A great team is not what master trainer Shifu envisions when Po is plopped in front of him as the prophesied Dragon Warrior — that honor should have gone to one of his prize students in the Furious Five. So, the small red panda immediately sets about doing everything he can to get rid of the flabby panda. Melissa Cobb relates, “But because of Po’s great zeal with simply being where he is — in the presence of his idols, the Five, in the Jade Palace — he is too enthusiastic, too thrilled to give up. Their relationship is combative from the start. However, that ultimately changes when they realize that the stakes of the role of Dragon Warrior are much higher than Po had first anticipated. And so, we find two characters who really need to solve a problem together, but they just don’t know how.”
Shifu is not only short in stature, but also short on patience. To bring their two-foot-tall kung fu master to life, the filmmakers approached one of cinema’s finest actors, two-time Oscar® winner Dustin Hoffman.
“Shifu is actually our most emotionally complex character in the movie,” says Stevenson. “He has the biggest back story and probably the biggest emotional arc, because he’s sort of tormented by ghosts from the past. We knew Shifu was going to be a difficult and complex character, and it was going to require a really great actor to bring him to life.”
When Hoffman was approached, he was told he could make suggestions about his character. He remarks, “I liked the fact that they were looking at a collaborative way of creating Shifu. They would ask ‘How do you like the face?’ Well, I didn’t know much about animation — they put a video camera on you when you’re recording and they watch your gestures, and then construct the character and include little bits of your idiosyncrasies and gestures. I thought that was interesting. I made a couple of suggestions, because I’m very nose sensitive. Why, I don’t know. I wanted a little nose correction. I told them I demanded a nose change — I was just looking for a cheap joke. But they opened up the mouth and widened the teeth. I think that was their idea.”
Producer Cobb enjoyed the difference between Shifu’s size and the power that he wields: “What we loved about Shifu was that he’s really small but incredibly powerful. With a tiny little finger, he can completely stop Po in his tracks. And just to see that dynamic with a very small character exerting power over a giant character, you never feel the lack of that power. You always feel that Shifu’s in control, even against this huge character, Po.”
Hoffman found his job made all the easier by the direction he received from Osborne and Stevenson, who clearly had a specific sense of who Shifu was. “They promised me at the beginning that anything I didn’t like I could re-do — which you can’t do on a regular film. You have to hit it right the first time in live-action, like a high wire act — if you don’t, you hit the net, and they don’t go back, they just keep on shooting. These guys have spent four years on this, and they’ve always said that it’s constantly something you can change, you can re-animate. I allowed myself to be guided by them. Because otherwise, I would come in with some kind of predetermined idea that would be nowhere near as good as theirs.”
Later, when filmmakers showed Hoffman the rough cut, he reminded them of their promise — but Hoffman’s notes were negligible. “I was stunned that they had kept the character in line the whole time.”
From the directors’ points of view, Hoffman was always the perfect professional, always ready. “Every time we did a recording session with Dustin, he brought something extraordinary to the session and found a new way of coming at the lines that we’d never imagined,” says Osborne.
Director Stevenson sees a direct parallel between the actor and the character he voices: “Shifu is somebody that has an innate respect to him. And he’s very powerful. He’s very strong. He’s completely honorable, a disciplined character. At times, he’s pretty relentless and unforgiving. He’s a hard taskmaster. But he’s certainly someone whom everybody respects. So, it was very important that the actor playing Shifu be someone people would honor with respect. Dustin brings that, and also a certain gravitas.”
Hoffman and Black had the rare opportunity to record together (most sessions are solo, and actors rarely get to meet their onscreen co-stars). The mutual respect was palpable, with Hoffman noting that Jack and Po were pretty much one and the same.
Per Hoffman: “Every once in a while, an actor gets a role in life, where the director will say something along the lines of ‘Just show up and be yourself.’ Jack is perfect casting for Po. He’s very smart to use his comic gifts and not gild the lily. I was surprised when he showed up the first time and he was serious, like most wonderful comic artists you know. He takes it seriously and he’s marvelous in this.”
For Black, it was very much a case of art imitating life: “Shifu is the great master of kung fu, and Dustin Hoffman is the great master of acting. I remember, in high school, watching the video of his production of ‘Death of a Salesman.’ I watched it tons of times and I was just blown away by him. He’s just great as Shifu because he’s the master and he’s kind of Zen in his approach. He has a spiritual approach to his craft, from what I’ve seen him do in person. He comes from this quiet place inside. He’ll find the truth of the scene and just go after it in a real way…and he’s also just a little bit grumpy, just like Shifu. Perfect.”