‘It’s an embarrassment of pandas’: Jack Black and cast talk Kung Fu Panda 3

Comic actor voices Po in new episode of hit animated franchise, in which the lead character is joined for the first time on screen by a host of fellow pandas, and helped fellow cast members get into character for the film

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 March, 2016, 5:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 March, 2016, 5:00am

There’s an odd term used to describe a group of pandas.

“It’s an embarrassment of pandas, that’s the real word,” Jack Black explains. “Like a gaggle of geese, a school of fish, it’s an embarrassment of pandas. Everyone has to have their word.”

This is especially true in Kung Fu Panda 3, which sees Black’s martial arts panda star Po joined onscreen by fellow pandas for the first time in the hit animated film franchise. Brought up in a varied animal world (with a goose as a father), Po comes into contact with his panda kin.

Kate Hudson (voicing panda Mei Mei) and Bryan Cranston (as Po’s biological father Li) were just some of the actors drafted to portray an entire village of the adorable black and white creatures.

Black passed on his own panda knowledge to help his fellow actors get into the playful characters.

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“We talked extensively on it, what it is to get inside the mind of a panda,” Black says. “First, you go to China and spend thousands of hours at a panda reserve. You watch their ways. You wear a panda suit, obviously.”

OK, that’s a lie. But here’s how the actors got to their panda place for the film:

Jack Black as Po

Black has voiced his dumpling-loving Po since the first Oscar-nominated film in the franchise, 2008’s Kung Fu Panda, so he knows the drill. After intense vocal warm-up exercises, comfort is key in the recording studio. Black prefers hot chamomile tea with honey, which is good for the voice.

“I take off my shoes. And I make sure to wear sweatpants,” Black says.

The non-friction pants are especially important because Black is highly active in the recording studio, even standing on a chair to kick during his voice work.

“Jack makes these kung fu moves. He gets into it,” says Alessandro Carloni, who directed the film with Jennifer Yuh Nelson. “One time he even loosened his sock just to be funny. So when he kicked, this flaccid sock would flap around. It’s all about getting into the zone.”

Naturally, there are dumplings on hand at the studio for meals. But during scenes where Po is actually eating his dumplings, Black went for food that sounded different — apple turnovers, which had the right amount of “squidge” effect for the scene, Nelson says.

“Jack was stuffing the turnovers in his mouth, doing the lines with his mouth full and then dropping them into a trash can. There were too many takes to eat them,” Nelson says. “I was thinking that I might not ever eat apple turnovers again watching that. But the takes were great.”

The rest is Black just giving it his all, which includes turning it to 11 with his emotion face.

“You know how a guitar player will make a really painful face getting the high note? Sometimes I squeeze a better performance if I get my whole face and body into it,” Black says. “It would be embarrassing to have to see that.”

Kate Hudson as Mei Mei

The role signifying Po’s first female panda encounter was originally destined for Rebel Wilson. But the directors say schedule commitments forced the actress to drop out, and Hudson was brought in to voice the supremely confident ribbon-dancer Mei Mei. No changes were needed to the character.

“We wanted Mei Mei to be really fun and confident,” Nelson says. “Kate has this great personality that is bubbly and full of enthusiasm.”

Hudson says she fully had to “go there,” dancing around the sound studio to re-create Mei Mei’s ribbon dancing without the ribbon (too much sound). The only problem was cracking herself up doing the lines.

“I try to keep it all together, but when I gotta laugh, I gotta laugh,” Hudson says. “But then I would bring it on.”

Carloni says the filmmakers worked some of Hudson’s accidental laughter into the final film by making the other pandas in the scene laugh as well.

A bonus: Hudson already knew all about chi, the strong life force within these pandas.

“We were trying to explain what chi was about, but Kate actually does morning chi gatherings at her house,” Nelson says. “She led us in a chi exercise before a recording session.”

Bryan Cranston as Li

The filmmakers had planned to make Po’s long-lost biological father a stern, stony figure. But as the character evolved with Cranston, the directors found his comedic ability was working far better. Li transformed to a goofy, party-loving character similar to his son.

“Li started dark, more serious. But [the directors] hit the pause button,” Cranston says. “They said, ‘What if we pulled back and went down this other avenue?’ We made Li more childlike. A bigger Po. So in this case I was tapping into the boy that I know is there and allowed him to come out and play.”

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Cranston could also come casual and often unshaven to the studio for his Li work. But he gave his all acting with a stand-in vocal actor who used a hand-puppet to portray Mr. Ping, Po’s adopted (goose) father.

“Bryan would look so intently at the hand, like it was the real thing, he was so expressive,” Nelson says.

These expressions would come through in the final film as animators would incorporate Cranston’s looks.

“When I watched the movie and I saw Li give that big hearty laugh, I thought, ‘I do that like that,’ ” Cranston says. “Then I remembered, of course, that’s where they got it from.”

Star recruits for panda kids

The filmmakers cast a wide net for the plethora of panda voices, even incorporating the Jolie-Pitt clan (Angelina Jolie voices martial artist Tigress in the films). Adorable panda triplets are voiced by the famous brood: Ku Ku (Knox Jolie-Pitt, seven, Shuai Shuai (Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, nine) and Meng Meng (Zahara Jolie-Pitt,11).

Steele Gagnon, eight, voiced the young panda Bao and found his own way to the character.

“Bao is so energetic I tried to think about things that are really exciting, like playing with my dog or eating cotton candy,” he says. “And karate chops helped, too.”

Kung Fu Panda 3 opens on March 17

USA Today