Bryan Cranston becomes a talking panda in Kung Fu Panda 3
The Oscar-nominated actor joins the star-studded Kung Fu Panda family as Po's long-lost father
The world's most recognised panda is back for his third legendary adventures of awesomeness, and this time, Po, has two epic issues to tackle before finally fulfilling his destiny of being the Dragon Warrior.
When Po’s father Li (Bryan Cranston) arrives unexpectedly in the Valley Of Peace, our beloved hero is taken aback. It is a defining moment for Po (Jack Black), who was raised by Mr. Ping the goose (James Hong) in the Noodle Shop, and had assumed that there were no more pandas in China.
Father and son get to know each other and rapidly find out that in addition to the striking family resemblance, they have a lot in common, such as a love of food.
Li takes Po on a journey to a secret panda paradise in the mountains, to meet the relatives he never knew existed. Po is delighted to be immersed in panda culture, but there is trouble brewing. At the same time Po is learning about his true nature and what it means to be a panda, he must take on the mantle of teacher and guide.
He has to confront a fearsome adversary, Kai, (J.K. Simmons) who, together with his evil forces of destruction, is defeating all the kung fu masters in China. Po needs to summon his courage and train the entire village of clumsy bears to become the ultimate band of Kung Fu Pandas themselves, so they can help him to defeat Kai.
Here, the Oscar-nominated Cranston, 59, shares his thoughts on Kung Fu Panda's success...
What was the appeal of joining the Kung Fu Panda 3 cast?
I liked the story and the characters. I love Jack Black as Po and all the Kung Fu Panda films are really fun. I was amazed by the quality of the storytelling. This film is interesting because it is all about finding out where you fit in the world and in your family.
Also, I think it is interesting that we always ascribe human feelings to animals. The reason we love pandas is that we look at them as human bears! (laughs)
We think that they think and feel like human beings, and quite frankly, there’s a lot of behavior that pandas exhibit which is very human-like. They’re affectionate and tactile. We are all fascinated by these creatures, we revere them so greatly. To put human values into a panda world seems natural.
Li is such an exuberant, warm character. How much of you is in this panda?
Well, you imbue a character with who you are. Actors’ palettes are their personal experience and talent. It is about an ability to observe and memorise human behavior. It’s also about imagination and following the story.”
Besides the importance of family, what are the other themes?
With Po’s story in particular, the theme that comes through concerns living up to your potential.
At what point do you take on responsibility, do you voluntarily say, "‘it’s time for me to do this?" You can resist and resist, but at some point you go: "I don’t necessarily want to do this, but I’m the person to do this and I need to step up to the challenge, whatever it is."
Maybe kids are dealing with something at school, for example they might have a desire to run for student body office, but they’re scared, as Po is scared of taking on this unbelievable force (the villainous Kai), he can’t vanquish. Po realises, "I have to try." That’s the point. He accepts the challenge. In many cases, I believe it’s much more important to try than it is to succeed.
The Kung Fu Panda films are interesting because they do not talk down to children.
That’s right and I think the worst thing we could do would be to discount the sophistication of children. We want to make them reach. We want them to be engaged in the story, and it’s okay if they don’t understand every little moment. We want to be honest.
Children know if something feels right. While you are drawing them into a story, they learn to trust their instincts and expand their intuition. Stories are some of the earliest memories that we have— dragging a book to your mother’s lap and wanting to be told a story and look at the pictures. That doesn’t ever change. It’s the one constant that we have as human beings.
What childhood memories do you have concerning stories?
I just remember loving to be told stories. My aunt and uncle had a little guesthouse where we would gather for holidays. All the kids would jump on a little bed in a nook in the corner. There was a bookcase full of animated books and we’d all read them and listen to the adults talking. It’s a great memory.
Stories start with the teaching from parent to child. You hand down that gift. You give your child a book, or grandparents give them a book that they knew from when they were children. The children open up the book and there are pictures. At first, they’re just pictures, but slowly, at a very young age, they connect one picture to the next. That’s storytelling.
What were your favorite movies as a child?
The Wizard Of Oz (1939) certainly had a tremendous impact on me. It was special because I watched it on television.
There was no recording so you had to watch it at a specific time, and everybody had to gather around at that time on that day in that moment. There was something very special about that gathering. Then there was Disney’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937), which was the first full-length animated film.
Then much later Pixar followed and they are amazing. Now, DreamWorks Animation is thriving and active and great.
You’ve done considerable voice work in the past, what was your experience like on this film?
It’s interesting because there is a little bit of segregation when we record these films. I never even worked with Jack (Black) for a day.
If I’m asked to do another Kung Fu Panda film and if I like the story, I’m going to request that the actors get together and do a table read. That way we can have fun and get a sense of where everybody is going. You’re still going in alone to the studio, but at least you get a sense of how that scene is playing out, how the actor is reading, and how it is going to work. That’s fun.
I did a lot of animation earlier in my career, for Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. They even named the Blue Power Ranger after me! I used to do a lot of voice work because I needed to make money. Now I have no interest in doing things for money.”
How fulfilling is your career right now and can you discuss any of your upcoming projects?
It is a very busy time for me, but it’s also a great time in my life, professionally and personally.
Trumbo is very important to me. It has a fantastic story to tell about a dark period in American history and the loss of civil liberties when filmmakers and other artists were blacklisted for their political beliefs.
Soon we’ll have the HBO version of All The Way, about the first year of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s term in office. I did the play on Broadway a year ago, and that was a great experience too. I’m hoping to direct a film from a script I wrote and I’m starting work soon on a film called Wakefield. I’m also producing a lot of television. I have a couple series that are on the air now, including an animated show called Supermansion.
It sounds like there are no plans to slow down or take a break?
No I guess the plan is to sleep when I’m dead!