Eight years after the first Kung Fu Panda movie made waves globally, Po, the title hero, makes an effort to be less American and more Chinese in the latest sequel of the franchise. Xu Fan reports.
Even foreigners who know little about China see the giant panda as a symbol of the Middle Kingdom.
So what often disappoints the Chinese is that most well-known panda character in animation from the Oscar-nominated franchise Kung Fu Panda is completely American. Well, eight years after the first Kung Fu Panda movie made waves globally, the Chinese now have Po, the title hero, making an effort to be less American and more Chinese.
In a Chinese version of the film tailored for the world's second-largest movie market, Po and his fellow warriors will speak in Mandarin, though an English version is also available.
The film, Kung Fu Panda 3, premieres globally on Jan 29.
While the previous two films from the franchise were made completely by Hollywood, the latest instalment is a Sino-US coproduction backed by Glendale-based DreamWorks and Shanghai-based Oriental DreamWorks and China Film Group.
Explaining the collaboration, DreamWorks' CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg says that the Chinese animators are "a treasure trove" and that the coproduction will promote the Chinese animation industry to the world.
Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, however, says: "It's always been a big consideration for us to be as authentic as possible in how we treat the culture of China and the history of kung fu movies." The South Korean-American animator, in an e-mail interview with China Daily, says China's movie industry is "promising" and Chinese consumers "are becoming more discerning", which makes a localized version significant when to come to winning over the market.
China's latest annual box-office returns were 44.1 billion yuan (S$9.6 billion) from 32,000 screens in around 6,000 cinemas in 2015, up nearly 50 per cent year-on-year from 29.6 billion yuan in 2014.
So the figures make it easy to understand why most industry watchers believe that panda's stronger nod to its Chinese roots has more to do with profits than any other reason.
China's movie market is the only one continuing to grow as the world's other major markets continue to see flops or struggle.
China's current movie policy has a quota for foreign movies, allowing only 34 to be imported every year. Producers usually get a share of around 25 per cent of the Chinese mainland's box-office takings, but a coproduction - not limited by the quota - is entitled a much higher share of up to 43 per cent.
Meanwhile, as far as cultural conflicts go, when the first and second Kung Fu Panda movies were released in 2008 and 2011, respectively, many Chinese artists boycotted the films and called the franchise "a cultural invasion".
The co-production, however, skirts that conflict.
As Oriental DreamWorks' Chairman Li Ruigang, quoted by Xinhua News Agency, says: "It (the new film) makes the panda on big screen seem more authentic ... The co-operation between China and the United States marks a turning point - the panda is coming back home."
Separately, those who had a sneak preview of the movie in Shanghai - the city that hosts Oriental DreamWorks - on Tuesday feel that the franchise has never been so tightly bound to the Oriental world.
From brush-painting like landscapes and martial arts fights to ancient customs, all the scenes are faithful to Chinese reality.
Nelson says that the American team's visits to Shanghai were welcomed by Chinese colleagues wearing costumes of different dynasties. They also showed the US team ceremonies about tea, incense, martial arts and weddings.
"That level of commitment to detail is something that we will never get in the United States," she says.
"We certainly have no access to that amount of enthusiasm from so many people who want to show us their culture."
Support was also forthcoming from China's showbiz sector.
In the Chinese version, veteran actor Huang Lei did the voice for Po, while Taiwan pop singer Jay Chou was the voice of the monkey warrior and sings the theme song Try.
Typically, it is rare to see so many big Chinese names behind an animated movie.
So a film with so many big Chinese movie and TV stars including Jackie Chan, Bai Baihe, Wang Zhiwen, Yang Mi, Jiang Wu, Zhang Guoli and Zhu Zhu is bound to make audiences sit up and take notice.
Though their voices were post-produced, the animation has been tailored to match the speech.
Nelson says: "As you will see, there are no seams, no subtitles. These animated characters are supposed to speak in Mandarin."
The local production means that the Mandarin pronunciation is authentic.
"They (the Chinese crew) have helped to ensure the Mandarin version feels natural to the Chinese, including idioms and sayings, and other nuances of Chinese culture," the director says.
With the glittering cast and positive reviews, some industry sources predict that the panda could become the biggest threat for domestic tentpoles competing for eyeballs during the highly profitable Spring Festival season.
As Zhang Zhiyuan, a box-office researcher, tells China Daily: "Most industry sources believe that the movie will surpass the 2-billion-yuan mark with its comic tone, scenes and likeable characters, as it makes up a good choice for families."
Though the results will not be known at least until the end of February, the film's director, like the panda, does not seem to be particularly perturbed.
Nelson says that after eight years, "Po remains the humble, fun, and rather childlike figure in the midst of progressively harder and harder obstacles."
Film's music set to be released
DreamWorks Animation is set to release the music of its upcoming film Kung Fu Panda 3 ahead of the movie.
The music album, Kung Fu Panda 3 - Music From The Motion Picture, will be released by Sony Classical on Jan 22, in a digital format and on CD.
The album features the film's original score by Academy Award winner Hans Zimmer, who previously co-composed the scores for Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2.
"Working on these films has always been such a treat, and this latest instalment is no exception. I'm thrilled to be back for Kung Fu Panda 3, and can't wait to share that excitement with audiences and families everywhere," says Zimmer, one of Hollywood's most prolific composers, who also composed for Rain Man, Gladiator and The Lion King.
One of the highlights of the soundtrack is Try, the theme song for the film, which has been produced by Taiwan musical icon Jay Chou and written by his protege, 16-year-old singer-songwriter Patrick Brasca.
The song, performed by both Chou and Brasca, pays homage to both Western and Chinese influences.
Chinese pianist Lang Lang's performances are also featured in the soundtrack, including Oogway's Legacy, Portrait of Mom and Po Belongs.
"Hans really put a lot of Hollywood into China. He has a lot of beautiful eastern oriental melody and then puts that into the style of Hollywood. It's really exciting for me to play," says Lang Lang. "The story of Kung Fu Panda is a lot of fun but it's really, really touching."
The pianist also says: "I feel martial arts and music are somehow connected - a lot of practice and you feel inner peace."
Chinese cellist Wang Jian, erhu (two-stringed bowed instrument) player Guo Gan and British band The Vamps also contribute to the all-star compilation.