BEIJING (Hollywood Reporter) - Hoping a cuddly black-and-white national treasure will again produce Chinese box-office gold, Walt Disney Studios is releasing "Trail of the Panda" here Friday (May 8).
The release precedes by days the first anniversary of the deadly earthquake that uprooted the endangered species' home. It follows by almost a year the record-breaking box-office run of DreamWorks Animation's "Kung Fu Panda," which earned more than $14.7 million in China last summer.
Disney's second Chinese-language film, "Trail" unspools on 900 of the country's roughly 4,000 screens via Huaxia Film Distribution.
The story of an orphaned boy who saves a twin panda cub separated from its mother, "Trail" was nearly ruined last spring. As shooting wound down in the Wolong Giant Panda Nature Reserve in southwest China's Sichuan province, an 8.0 quake struck May 12, killing more than 70,000 people in the area.
Twenty-eight members of the film's crew abandoned film and equipment and hiked through the mountains for three days before they were rescued by the Chinese military.
The six pandas used to play the film's star, Pang Pang ("Chubby" in Chinese) survived, but the panda that portrayed the mother of the twin cubs was killed.
"We were toward the tail end of the shoot, with maybe five days to go, when the earth began to shake and just didn't stop," said Jennifer Liu, CEO of Beijing-based Ying Dong Media, which made the film for $5 million. A former Disney employee, Liu co-wrote and produced the film.
Inspired by a true story, the Yu Zhong-directed film was co-written and produced by Jean Chaolpin, creator of "Inspector Gadget."
At Wednesday's Beijing premiere, Chalopin said he hopes the film "will celebrate the beautiful place, Sichuan, and these beautiful animals."
Although Chinese critics praised "Kung Fu Panda" for its story and animation, DreamWorks was accused of trying to cash in on China's national treasure and there was a short-lived attempt at a boycott.
The "Trail" film crew lived with the pandas and their caretakers for four months under strict supervision. The penalty in China for panda poaching is public execution.
With much of the mountainous Sichuan scenery they'd filmed destroyed, the filmmakers turned to editor David Richardson for help. "We had to come up with a different way to edit," Liu said. "It was a task David made easy by stitching together what we'd been unable to get after the quake."
Shot in Mandarin, "Panda" was dubbed into Cantonese for south China moviegoers and for its Hong Kong release. Depending on its performance at the Chinese box office, Disney will dub the film into other languages for distribution overseas, Liu said.
Disney's first Chinese-language film, the 2007 coming-of-age story "Secret of the Magic Gourd" -- a live action/animation hybrid -- was a co-production with Hong Kong's Centro Digital Pictures and the China Film Group. It opened on 300 screens in China and earned more than 21 million yuan ($3.1 million).
"Secret" won the best children's film prize at China's 16th annual Golden Rooster Awards and was released stateside on DVD in January, with "High School Musical" star Corbin Bleu providing voice work.
(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)