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A panda film: 'Trail of the Panda'
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Disney's 'Trail of the Panda' will hit the screen on the Chinese mainland on May 8.

Disney's "Trail of the Panda" will hit the screen on the Chinese mainland on May 8. [chinadaily.com.cn] 

Stand aside, Winnie the Pooh. In Disney's latest movie, pandas steal the show. "Trail of the Panda" ("Xiongmao Huijialu"; also known as "Touch of the Panda"), which features real pandas and a 10-year-old boy star, will open on the Chinese mainland this Friday.

Set against the spectacular scenery of Siguniang Mountain, Balang Mountain and Wolong Giant Panda Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, the film's central character is an orphan named Lu, who finds a lost panda cub, carries his new friend on his back and starts a thrilling trip to return it to its mother.

"There were lots of documentaries about pandas but they were very factual," says co-producer Jean Chalopin. "We wanted to introduce pandas emotionally to people, to touch their hearts."

The film was conceived three years ago, when Chalopin read that one of the founders of the Wolong reserve had saved a panda during his childhood, forming a life-long bond between him and the animals. He and Jennifer Liu, the scriptwriter and CEO of Beijing-based Ying Dong Media, developed a story based on it, took it to Disney and quickly got a thumbs-up.

Filming started in Wolong, a three-hour drive from Chengdu, in February 2008 and took about three months.

The pandas featured in nearly every scene of the 90-minute film but the production crew found that once the cameras were rolling, they were not always that cute.

They came from China's foremost panda research and preservation center, Wolong reserve, which allowed them to be used for a maximum 90 minutes a day in line with their strict routine of work and rest but insisted they were all accompanied by their exclusive raisers, who took care of feeding them and monitoring their moods.

"Pandas are national treasures. You cannot shout at them or beat them," says director Yu Zhong. "The only thing we could do was wait for these superstars to be in the mood. It happened all the time - the cameras and lights were all set but then it was time for the pandas to eat, rest or take a shower."

"They love as much to play as to sleep, so we had to follow their schedule all the time," Liu adds.

One of the most troublesome scenes was when the panda, named Pang Pang in the film, was required to sleep in the sunshine.

Just when the weather was ideal, the crew was told its star was in the mood for playing around. Then, when it went to sleep and was carefully moved to the set, it woke up and started playing again. Other times, the crew celebrated when the panda fell asleep on the set, only for the weather to go cloudy or rainy.

The seemingly simple scene took a staggering 10 days to complete.

In another scene, Pang Pang was supposed to kiss Lu, played by Chinese-Japanese child actor Daichi Harashima, but simply would not oblige. The crew turned to professional animal trainers from Jacana Wildlife Studios, which was involved in the popular 1988 documentary "The Bear". They wiped some honey on Harashima's cheek and hey presto, the kiss was sealed.

Harashima, like most children his age, was a panda fan beforehand. He thinks the movie was the easiest and funniest of his three to date.

"I like pandas a lot because they just look very cute," he says. "At first I was a bit scared of its sharp teeth and claws, but actually they are friendly animals. The first time I held a panda cub in my arms I found its hair was soft, not as hard as I was told. The filming was easier than my others, because I had few lines to recite. Most of the time I just played happily with the panda."

Pang Pang was actually played by six panda cubs from Wolong but they look so similar, only their feeders will be able to tell them apart. The crew asked Wolong experts to help find six pandas to suit the various scenes. Some were active, others gentle, and one was especially good at climbing trees.

The crew started shooting with the oldest of the six so that the animal's growth during shooting would not affect production.

Even so, Liu had to revise the script every day.

"Originally there were lots of action," she says. "But when the shooting started I found that many actions were impossible for panda cubs, such as walking backwards. Pandas are precious animals who have been taken good care of by their raisers, so they are not scared of anything. It is difficult for them to show fear or other strong emotions."

For Wolong director Zhang Hemin, the film was a win-win situation. "We agreed to this film because we think it will be a good platform to educate children about the importance of environmental preservation and the protection of wild animals," he says.

The May 12 Sichuan earthquake last year killed panda Mao Mao, who played Pang Pang's mother. Wolong itself was nearly destroyed by the quake and is still being rebuilt. All the six pandas who played Pang Pang are safe and have been relocated to zoos and reserves around China.

"We also hope that this film's theatrical release just before the one-year anniversary will arouse people's love for pandas and the re-building of the reserve," Zhang says.

The film is Disney's second collaboration with Chinese filmmakers, after the 2007 film "The Secret of the Magic Gourd". Disney will also handle its distribution overseas.

(China Daily, May 5, 2009)

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