Dustin Hoffman has logged some major time in this show-biz game — next year is the 45th anniversary of his first feature film and he’s averaged a movie a year – so it’s something close to astounding that until five months ago he never appeared in a sequel to one of his own movies. And now, with the release Friday of “Kung Fu Panda 2,” he has made his first two sequels and done them back-to-back at age 73.
“‘Little Fockers‘ was my first sequel and ‘Panda’ will be just my second,” the two-time Oscar winner said. “I know it’s hard to believe that I never made a single one before and it’s odd that this will be two in a row. I don’t know how I went this long without making one before, really. Some of the films I just died in, so it’s tough to do a sequel to those. I think also the directors I worked with just didn’t like sequels. There was a couple along the way I would have done but they didn’t happen. I wanted to make one for ‘Kramer vs. Kramer,’ for instance.”
In “Kung Fu Panda 2″ Hoffman again gives voice to the red panda named Master Shifu, a wise and demanding mentor to the rotund Po (Jack Black) and the Furious Five (again played by Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen and David Cross). This time their foe is Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), the power-hungry son of the ruling Peacock Emperors of China and a villain who may hold the secrets of Po’s heritage and the fate of his biological parents. The first film, released in 2008, pulled in a robust $632 million in worldwide box office and Hoffman said he still marvels a bit at the ambition and accomplishment of 21st century animation.
“I’m from the generation that called them cartoons,” Hoffman said with a chuckle. “You watch them and it’s storytelling as good as any other at this point. It’s an art form I really knew nothing about. The process is interesting. They call you in, you work a couple of days and then a few months later, after they work on it, you come back and they say, ‘We’re going to do that over, we redid that, we rewrote it.’ The whole things shifts and changes and it’s like writing a novel in a way. You go back and re-edit and find the right thing that’s hidden in there. You wonder if there’s a way to do all movies like that. Most are made in such a rush.”
Hoffman also worked on “The Tale of Despereaux” and found a singular benefit of animation. “I have the face,” he said with a chuckle, “that you hide behind animation if you can.”
It was 50 years ago that Hoffman got his start in Hollywood with an appearance on the crime show “The Naked City” and he goes back to that medium in a big way with the upcoming HBO series “Luck.“ A television series is an unexpected twist in the actor’s career at this point, just like the back-to-back sequels. On that topic, he said he didn’t avoid sequels on purpose, they just never seemed to happen. The ones that came closest? That would be the nagging idea of a follow-up film to “The Graduate” (an idea that ended up reaching the screen only as a memorable toss-off gag in Robert Altman’s “The Player“) and Hoffman’s personal push to return to the fractured family drama of “Kramer vs. Kramer,” the 1979 film that won him his first Oscar.
“I really wanted to do a sequel to ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ but it just never happened,” Hoffman said in an extended interview last year for a Los Angeles Times article on “Luck.” “Robert Benton was the writer-director and I did mention it to him at one point. The character was this Madison Avenue guy who worked so hard he never went home and everything fell apart. So what if years later he has his own agency and this huge chance to cash in with this cigarette company but his son is old enough to call him on it. But the movie didn’t happen.”
And “The Graduate 2” — or “The Post-Graduate” as screenwriter Buck Henry described it in “The Player”?
“Mike Nichols often talked about making one,” Hoffman said, referring to the director of the original 1967 film. “He wanted to make one about that generation and where they ended up. I watched ‘The Graduate’ recently and I was struck by how conventional and conservative the character of Benjamin Braddock was. There was not a word about the war or about drugs or civil rights – not a mention. He’s in his own world. He’s dressed in a jacket and thinking of himself. In the last scene he becomes visually – not emotionally – radicalized in his appearance. He’s got a three days’ growth of beard, his jacket is torn — what happened next, there was a bridge there, and what followed [in the character's life was presumably] like ‘Easy Rider.’ The sequel that Mike often talked about making was to follow that thread. You look at the Chicago Seven, some of those guys ended up on Wall Street, look at Jerry Rubin, and there’s that whole thing of ‘You mock what you are soon to become.’ I asked Mike once what he saw Benjamin doing 20 years down the road and Mike said, ‘He’s probably directing television commercials.’ He said it with a wry grin, I might add.”
– Geoff Boucher
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