One small step for giant panda, one giant leap for female filmmakers. With a worldwide tally of $637.6 million and counting, Kung Fu Panda 2 has become the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman. In this case, the honor goes to Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who made her directorial debut with the well-reviewed Panda 2 after working on the first Kung Fu Panda as head of story and the director of that film’s opening dream sequence. Panda 2 broke the record by passing Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia!, which earned $609.8 million globally in 2008.
Although Panda 2 has been a slight box-office disappointment domestically, grossing $164.3 million here compared to the original’s $215.4 million, it has been a firecracker overseas. That’s especially true in China, where Panda 2 has collected a staggering $91.5 million. Just three years ago, the original Panda made only $26 million in the country. Clearly there was an increased interest in the sequel, but it also goes to show you just how much of a booming market China has become.
As for the domestic record for female filmmakers, that’s slightly more complicated. Domestically, the biggest movie helmed by a woman was 2001′s Shrek ($267.7 million), which was co-directed by Vicky Jenson. But if you’re looking for the highest-grossing film that was directed by one woman, that’d be 2009′s Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel ($219.6 million), made by Betty Thomas. And if you want to exclude pictures with animated protagonists, then it becomes Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight, which drained $192.8 million in 2008.
But for now, the spotlight deserves to shine on Nelson, who was born in South Korea, immigrated to the United States at the age of 4, and grew up in Southern California watching martial-arts movies and drawing perpetually. With Kung Fu Panda 2, Nelson has combined those two interests and guided the result to nearly two-thirds of a billion dollars. That’d be an impressive outcome for any filmmaker, but considering that only seven percent of Hollywood directors are female, her achievement becomes — in the words of Po — pure awesomeness.