Plus, co-directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni and production designer Raymond Zibach talk about the look of the series' third installment.

By C. Molly Smith
Updated July 27, 2015 at 07:14 PM EDT
DreamWorks Animation

Kung Fu Panda 2 concludes with Po’s father realizing his son is alive and shows the village where he resides, alongside a number of other pandas. This final moment is crucial going into Kung Fu Panda 3 (out Jan. 29, 2016), both narratively and artistically.

The glimpse at panda life was largely influenced by a 10-day trip to Sichuan, China that the filmmakers took where they saw real-life pandas and Mount Qingcheng, which was covered in mist with beautiful, rustic architecture, according to production designer Raymond Zibach.

“We used that as a jumping off point for what you saw at the very end of the second film, and then we kind of kept drawing on that experience,” says Zibach, who adds that the landscape for the village was also influenced by the idea of a Shangri La where the pandas are hidden from the rest of the world.

The filmmakers have continued to use that experience in part as inspiration for Kung Fu Panda 3, which sees Po (voiced by Jack Black) reunite with his father Li (voiced by Bryan Cranston) and his fellow pandas, whom he believed to have died in a slaughter by the villainous peacock Shen. The film will also pit Po against the series’ first supernatural villain, Kai (voiced by J.K. Simmons).

In exclusive concept art and cinemagraphs (above and below), the panda village has an organic and earthy feel to it. It’s striking, picturesque, and even enchanting — and there’s good narrative reason for that. “We try to experience this through Po’s eyes, so we want to make it really special for him,” Zibach says. “The fact that he comes back to other pandas and is going to learn their way of life was kind of magical to him because he thought none of this ever existed.”

DreamWorks Animation

This reunion marks the first time Po interacts with other pandas in his adult life. “It’s a really great opportunity because you get to see what makes Po, Po, what makes him different, what makes him the same, and [we get to] really explore this entire world of pandas,” says co-director Jennifer Yuh Nelson.

But it also made for an interesting artistic challenge. “From a cinematic point of view, it was interesting because we used to cut from a panda to a duck to a tigress to a snake, and now we’re cutting from panda to panda,” says co-director Alessandro Carloni. The filmmakers, in effect, had to clearly define the multitude of pandas, making them look and act differently. That in mind, Zibach says there are nearly 30 variants of pandas between the kids and adults in the film.

As for the aesthetic, Nelson notes that the art, and the previous two films, shows something hyper-realistic and theatrical in its colors, which was done in an effort to saturate the environment and make audiences feel like they’re there. There is a big emphasis on the artistry, of course, the painterliness of these films that make them stand out from other animated fare. Nelson says of the panda village specifically, “Every single moment is about making that place as beautiful as possible.”

DreamWorks Animation
DreamWorks Animation
DreamWorks Animation

Kung Fu Panda 3

  • Movie
  • PG
  • 95 minutes
  • Alessandro Carloni
  • Jennifer Yuh