Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Troubled Western 'Jane Got a Gun' Rescued as Relativity Files for Bankruptcy (Updated) Troubled Western 'Jane Got a Gun' Rescued as Relativity Files for Bankruptcy (Updated) 'The Witch' Won't Open Until 2016, But Its Sundance-Winning Director Has a New Film 'The Witch' Won't Open Until 2016, But Its Sundance-Winning Director Has a New Film Charles Aidikoff Screening Room Shutters: End of an Era for LA Critics? Charles Aidikoff Screening Room Shutters: End of an Era for LA Critics? How HBO's 'Ballers' Fails Sports Fans How HBO's 'Ballers' Fails Sports Fans Michael Moore Reveals Stealth NSA Project 'Where to Invade Next' on Periscope Michael Moore Reveals Stealth NSA Project 'Where to Invade Next' on Periscope Showtime Chief on David Lynch's 'Twin Peaks' Revival: "It's His Show" Showtime Chief on David Lynch's 'Twin Peaks' Revival: "It's His Show" Toronto Film Festival Lineup: What Did They Get? Toronto Film Festival Lineup: What Did They Get? Discover the Brothers Quay, Identical Twin Animators Who Inspired Christopher Nolan Discover the Brothers Quay, Identical Twin Animators Who Inspired Christopher Nolan Richard Linklater's Untitled New Film Pushed to 2016, Might Direct Jennifer Lawrence Movie Richard Linklater's Untitled New Film Pushed to 2016, Might Direct Jennifer Lawrence Movie Jill Soloway Says "There Is an All Out-Attack" on Female Filmmakers Jill Soloway Says "There Is an All Out-Attack" on Female Filmmakers 'Steve Jobs' Joins Fall Festival Contenders as NYFF Centerpiece Gala: What's Coming Up and What's Not (UPDATED) 'Steve Jobs' Joins Fall Festival Contenders as NYFF Centerpiece Gala: What's Coming Up and What's Not (UPDATED) Top 10 Takeaways: Holdover 'Ant-Man' Tops Blah Week, Summer Slot for 'Southpaw' Pays Off Top 10 Takeaways: Holdover 'Ant-Man' Tops Blah Week, Summer Slot for 'Southpaw' Pays Off Arthouse Audit: Is 'Phoenix' This Year's 'Ida'? 'Mr. Holmes' Stays Strong Arthouse Audit: Is 'Phoenix' This Year's 'Ida'? 'Mr. Holmes' Stays Strong Friday Box Office: Sandler's 'Pixels' Gets Mixed Response, 'Paper Towns,' 'Southpaw' Not Far Behind Friday Box Office: Sandler's 'Pixels' Gets Mixed Response, 'Paper Towns,' 'Southpaw' Not Far Behind Scott Foundas Explains Why He's Leaving Film Criticism--Again--for Amazon Studios Scott Foundas Explains Why He's Leaving Film Criticism--Again--for Amazon Studios Congrats to Monica Bellucci: She's Making History Congrats to Monica Bellucci: She's Making History Watch: The Secret Ingredient to David Lynch's Disorienting Cinema Watch: The Secret Ingredient to David Lynch's Disorienting Cinema First Look: 'No' Director Pablo Larraín Channels 'Neruda' with Gael García Bernal First Look: 'No' Director Pablo Larraín Channels 'Neruda' with Gael García Bernal Why Kevin Costner Paid for 'Black or White' (New Trailer, Sneak Preview Q & A) Why Kevin Costner Paid for 'Black or White' (New Trailer, Sneak Preview Q & A) Gabriel García Márquez and Akira Kurosawa Talk Film, Writing and 'Rhapsody in August' in 1991 Gabriel García Márquez and Akira Kurosawa Talk Film, Writing and 'Rhapsody in August' in 1991

Immersed in Movies: Jennifer Yuh Nelson Lifts Kung Fu Panda 2

Thompson on Hollywood By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 7, 2011 at 10:39AM

Of all the sequels competing for the best animated feature Oscar, "Kung Fu Panda 2" was really the only one with unfinished business. It begged the question: How did Po wind up living in the same house with his father goose?
1
Kung Fu Panda 2

Of all the sequels competing for the best animated feature Oscar, "Kung Fu Panda 2" was really the only one with unfinished business. It begged the question: How did Po wind up living in the same house with his father goose?

In fact, it was a running joke among the animators on the first film, yet no one was better suited to answering the adoption question and expanding the "Kung Fu Panda" universe than the soft-spoken Jennifer Yuh Nelson. She was both head of story and "dream sequence director" on the first film and was promoted to director after becoming the sequel's brain trust. DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg even called her his secret weapon because of her powerful and persuasive presence.

 But directing was the last thing on her mind: the introverted artist preferred sitting in her office drawing pictures. "I'm not aggressive by nature and it was tough for me to make the transition to directing," Yuh Nelson insists.

Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Yet once she was thrust into the top spot, Yuh Nelson seized the opportunity to make a more epic and intimate story about the unlikeliest kung fu warrior and also coax a more vulnerable vocal performance out of Jack Black. It was all about protecting the story and her fellow animators, who had already gained her trust on the first "Kung Fu Panda."

This was important because "Kung Fu Panda" represented a milestone for DreamWorks: it was the first animated feature of the "Shrek" era to break from satire as a storytelling device. And its success paved the way for the even more esteemed "How to Train Your Dragon," which, in turn, has encouraged a more diversified slate of movies, including next year's "Rise of the Guardians," in which Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost, and the Sandman team up to fight the Bogeyman.

"We had to work pretty hard to hit you with all that beauty on screen and also for a deeper understanding of a character like Po that you really care about," Yuh Nelson suggests. "To get a big emotional hit about who he is and what that means to him was a big motivation for me. Surprisingly, it was very clear from the beginning what Po would find out [about his ancestry] and what the end of his journey would be. It was really a case of execution. There's a sincerity to these characters."

Meanwhile, the elegant Lord Shen peacock (voiced with cool menace by Gary Oldman) shook Po to his very core, not with brute force, but with much more devious villainy. "He's intellectual and sinister but also vulnerable with a lot of nuance," the director notes. "Shen is probably the most complicated character I've done in animation with that tail. There's a reason why there are no flowing, robe wearing, kung fu peacocks." That's why so much R&D went into Shen's rigging, feathers, and cloth to make him a rhythmic gymnast.

Likewise, there was additional R&D that went into building the entire Gongmen City and then destroying half of it, which was also not possible three years ago. Of course, it helped having Yuh Nelson scout locations in China with production designer Raymond Zibach and art director Tang Heng."The Valley is a beautiful, idyllic, pastoral setting, but we wanted to go for something that was bigger and a bit more intimidating to get Po out of his comfort zone."

At its heart, "Kung Fu Panda 2" is about Po's battle for inner peace. This was probably Yuh Nelson's strongest accomplishment and the culmination of all her illustrative work at DreamWorks, which also includes "Madagascar" as well as the hand-drawn "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas" and "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron."

But then it helped being mentored by the trailblazing Brenda Chapman, the first female head of story at Disney ("The Lion King") as well as the first woman to helm an animated feature (DreamWorks' "The Prince of Egypt"), who nonetheless was removed from Pixar's upcoming "Brave" because of creative differences.

Yuh Nelson credits Chapman with encouraging her to be more aggressive and to seek promotions. "I think it showed me that there were enough women directors at DreamWorks that it became really invisible -- it became a non-issue. And because of that gender has never been a factor at DreamWorks -- it's neutral.

"And in Brenda's case, she came on when I was contemplating becoming head of story on 'Sinbad' and she's the one that encouraged me to take that job. I wasn't sure if I was ready or wanted to and she told me that I should do it. I respected her word and I'm glad that she told me to do that."

What is Yuh Nelson proudest about "Kung Fu Panda 2"? That it makes people cry. "The fact that you can get a movie that hits people emotionally and it stays with them is really a good thing."

Now, after passing her first directorial hurdle -- and the first woman in animation to do it solo -- Yuh Nelson is contemplating a second "Panda" sequel. Only it'll remain her secret until she gets the greenlight.

Yet how can Katzenberg resist his secret weapon? After all, Yuh Nelson's become the highest- grossing female director of all-time ($663 million worldwide), and "Kung Fu Panda 2" leads the Annie Awards pack with 12 nominations. Sure, it's not an Oscar nom, but it's a momentum booster.

Immersed in Movies

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies, Features, Box Office, Franchises, Interviews , Animation, Genres


E-Mail Updates








Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.