In animal terms if the US is the eagle, Russia the bear and Britain the bulldog then China is, of course, the panda.
The black-eyed beasts have a history as goodwill gifts for diplomatic purposes, dating back as far as Empress Wu Zetian (625-705 AD) who gave pandas to the Japanese emperor.
But now they are proving to be cash cows too. In 2008 Kung Fu Panda, an animation movie developed by DreamWorks, was the highest grossing animation film, with over $631 million in global ticket receipts. Capitalising on the rising popularity of China’s national bear, Disney has recently released another panda film, this time with real animal stars.
Disney’s offering, The Trail of Panda, stars Pang Pang, a baby bear separated from its mother but befriended by Lu, a lonely orphan boy. The film was largely shot on location at the picturesque Wolong Giant Panda Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province. The park, China’s foremost panda preservation centre, jumped at the chance to help Disney out. “We agreed to do 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,” says Zhang Hemin, a director at the reserve.
Compared to DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda, the release of the more recent panda film was a lot less controversial. When the animation was first shown last year, many accused DreamWorks of trying to cash in on China’s national heritage. Patriots were also offended by the movie’s portrayal of the panda character as lazy and fat.
In contrast, The Trail of Panda, has hit a more sympathetic note in its use of the real thing, even if the leading bear‘s acting skills don’t extend much beyond rolling around and chewing bamboo.
It is also no coincidence that the release of the movie preceded, by a few days, the first anniversary of the devastating Sichuan earthquake (see page 1). Disney, a shrewd commercial player, has hit the right chord in the timing of the film’s showing.
In fact, the Wolong Giant Panda Nature Reserve, which features heavily in the film, was badly damaged in the quake, and one of the main animal stars, Mao Mao, Pang Pang’s mother in the film, was killed. As such, The Trail of Panda is a poignant reminder of how things were before the devastating earthquake.
That strategy seems to be working. At the film’s premiere in Beijing last Wednesday, co-producer Jean Chaopin said he hoped the film “will celebrate the beautiful place, Sichuan, and these beautiful animals.” The audience, including many children, were tearful and offered generous applause.
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