By Rhonda Richford
June 14, 2018
Kung Fu Hustle director Stephen Chow is set to develop an animated take on The Monkey King, based on the mythical Chinese tale, for Pearl Studios, it was announced Wednesday at the Annecy Animation Festival in France.
“It’s one of China’s most enduringly popular heroes of all time. Every child in China grows up knowing the epic tale,” said studio chief creative officer Peilin Chou, noting that while the character is popular in Asia, it has not reached a worldwide audience.
“Stephen is the perfect creative partner to bring the character to the world and we could not be more excited about collaborating with him for this epic, animated global event,” she said of teaming up with the BAFTA and Golden Globe nominee.
The script was written by Brother Bear and Chicken Little co-writers Ron Friedman and Steve Bencich.
“We want to awaken our audience,” said Chou. “We want to bring in different perspectives, experiences and fresh points of view into our films.”
The studio also announced that Albert Tsai, Tenzig Trainor and Tsai Chin will join Chloe Bennet in voicing DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio’s upcoming snowman comedy, Abominable. Director Jill Culton announced the news in an evening session, where she also presented a first look at some character art for the film.
Culton noted that Trainor is the grandson of Tenzig Norgay, a member of the first team to scale Mount Everest, and that the historical link was unplanned. “He’s actually just great for the role,” said Culton.
Tsai was nominated for a Critics’ Choice Award as best child actor for his work on Trophy Wife.
Bennet will voice the lead character of Yi, a 16-year-old girl in denim shorts, high boots and a violin strapped to her back, while Trainor will play Jin, an Instagram-obsessed friend. Tsai will play his younger cousin, while The Joy Luck Club’s Chin will play Yi’s track-suited grandmother.
Culton said her original concept involved a younger Yi, but the character evolved to a teenage girl so that she could explore more emotions and vulnerable storytelling. “She feels distant from her parents and needs to go on this journey to heal,” said the director. “She’s spirited and independent, the type of girl who leaps before she looks and often gets into trouble, and she’s kind of a tomboy.”
The teens go on a journey from Shanghai to the Himalayas to help reunite the young Yeti Everest with his family at the top of the mountain after which he is named.
Mr. Abominable himself, Everest, does not have a voice and expresses himself with an as-yet-undetermined sound. “Many animated films these days are very chatty, and one of the challenges I set for myself was to create a character that didn’t speak human language,” Culton explained, adding that Everest’s communication is with physical expressions and what she imagines to be a combination of grunts, groans and animal sounds. “We are currently working with our sound designers to crack this nut and it’s not easy, but we won’t stop until we get a personality that is full of humor and can emote.”
The presentation played to a packed house, with the audience roaring with laughter at Everest’s smiles and frowns, as well as each character work, particularly the stern-looking grandmother and the selfie-taking Jin.
During the presentation, Glen Keane also showed some work from the studio’s upcoming Netflix co-production Over the Moon. In what could be called a very, very first look, Keane shared rough sketches of his character Fei Fei — a young Chinese girl “who is someone who believes the impossible is possible and is on a quest to get to the moon.”
Keane said they are only roughly 10 weeks into production on the musical, and stressed that the look of the characters is still in the embryonic concept phase. He also shared photos of a recent trip through China that are helping him create the feel of the film.
The man who brings tears to the eyes of festival attendees (“He’s the Bono of Annecy,” said one Netflix executive in attendance) promised to be back next year with more work-in-progress showings.
Pearl has a dozen projects in active development Chou said, including one titled Kung Fu Grandpa, but no word on if Chow is involved in that.
“This may not seem that unique in Hollywood, but it’s actually quite unique in China. Our counterparts at the major Chinese studios only develop projects that they are committed to producing,” said Chou. “We believe a healthy development slate is essential for quality films.”
Abominable is set for release Sept. 27, 2019, and Over the Moon is slated to debut in 2020.
Bencich and Friedman are repped by Paradigm, the Gotham Group and attorney Rob Szymanski.