'Panda' bounds into Chinese theaters

Disney's second Chinese-language film opens Friday

BEIJING -- Hoping a cuddly black-and-white national treasure will again produce Chinese boxoffice gold, Disney is releasing "Trail of the Panda" here Friday.

The release comes ahead of the first anniversary of the deadly earthquake that uprooted the endangered species' home. It follows last summer's record-breaking run for DreamWorks Animation's "Kung Fu Panda," which earned more than $14.7 million in the territory.

Disney's second Chinese-language film, "Trail" unspools on 900 of the country's roughly 4,000 screens via Huaxia Film Distribution.

Made for $5 million by Beijing-based Ying Dong Media, the film, about an orphaned boy who saves a twin panda cub separated from its mother, "Trail" was nearly ruined last spring. As shooting wound down in the Wolong Giant Panda Nature Reserve in southwest China's Sichuan province, an 8.0 quake struck May 12, killing more than 70,000 people in the area.

Twenty-eight members of the film's crew abandoned B-roll film and equipment and hiked through the mountains for three days before they were rescued by the Chinese military.

Though the six pandas used to play the film's star, Pang Pang ("Chubby" in Chinese) survived. The panda that portrayed the mother of the twin cubs was killed.

"We were toward the tail end of the shoot, with maybe five days to go, when the earth began to shake and just didn't stop," said Ying Dong CEO Jennifer Liu, a former Disney employee who wrote and produced the film.

Inspired by a true story, the Yu Zhong-helmed film was in development for three years and co-written and produced by Jean Chaolpin, creator of "Inspector Gadget."

At Wednesday's Beijing premiere, Chalopin said he hopes the film "will celebrate the beautiful place, Sichuan, and these beautiful animals."

Although Chinese critics praised "Kung Fu Panda" for its story and animation, DreamWorks was accused of trying to cash in on China's national treasure. But after a short-lived attempt at a boycott, the DreamWorks film drew a raft of positive reviews.

Promoting "Trail" and raise awareness of the pandas' plight, Hong Kong actress Karen Mok shot a 30-minute documentary called "The Panda's Journey Home" in Mandarin, Cantonese and English.

The "Trail" film crew lived with the pandas and their caretakers for four months under strict supervision. The penalty in China for panda poaching is public execution.

With much of the mountainous Sichuan scenery they'd filmed destroyed, the filmmakers turned to editor David Richardson for help. "We had to come up with a different way to edit," Liu said. "It was a task David made easy by stitching together what we'd been unable to get after the quake."

Shot in Mandarin, "Panda" was dubbed into Cantonese for south China moviegoers and for its Hong Kong release. Depending on its performance at the Chinese boxoffice, it will be dubbed by Disney into other languages for distribution overseas, Liu said.

The film's Beijing audience on Wednesday, including dozens of children, was tearful and offered generous applause.

A Disney spokesperson said plans for a Southeast Asia release this summer are underway and that the company will "take other markets on a case by case basis."

Disney's first Chinese-language film, the 2007 coming of age story "Secret of the Magic Gourd" -- a live-action/animation hybrid -- was a co-production with Hong Kong's Centro Digital Pictures and the China Film Group. It opened on 300 screens in China and earned more than 21 million yuan ($3.1 million).

"Secret" won the best children's film prize at the China's 16th annual Golden Rooster Awards and had a January DVD release in the U.S. with the voice of "High School Musical Star" Corbin Bleu.