'Kung Fu Panda 2' Returns to Its Chinese Home

Production designer Raymond Zibach takes the sequel to the black and white bear's traditional home.

CHENGDU, China – On the eve of its premiere in China, Kung Fu Panda 2 production designer Raymond Zibach hugged a panda-suited man in this southwest China city, demonstrated making bowls of local noodles and mugged for Chinese press cameras on a Paramount promotion tour on Wednesday.

Zibach, a California native and 15-year DreamWorks Animation veteran, was back in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, for the second time. His first 10-day trip to China in Nov. 2008 with director Jennifer Yuh Nelson and other key crew was to do the research they carefully and digitally plowed into the DWA sequel to the film that was a huge hit here in 2008 and a wake up call for local animators.

“I’m just so proud to be back to be able to say thank you to this magical place,” Zibach, 45, said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, tired after leading reporters up Mt. Qing Cheng, the birthplace of Taoism (a Chinese philosophy) and the inspiration for much of KFP2’s lush green landscape.

Although it’s not allowed to be a distributor in China, where the China Film Group has a lock on the release of big imports, Paramount brought Zibach back to help push KFP2 because China’s box office in the last few years has become a key destination for big Hollywood films. Avatar, Inception and 2012 all grossed more from ticket sales in China than they did anywhere else outside the U.S.

At dinner, Zibach, who speaks no Chinese and doesn’t drink alcohol, sat next to Xiong Yan, a local Chinese Communist Party chief, toasted her with water and gave her an autographed book of the KFP2 art inspired by the beauty of Sichuan, China’s breadbasket and most populous province.

The Chinese characters for the famous mountain appear twice in the animated film, carved into rocks in the digital scenery inspired by locations sure to be recognized by local filmgoers.

“DreamWorks’ promotion of Chengdu is much appreciated,” Xiong told Zibach through an interpreter supplied by New York public relations giant Ogilvy & Mather, whose Beijing office has consulted Chengdu on an image campaign since a deadly earthquake struck the area in 2008.

Kung Fu Panda 2, which releases in the U.S. Thursday, will bow in China on Saturday. The Chinese voice cast doesn’t include any famous talent – no local Jack Black or Angelina Jolie equivalent -- an odd choice, perhaps, considering that Jackie Chan, one of China’s biggest stars, gives voice to Monkey in the English version.

“We’re not a distributor in China. That decision is made by the distributor [The China Film Group],” Chen Zhe, a Paramount representative, told reporters around a spicy local dinner of hot pot.

Hollywood’s lack of control over the way its films are released here highlights that China appears to have all but ignored a World Trade Organization ruling demanding greater foreign participation be allowed in the distribution of films.

Would Paramount -- if it had had a choice -- have hired famous Chinese voices to bring to life the hapless panda Po and his entourage of kick-ass animals?

“Sorry, I have no comment on that,” said Paramount’s Chen, apparently aware that crossing the China Film Group doesn’t pay in this booming market, where the box office gross was up 64% last year to $1.5 billion and is in the coming four years expected to overtake that of Japan, the world’s No. 2 movie market after the U.S.

The first Kung Fu Panda, released here in June 2008 in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, was the first animated film to gross more than 100 million yuan ($15 million) at the local box office, quite an accomplishment in a market where animated fare has long been largely ignored by adults.

In the wake left by KFP1 the Chinese government raised support for and pressure on the homegrown animation industry to make better cartoon feature films. Although there’s been little buzz around it, the China Film Group is due to release a homegrown animated feature about pandas in the coming weeks, putting its product head to head with DWA’s toon.