When it comes to motion pictures — both animated and live-action — there is little doubt about Jack Black’s talent. He’s a gifted actor with enormous heart and he’s funny…really funny. Such hits as “Shark Tale,” “School of Rock,” “Nacho Libre” and “The Holiday” are evidence that his comic acting skills fit comfortably into a wide variety of projects.
So after his turn as Lenny the shark in DreamWorks’ “Shark Tale,” Black found that he had a voice fan in DWA head Jeffrey Katzenberg. Black relates, “I had a lot of fun working on ‘Shark Tale.’ One day, Jeffrey came to me and basically said, ‘Hey, let’s make another one.’ I had done a character voice, more of a nebbishy, New Yorker, kind of a Woody Allen-type of voice as Lenny. So I assumed I’d be getting back into the character voice thing. But Jeffrey said, ‘This time you’re the big cheese, and it’s called “Kung Fu Panda.”’ So, it was like, they wanted me…they wanted to hear the real me. So I thought, ‘Sure, I can do me.’ It was sorta like falling off a log into a recording studio.”
As for the character Black would be taking on, Stevenson observes, “If being a kung fu master is the highest pinnacle of achievement you can experience, Po’s right at the very bottom. He’s the exact opposite. Though he loves kung fu, he works in a noodle restaurant as a sort of waiter.”
Black explains, “Po’s father is a noodle chef and he loves noodles. But Po finds that all a little bland — he wants more excitement in his world — so he fantasizes about being a kung fu master. He idolizes those great kung fu artists like they were rock stars — they’re legendary in his mind. He’s ashamed to tell his father about his aspirations, because he knows how much it means to him that his son follow in his footsteps. So, he keeps it as a little secret. Also, Po’s a bit embarrassed, because he doesn’t think he really has what it takes to be a real kung fu master. So, he doesn’t want people to know about this secret wish, because he thinks they’ll make fun of him.”
For Osborne, Black’s inherent qualities are carried through to his onscreen panda persona: “There is an innate sweetness and goodness about Jack that we really wanted to show through Po — a gentle, good-hearted innocent soul, someone who’s funny, appealing and charming — and we wanted the character to have all those qualities. It’s hard to imagine anybody more like Po than Jack.”
Stevenson adds that “Jack has brought so much of himself to the character that it’s helped us create not only a believable world, but a character that’s really real — genuine and vulnerable. It all comes directly from Jack and is inspired by his performance.”
For Black, voicing a panda who’s crazy about kung fu isn’t too off the mark: “Kung fu has always fascinated me. The graceful gymnastics of a martial arts master are a thrill to behold. So when Jeffrey [Katzenberg] asked if I’d be interested in voicing the character of Po in ‘Kung Fu Panda,’ it was a very tantalizing offer. When I was a kid, I took karate and judo classes. It was fun and good for my muscles. I even won a trophy in a judo tournament…but I must confess I outweighed the competition by a good 20 pounds. Although I never took any kung fu classes — I just saw it on TV and in the movies — it seemed to me that it was the most spiritual form of martial arts. And Po reminds me of myself as a kid — he’s an innocent, chubby dreamer on a quest to find his destiny. There are so many wonderful characters, especially the little mousey kung fu master and instructor Shifu, voiced by my hero Dustin Hoffman. And the scariest villain since Darth Vader, Tai Lung, portrayed by Ian McShane. I was sold.”
Following the successful early voice/character test, Black was brought in to explore the character of Po. The first session was eye-opening, Osborne recalls. “During the first meeting Jack ad-libbed a lot and added things — all in the spirit of the sequence — that we had been playing around with. He brought this soulful and realistic quality to it. We took the session and started animating it. Right away, we saw we had a character with a great deal of appeal and likeability, someone truly genuine. The design of the film is beautiful and Jack brings so much as the central voice. The animation closes the deal by bringing his attitude and energy to the character.”
Casting Black was wish fulfillment for the screenwriters, but it also kept them on their toes. Jonathan Aibel explains, “We had come up with the idea of Po and then Jack Black was cast — so the character then evolved even more. We didn’t sit around and think up jokes. What we did was look back at the work we had done on the character and then watch what would come out of the sessions with Jack. Then we’d say, ‘What did we learn about Po in that session?’”
Glenn Berger: “We’d go back and change the lines, based on this new aspect of the character that had started to emerge. And then poor Jack would have to record the scene for the 900th time, but maybe with subtle changes to reflect these new things we had learned about Po. So we were always in the ‘character development’ stage, because the characters grew with the actors’ performances.”
On working with his two directors, Black says: “Mark is kind of the arty one —he’s got arty roots, having gone to art school, he’s really well versed in…arty things. And John is really great with coming in and helping me focus on the emotional aspects of the story. He’s got mad chops when it comes to envisioning animal behavior, animal voices and characters. He’s got a lot of experience. And they both have great brains and great hearts and, together, they make a great team."