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.
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.