Po’s idols, the Furious Five, are all students of Shifu. They are superstars in the kung fu world — and Po’s heroes. They are the result of intensive, lifelong study at the foot of their master, and their level of fighting is unsurpassed in the land. They are the coolest, best action stars ever. They protect from harm the Valley of Peace and its inhabitants, who revere them as the incarnations of both power and spirituality, combined in five distinctive creatures.
When it comes time to pick the best among the Five — the choosing of the prophesied Dragon Warrior, a ceremony that happens once in a lifetime — the entire Valley (including Po) turns out to watch. This is a show of how central the Five are to the lives of every citizen in the land.
In keeping with the filmmakers’ reverence for kung fu, they chose their Five as animal incarnations of some actual fighting styles of the martial art. Osborne explains, “So we’ve got tiger style, crane style, snake style, mantis style and monkey style, all represented by those actual animals. Typically, in the past in a kung fu movie, you see a human imitating an animal doing those fighting styles, but this is the first time anyone’s ever actually seen these animals executing the fighting styles from which they derive their names — a fighter imitating a crane’s beak or imitating a viper’s tail. We get to use the actual animals and, needless to say, they do it very differently.”
The Tigress style is very direct and aggressive, and the animators brought those qualities to the character in their realization. Extremely powerful, Tigress uses a lot of upper body strength in her attack. She is a forceful character, opinionated, outspoken and direct. Many of the character’s finer qualities are embodied by actress Angelina Jolie in the role.
Osborne offers, “Directing Angelina Jolie is pretty surreal. I mean, she’s amazing. You have to kind of look away, you know? You can’t look at her directly while she’s performing, or your brain goes to mush. But what’s even more amazing about her is what she brings to the character. I mean — in all of our sketching, in all of our pretending, we were trying to work out the character on our own. But Tigress, on the page, was really a secondary character…but not with her in the role. She was complex and there were solid reasons for every choice. She brought warmth to the character. She didn’t just come off as the jilted contender who is angry at Po for being there and taking her place. She was supposed to be the Dragon Warrior, and because of Po, she isn’t. Her huge spirit and talents as a performer give Tigress all of these layers, and the character really expanded and grew deeper under her touch.”
High praise for an actress who, at first, wasn’t sure what character she would be playing. Jolie recalls, “When I first came in and saw all the characters, and I didn’t know who I was, I was secretly hoping I got to be Tigress. I love her. She’s cool. She’s secretly who we all want to be. If I were half as tough and straightforward as this character, it would be amazing. I have a giant tiger tattoo on my back, and my kids always look at it, so it’s very important that I be the tiger. So when I came in and saw the beautiful snake with the beautiful eyes, and I saw the monkey and all of the characters…they were all very cool. I thought Tigress was a boy when I first saw her and I thought, ‘I wonder who that is?... must be Jackie Chan. I guess I’m not gonna be the tiger.’ Then they told me and I was stoked.”
Jolie had many reasons for accepting the role of Tigress (in addition to the fact that she was really cool), and chief among them was her family. Jolie had voiced Lola for DreamWorks in “Shark Tale,” which she thoroughly enjoyed. “I just had such a good experience. It was so much fun to do, not just because I have children. That sounds like a really good excuse — ‘I do it for my children.’ But really, I’m a big kid. Animation has just grown and changed in the last few years and the stories are so good. This film was especially interesting to me because it was a sort of return to the classics. It’s like classic storytelling for children, and there aren’t a bunch of modern references. There are some beautiful messages and some really fun characters. There’s a sweetness to it. At the same time, the setting is absolutely beautiful. I love that part of the world. I have two children from Asia, so the fact that I get to be in ‘Kung Fu Panda,’ which is set in China, and I get to play a tiger, that is very cool.”
When asked if Tigress and Viper, the two females in the Five, are role models for young girls, producer Cobb muses, “If young girls are tigers or vipers, they’re perfect role models. Actually, what’s really interesting is that they are female characters and they have female voices, but we don’t isolate them in any way in the movie. They’re each one of the Furious Five. They’re just as important as any of the male fighters in the movie. They’re never given any diminished role because they are females. In fact, Tigress is clearly the strongest of the five characters.”
Jolie concurs: “Tigress is very straightforward. They explained to me that there are all different styles of kung fu, and hers is attack. There’s no defense. It’s just attack, attack, attack…so that makes her a very interesting character.”
While Tigress is all business, the character of Monkey is a bit of a cut-up. As a fighter, he is very unpredictable and playful. He uses his four limbs and tail in a fluid way, intending to distract the opponent, to trick him. And Monkey can use his limbs and tail simultaneously, plus he’s flexible and agile and, as a result, can lay a series of pummeling blows in a brief amount of time.
Who better to give voice to such a creature than international action star Jackie Chan, who combines flashes of good-humored wit with an undisputed mastery of martial arts? Melissa Cobb states, “We had to have Jackie Chan in our movie. I mean, he’s such an icon in kung fu movies, and the monkey character seemed a perfect fit. We had Jackie come in, and we pitched him the movie and showed him the characters. He was thrilled to see an American animation studio doing a movie about kung fu and he sensed the opportunity to really broaden the audience for kung fu around the world.”
Chan remarks, “For all these years, I’ve liked comedy. I use comedy together with my kung fu. I think it really fits me. And for all these years, jumping around and fighting, I’m just like Monkey. I think the writers and the animators have watched my movements, my characters, my…everything! It seems like they copied me, which is nice. Monkey is acrobatic, playful and confuses the enemy very easily.”
Chan even sees a future for himself combining what he does with an animated persona: “I hope, for the future, I can use animation with my action together — that would kind of make my action more ‘wow!’ Right now, animation is really something. They can make all these unbelievable things and put them into a fight sequence. And I really hope, someday, my action and DreamWorks’ technology will join together and take my action to the next level.”
While Monkey confuses, the character of Viper stealthily overtakes and overwhelms. Her style features sly, quiet surprise attacks and fierce and violent lightning-fast strikes. In “Kung Fu Panda,” it doesn’t hurt that Viper is beautiful and charming — another way to sneak up and distract her opponent. Then, by wrapping her body around the opponent’s striking limb, she forces the blow back onto the instigator.
Like Jolie, when Lucy Liu first visited the DreamWorks Animation campus, she was a bit uncertain about the project and distracted by the exquisite renderings on display before her — almost like one of her future character’s opponents. Liu remembers, “When I first came onto the project, they showed me a room completely filled with all these incredible animated images. And they had a computer version of what they had in mind for the different characters, including Viper. It all looked so incredibly rich and beautiful. They talked about the story, and I just loved the idea of the underdog having something he doesn’t know he has — great potential. It was exciting just to be part of a project like this and to play this character. When I saw the drawings of Viper, she had these two beautiful lotus flowers on top of her head. They didn’t really have to sell me hard on it, you know?”
Stevenson offers, “Every session we had with our cast, the characters gained depth and grew, even if they were just doing very small sections. It really takes a great and very game actor to be able to just dive right in and do bits and pieces like that. Every session with Lucy Liu was a blast. She’s great to work with and really talented.”
Despite the fearsome reputation snakes have earned, Liu admits that Viper is “quite lethal, but she’s actually quite sweet. She’s the first character to warm up to Po and have some compassion for him.”
Also like Jolie, Liu admits to being a big kid at heart, having grown up watching and loving cartoons. She still enjoys watching them with her godson: “And it’s astonishing, because you see what children see, which like this movie is so fresh and so wonderful. It takes you to a place inside yourself that is childlike, in which these characters become real people, part of your real life. And now animation is so technologically advanced and visually astonishing that, when you walk into the theater you can sit down and enjoy it like a kid would.”
If Viper’s style is compact, coiled and ready, Crane is her fighting opposite. In the traditional crane style, fighters use their hands in a beak-like way. Filmmakers made an early decision that Crane would not employ his beak when fighting — the effect might be a little too violent. Instead, they concentrated on some of the style’s other attributes. Crane is graceful and uses his enormous wingspan to deflect with sweeping gestures. Despite the beauty, Crane can and will still put up a good fight.
David Cross was cast in the role of Crane. His signature dry wit gave the elegant bird a distinctive voice among the Five. Crane also sometimes serves as the unwitting mediator among the group. Cross’s comic timing is wonderfully put to use, playing a slightly perturbed kung fu warrior who tries to keep the peace…even when he just wants to be left alone.
“I think Crane represents the Everyman,” says Cross, “or in this case, ‘Everycrane.’ Actors usually talk about seeing bits of themselves in their characters, but I have to be honest with you — I’ve never once thought of myself as a bird with skinny legs. An eagle, perhaps, or even an emu, but never a crane. And just for the record, I have great legs. That being said, I would admit that Crane’s voice is distinctly similar to mine. He’s very cool. So, I guess in that way, we’re alike. My kung fu’s far superior, though.”
While Crane is a laid-back dude, Mantis is one tightly-wound insect. Tiny and very, very fast, Mantis is also extremely precise — which renders him almost invisible. He can sneak up and pummel you without your knowing what’s happening to you. Precision with quick strike — meet Mantis, voiced by Seth Rogen.
“When they called me, I thought, ‘perfect.’ I’ve always wanted to play a mantis, so I thought it was oddly coincidental that they had called. And I was literally just talking to someone that day, saying, ‘You know, I never played a mantis.’ And then the phone rang and it was kismet, I guess,” says Rogen.
The producer chimes in, “Seth is amazing. We have this character of Mantis, who’s this tiny little bug. And throughout a lot of the development process, we thought no one’s ever gonna even see that guy onscreen. He’s just this tiny, little bug. And then we cast Seth, and his voice is so fantastic, his laugh is so memorable and so hilarious. And that laugh coming out of this little bug, it makes him a really memorable character.”
Rogen describes his first reaction to seeing his alter-ego: “He’s about six inches tall maybe, he’s got six legs and he looks a lot like me. If he had a bigger nose and glasses, we’d be almost identical. You know, I did karate as a youth. I think that plays heavily into my voice work here. I did karate at the Jewish community center in Vancouver for years. And I was good. I don’t know if I should gauge my actual karate skill based on a bunch of young Jews. On the grand scale of fighting, I don’t know where they rank. But I was pretty good at it.”
Rogen had met one of his co-stars before, having worked on writing an HBO pilot with Jack Black. So he feels safe when he proclaims, “Jack as a panda…it made sense when I first heard it. I could see that. I always thought somewhere down the line, one of his ancestors must have been a panda…a great, great, great uncle or something like that. Jack has panda-esque qualities, I guess. Actually, he’s great in the role; you can tell even in his voice that he’s relatable, friendly and open. And I actually think it helps that he kind of looks about 1/18th panda. It looks like there might be some panda blood in him.”