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Kung Fu Panda 2 - Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Kung Fu Panda 2 - Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson and the characters ©2011 DreamWorks

On DreamWorks’ animated movie Kung Fu Panda Jennifer Yuh Nelson was the Head of Story. For Kung Fu Panda 2she’s sitting in the director’s chair.

In the sequel, Po (voiced again by Jack Black) has been crowned The Dragon Warrior, and spends his time protecting the Valley of Peace, alongside of his friends and fellow kung fu masters, The Furious Five.

But Po’s world is about to crumble, when a new villain, the peacock Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman) arises, who plans to conquer China with an unstoppable weapon.

You were the Head of Story for the first movie, how did it feel to move on to be the director?

Kung Fu Panda 2
Po (Jack Black, center) and The Furious Five (left to right) Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross), are back © 2011 DreamWorks

I grew up with Hong Kong action movies, and I brought that sensibility as Head of Story on Kung Fu Panda. I was pretty gung ho for all of us to be in that mindset, and I continued that push on this film. I think one of the keys is that we’re all conversant in that vernacular now.

And in working on Kung Fu Panda 2, that shared experience has come with us, and it informs the story we are telling and the manner in which it is told. Our goal was to take Kung Fun Panda and Po to the next level.

This film follows more in the tradition of martial arts movies – there are often questions that arise about a newly anointed hero’s past and there are those who seek to challenge his authority.

Since the release of Kung Fu Panda, there as been one burning question that people are desperate to answer. The question that defies explanation is: Why is Po’s dad a goose?

So it was logical for him to finally realize his father is not his biological father and to seek his origin.

What are the challenges of making this sequel, and directing for the first time?

Kung Fu Panda 2 - Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman
Po (Jack Black) teaches Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) the value of inner peace © 2011 DreamWorks

It’s definitely challenging because so many people have a love for the first [movie] and everybody that worked on it had a love for the first film, so really the big challenge is making sure we didn’t let the people working on it down.

I think the people on the movie liked it, so that’s a good thing.

Did you go to China to do research?

Actually we did go to China for a research mission before we began the second film, and it really helped get a lot of the tactile details that you can see; it provided a lot of lushness that you see in the film.

I wouldn’t say it’s more Chinese than the first film, because the first film is the same setting as the second one, but we definitely tried to get as authentic as possible in this one.

What can you tell us about this movie’s new villain, Lord Shen, voiced by Gary Oldman?

Kung Fu Panda 2 - Gary Oldman
Gary Oldman voices Lord Shen © 2011 DreamWorks

For the villain in this film, we went a completely different way from Tai Lung (from Kung Fu Panda), who was hardcore, full-on strength and brutality. And we couldn’t really go much stronger than he – Tai Lung could punch his way out of a mountain.

So we looked for someone more threatening in a different way – more intellectual, smarter, devious. Po has learned to master the art of kung fu, so something was needed that could trump ability. Lord Shen is, at first, an unimposing-looking guy. He’s a white peacock, after all, not much of a threat, right?

Well, in addition to his fighting skills, which are imposing, he also has speed, and all of that is backed up with weaponry. He’s sinister and scary in his own way.

Among Gary’s amazing performances are several who could be called villains – and yet, they possess so much charm and being that their villainy almost becomes secondary. His work in Bram Stoker’s Dracula shows us the human heart of a monster.

We felt that his skills would elevate Shen from a character simply driven by vengeance to a really interesting multi-layered soul. Evil is so much more alluring when it’s painted with a full spectrum.

What was it like working with 3D with this film?

Kung Fu Panda 2 - Jack Black and Danny McBride
Po (Jack Black) battles Wolf Boss (Danny McBride) © 2011 DreamWorks

The effects that we can accomplish now are much more advanced than just a couple of years ago, particularly with the added layer of 3D. So we were able to go pretty much where we wanted to with the action.

Since we wanted to build on the first movie – and the first movie’s done in the relative safety of the Valley of Peace – we wanted to push Po out of his comfort zone into a much larger, more intimidating location.

We wanted to explore that and get a sense of space and scale, and just the sheer vastness of some of the challenges that Po and the Five are up against.

Guillermo del Toro is credited as a creative consultant, can you talk about his role in the film?

He was such a help, it’s a very long process, three years, and he came in right in the middle, right when things are the messiest, and he pointed out all the things in the movie that we really should believe in and love, and he helped us come up with some really great ideas.

He’s just a wonderful, collaborative guy, and he came in and cracked a lot of jokes and just really cheered us up in the middle of a long project. He’s a wonderful human being, and he was an inspiration to work with.

What would you say this movie’s message is compared with the last one?

In the first film we learned that heroes come in all shapes and sizes as Po fulfilled his destiny and became the Dragon Warrior. In the sequel, we learn that Fate leads us to our destiny – bringing people into our lives that protect us and those that challenge us … allowing us to realize our full potential.