Gary Thompson: Her 'Kung Fu Panda' KO'd the competition

Jennifer Yuh Nelson's "Kung Fu Panda 2" brought in $663 million.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson's "Kung Fu Panda 2" brought in $663 million. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: December 19, 2011

THE BOX-OFFICE record for a movie directed by a woman stands at $663 million.

Can you name the director?

If you guessed Nancy Meyers or Nora Ephron, you can be congratulated for knowing the name of a commercially successful female director.

But you are incorrect.

You are also incorrect if you guessed Catherine Hardwicke, of "Twilight" fame ($392 million), or Betty Thomas, whose "Alvin and the Chipmunks" sequel grossed $443 million. You'd be very well informed, but still wrong, if you guessed Phyllida Lloyd, the British lass who directed the movie version of "Mamma Mia" ($609 million).

The correct answer is Jennifer Yuh Nelson. Her "Kung Fu Panda 2" grossed $663 million this year around the world. And it's just come out on DVD.

Nelson, a veteran animator and longtime hand at DreamWorks Animation, seems almost embarrassed by the distinction.

"It's . . . weird," said the soft-spoken Nelson, who claims she's being completely truthful when she says the box office is the furthest thing from her mind when she's making a movie.

And, like many female directors, she's not completely crazy about being separated from the pack, placed in the "Lady Director" bin.

"I have mixed minds about it. For me, working on the film, it's something that I never considered. The people who work with me, they don't look at me as being 'The Woman Director.' In fact, one of the animators took offense, saying all this fluff about my gender shouldn't be considered. But I don't mind as long as it doesn't affect my daily life," Nelson said.

And she does get a kick out of the way younger people, particularly students of animation, recognize her achievement.

"When students come up to me and say they are inspired, that's a wonderful thing. If I could encourage young women to consider this as a career, so much the better. But I'm not a person who goes around saying, 'Hey, I'm a woman director.' "

One whose movie made a ton of money, at that.

"I'm not that kind of person. I really don't dwell too much on box office."

I suggest to Nelson that there may be something feminine in this modesty - a male director would have a plaque above his desk trumpeting his bankability. And so would his agent.

Most dudes would also brag about the way "KP2" bested "Cars 2" ($551 million) to rank as the most successful animated movie of the year.

Take that, John Lasseter and Pixar.

"We don't have that kind of rivalry. There's actually a lot of cross-pollination between the two companies. People go back and forth all the time."

Darn it!

How did a person this nice, this diplomatic, ever get ahead in Hollywood?

On this subject, Nelson finally toots the DreamWorks horn.

"In all honesty, I chalk it up to the atmosphere here. There are a lot of female producers. This creates an environment where it's not a big deal, the male-female thing. People get hired on merit. And when you do that, things like this are going to happen."

OK, so you can't get Nelson to chest-bump about being bigger than "Mamma Mia" or John Lasseter (well, in a manner of speaking).

But ask about the fact that "KP2" is considered one of the most graphically beautiful animated movies ever released by a major studio, and she'll talk all day.

"That's something we really worked hard to achieve. We talked about the beauty of the movie, how we wanted it to be a priority. We wanted to be realistic, to suggest a vivid sense of place, but we wanted to push the style a little," said the Korean-born director, who moved to the states when she was 4.

To get the right look, Nelson led a delegation of DreamWorks animators to mainland China.

"I think that really helped us. Early on, we went on this intensive tour of some of the places that ended up being incorporated into the movie, like Pingyao, the ancient walled city that is the basis for the city in our movie.

"It's wonderful, walking around, seeing the scale of things, seeing how the place was built, watching how the light plays in the atmosphere. You pick up details you otherwise wouldn't get, and you can put them in the movie. I think what we ended up with is something special."

The result, no doubt, figured in the extraordinary success of the movie overseas and in Asia, where it earned the bulk of the money that helped it edge out "Cars 2."

And every other movie ever directed by a woman.

But who's counting?

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