How ‘Kung Fu Panda’ Conquered China – And China Conquered Hollywood

Over a decade on, the film’s franchise continues to gain an audience, and its impact has been profound

How ‘Kung Fu Panda’ Conquered China – And China Conquered Hollywood
Kung Fu Panda at Universal Beijing Resort in 2023. (VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

In 2011, the Chinese visual artist Zhao Bandi encouraged his followers to boycott the theatrical release of the DreamWorks animated film “Kung Fu Panda 2.” Bandi, a self-styled “panda man” who frequently incorporated the iconic animal into his paintings, sculptures and installations, felt the American export product twisted Chinese culture.

Similar protests were staged during the release of the first “Kung Fu Panda” three years earlier. In both cases, however, protesters like Bandi proved to be in the minority. When the original film was released in 2008, hundreds of thousands of people lined up at cinemas in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities to watch the story of Po, a clumsy panda who dreams of becoming a martial artist. Even in Sichuan Province, where an earthquake had killed 69,000 people the previous month, the film managed to draw huge crowds. Two weeks after opening night, it had already made $16 million at the Chinese box office, a sum which, although it seems microscopic by today’s standards — 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame” earned over $500 million in the country — was unprecedented for a Hollywood film at the time. Upon leaving theaters, “Kung Fu Panda” had not only become the most successful American animated film in Chinese history, but the most successful animated film in China, period.

This success was commercial as well as critical. Chinese audiences praised DreamWorks’ treatment of Chinese culture, landscape and architecture. Many members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) asked themselves the same question: “The film’s protagonist is China’s national treasure and all the elements are Chinese,” Wu Jiang, president of the China National Peking Opera Company in Beijing, told the state-owned Xinhua News Agency, “but why didn’t we make such a film?”

Although the original “Kung Fu Panda” came out over a decade ago, its legacy has never been more relevant. In addition to shaping the strategies Hollywood employs to infiltrate the Chinese market, it has also motivated China to improve its animation industry, in the hope of extending its soft power to other regions of the globe. With the fourth installment currently in theaters, this process is still ongoing.

The secret ingredient to the overseas success of “Kung Fu Panda” arguably lies in the way its screenplay treats its setting and source material. Like many DreamWorks productions, the initial idea for the film came from company executives. When screenwriters Cyrus Voris and Ethan Reiff were brought on to turn this idea into a proper story, all they were given to work with was a binder with plot summaries of famous martial arts films and an encyclopedia of Chinese wildlife. That, and the film’s now-iconic title.

Of all the movies inside that binder, the executives were most interested in a 1980 period drama from Japanese director Akira Kurosawa called “Kagemusha,” about a thief who is tasked with impersonating a dying warlord to stave off war. Although Voris and Reiff tried their best to come up with a narrative reminiscent of the film, something didn’t feel right. “This was supposed to be a kung fu movie, right?” Voris tells New Lines over Zoom from Los Angeles. “So why is our main source of inspiration a film about a samurai?” The duo also took issue with DreamWorks’ insistence on a serious tone, perhaps reminiscent of the studio’s biblical epic “The Prince of Egypt.” This, they felt, clashed with the film’s already agreed-upon title, which Voris adds was “inherently funny and entertaining in a goofball way.”

Ignoring directions, Reiff and Voris decided to take inspiration from a different action movie: 1978’s “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow,” which stars Jackie Chan as a janitor at a kung fu school. “He looks up to all these martial artists, yet he is the one who cleans the floors,” Voris remembers. “We already knew that Po would be an overweight, out-of-shape panda, so we made him someone who idolized these kung fu masters and desperately wants to be one of them.”

To ensure that the martial arts in the film were up to snuff, animators took kung fu and tai chi classes. They studied video recordings of real-world masters to choreograph the fights and figure out how the animal characters should move. “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow” joined a host of other inspirations: The training equipment in the Jade Palace’s dojo was lifted from Lau Kar-leung’s iconic “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin,” while a sequence from the film’s final act — where Po and antagonist Tai Lung tumble down the palace’s seemingly infinite staircase — pays homage to a scene in Lee Lik-chi’s “Love on Delivery.” “Kung Fu Panda” co-director John Stevenson told journalists he wanted the film’s kung fu to be “as cool as any kung fu ever done, so that we can take our place in that canon.”

The film’s presentation dictated its tone, which treads a thin line between silly and serious. Reiff explains over Zoom that, while the writers knew “Kung Fu Panda” had to be funny, they did not want the jokes to “come at the expense of kung fu, martial arts, or Chinese culture and history.”

“It’s not a parody,” Jonathan Aibel reiterates over Zoom. Alongside creative partner Glenn Berger, he polished Voris and Reiff’s draft into the script we have today. “A parody suggests you are making fun of something, which we weren’t. ‘Kung Fu Panda’ is not a comedy film about martial arts. It’s a martial arts film that also happens to be a comedy. We tried to honor our source materials more than spoof them.”

Unlike other DreamWorks films like “Shrek” and “Shark Tale,” which are set in fictional worlds, “Kung Fu Panda” takes place in China, albeit a version of the country populated by talking animals. Where the former use their settings as thinly veiled foils for 21st century America — there is a gag in “Shrek 2” where, following the destruction of a Starbucks cafe, its customers run toward another location across the street — “Kung Fu Panda” treats its so-called Valley of Peace as a self-contained universe, overflowing with wonder, spirituality and beauty.

Much like the always hungry Po, “Kung Fu Panda” manages to have its bamboo and eat it, too, leveraging its source material for laughs while at the same time channeling everything that makes that material so leverageable in the first place. “I admire ‘Kung Fu Panda,’” Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek explains in what has to be one of the film’s strangest and yet most insightful reviews, taken from a 2011 interview with talk-show host Charlie Rose. “It appears to be just a stupid cartoon. On the one hand the movie mobilizes all that, let’s call it oriental military mystique — kung fu, warrior, discipline, all that stuff. At the same time, the movie is totally ironic. [But] what is fascinating is that, although the movie makes fun of its own ideology all the time, the ideology survives.”

The Chinese-Canadian essayist Yang Zhang, better known as the operator of a popular YouTube channel about Chinese media called Accented Cinema, came to a similar conclusion. In a video titled “Why China Cared About Kung Fu Panda,” he points out that, although American animated films like “Mulan” and “Raya and the Last Dragon” were similarly steeped in Chinese culture, neither captivated Chinese audiences to the extent “Kung Fu Panda” did. This, he argues, is not because DreamWorks did a better job at representing Chinese elements — the Valley of Peace is closer to Chinatown than actual China — but because the studio did a more flattering job.

The reason that China loves “Kung Fu Panda,” Zhang surmises in his video, is because “Kung Fu Panda” “loves China more than China loves itself.” The animators’ portrayal of the country and its rich heritage, though not necessarily accurate, brims with the same passion and enthusiasm that Po has for kung fu. The film’s Chinese setting isn’t merely aesthetic — as it is in “Raya.” Nor does it serve as a purely historical backdrop against which to tell a universal story, like “Mulan.” Instead, the setting and the story are two sides of the same coin, two chopsticks holding a single dumpling.

“Kung Fu Panda” was a wake-up call for both the American and Chinese entertainment industries. In China, the film was seen as an example of what Chinese filmmakers could achieve if their creativity wasn’t stifled by the CCP. Filmmaker Lu Chuan commended “Kung Fu Panda” for how it “grasped the essence of our culture.” In interviews with Chinese media, he recalled how, earlier in the year, he had been asked to produce an animated short for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, but abandoned the project after butting heads with bureaucrats. “I kept receiving directions and orders on how the movie should be like,” he said. “The fun and joy from doing something interesting left us, together with our imagination and creativity.” These criticisms were taken seriously by Beijing, where a standing committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress determined the state “ought to relax its oversight.”

Whether it did is difficult to say, as China’s police apparatus — much like Russia’s — is a closed book. What we do know is that the Chinese government started to pour significant resources into domestic animation. “The response was quite aggressive,” Erich Schwartzel, author of “Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy,” tells New Lines. “The party introduced legislation to encourage the industry. Everyone associated with “Kung Fu Panda,” from the animators to the producers, was asked by people in China how they did it. There was an effort to reverse engineer the film, to try and see how China could get to a place where it could make its own version.”

Chinese animation has come a long way since 2008, but while blockbusters based on Chinese folklore like “Nezha,” “Jiang Ziya,” and “Monkey King: Hero is Back” have managed to outcompete Hollywood inside China, it is yet to produce a film that does well in other countries, too. For the CCP, a film like that would have commercial as well as political value. “For the past 30 years or so it’s been clear that China wants to export many aspects of its model,” Schwartzel continues, “from its culture to its corporations. One thing I noticed while researching my book is how Chinese leaders would make overt declarations about the power Hollywood gave America in the 20th century, and how China needed to replicate that. A lot of countries seeing Chinese investment pour in are also starting to see Chinese films and TV shows as a way of introducing people to this superpower showing up on their doorstep.”

And yet, China’s soft power remains much weaker than that of the United States, let alone other East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea. Despite pouring more money and resources into its entertainment industry, Chinese shows and movies rarely make the kind of international impact that Hollywood productions enjoy on a regular basis — and it’s worth asking why. While it’s true that Chinese media is heavily shaped by Chinese culture and therefore difficult to translate into other languages, global appreciation for Chinese mythological characters like Sun Wukong of “Journey to the West” seems to present a relatively unobstructed avenue to success. Cynics point the finger at a current lack of creative talent. The majority of observers blame state censors, whose myriad demands prevent filmmakers from making a genuinely enjoyable or thought-provoking film.

It goes without saying that overseas reception of “Nezha” pales in comparison to “Kung Fu Panda,” which remains an American product despite its love for all things Chinese. Ying Xiao, an associate professor of global Chinese studies at the University of Florida, points to Naomi Greene’s 2014 book “From Fu Manchu to Kung Fu Panda: Images of China in American Film,” which argues that the blockbuster is not so much a true celebration of Chinese legend and life as a stand-in for American mainstream culture and values. “The panda has accompanied the sweeping force of globalization to go beyond national boundaries as a quintessential symbol of China,” Xiao says, yet in this case it is also “emblematic of American values and sensibilities, Western liberty and individualism in particular.”

In Hollywood, “Kung Fu Panda” came to be seen as a blueprint for how to capture China’s lucrative film market. Studios began planning films with Chinese audiences — and censors — in mind. The antagonists in the 2012 action war film “Red Dawn” were changed late in development from Chinese to North Korean, while last year’s “Barbie” caused a minor controversy for showing a map that appeared to include the so-called Nine-Dash Line, a demarcation signifying Beijing’s contested claim to the South China Sea.

Hollywood’s presence in China extends to theme parks. Shanghai Disneyland opened its doors in 2016, followed by Universal Studios Beijing in 2021, with a 1.3 square mile expansion set to arrive in 2025.

The “Kung Fu Panda” franchise pivoted to capitalize on the very trend it helped create. “Each subsequent film became more and more entrenched in the Chinese perspective,” comments Schwartzel, with “storytelling choices being made specifically for Chinese audiences, and scenes taking place in locations that wouldn’t mean anything to American eyes but would be recognizable to Chinese.” The third film was co-produced by DreamWorks animation and its Chinese subdivision, Oriental DreamWorks, with help from Chinese Media Capital, Shanghai Media Group and Shanghai Alliance. Upon its release in 2016, the film received co-production status from China’s State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, allowing it to bypass the many blackout regulations and import quotas levied on its American-made predecessors. As a result, says Ying Zhu, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Film and the author of “Hollywood in China: Behind the Scenes of the World’s Largest Movie Market,” “The series’ revenue share in China increased with each film; China’s box office for “Kung Fu Panda” accounted for only about 4% of the global box office; “Kung Fu Panda 2” accounted for 14%; and “Kung Fu Panda 3” reached nearly 30%.”

The most recent installment, “Kung Fu Panda 4,” was released on March 8 in the U.S. as well as China. Another co-production between DreamWorks and Oriental DreamWorks — since renamed to Shanghai Pearl Studio Film and Television Technology — is expected to bring in an even larger share.

At the same time, its critical reception is poorer than its predecessors. While DreamWorks, like many other major American animation studios, has been struggling creatively for a while, well-received films like 2022’s “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” suggest that the company’s talent is by no means exhausted. One cannot help but wonder whether the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise’s growing proximity to the Chinese market has somehow played a role in this. Could filmmakers in California be bound to the same censorial standards as counterparts in Shanghai and Beijing?

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