session and found a new way of coming at the lines that wed never imagined, says Osborne.

Director Stevenson sees a direct parallel between the actor and the character he voices: Shifu is somebody that has an innate respect to him. And hes very powerful. Hes very strong. Hes completely honorable, a disciplined character. At times, hes pretty relentless and unforgiving. Hes a hard taskmaster. But hes certainly someone whom everybody respects. So, it was very important that the actor playing Shifu be someone people would honor with respect. Dustin brings that, and also a certain gravitas.

Hoffman and Black had the rare opportunity to record together (most sessions are solo, and actors rarely get to meet their onscreen co-stars). The mutual respect was palpable, with Hoffman noting that Jack and Po were pretty much one and the same.

Per Hoffman: Every once in a while, an actor gets a role in life, where the director will say something along the lines of Just show up and be yourself. Jack is perfect casting for Po. Hes very smart to use his comic gifts and not gild the lily. I was surprised when he showed up the first time and he was serious, like most wonderful comic artists you know. He takes it seriously and hes marvelous in this.

For Black, it was very much a case of art imitating life: Shifu is the great master of kung fu, and Dustin Hoffman is the great master of acting. I remember, in high school, watching the video of his production of Death of a Salesman. I watched it tons of times and I was just blown away by him. Hes just great as Shifu because hes the master and hes kind of Zen in his approach. He has a spiritual approach to his craft, from what Ive seen him do in person. He comes from this quiet place inside. Hell find the truth of the scene and just go after it in a real way…and hes also just a little bit grumpy, just like Shifu. Perfect.