Kung Fu Panda is perhaps the biggest bait and switch in cinematic history. You read a title like that, see Jack Black’s name on the poster, hear CeeLo Green sing “Kung Fu Fighting,” and naturally, you just assume that it’s going to be a fat joke-laden waste of an hour and a half that you’ll have to take your kids to, because they won’t shut up about it until you do. But somehow, instead of that, you get some of the most inventive animated action sequences ever put to screen, gorgeous cinematography with an absolutely masterful use of color, and, most importantly, a surprisingly thoughtful and deeply sincere tale of self-acceptance. A story about a fat panda who comes to realize that the only way to grow is not to resist that which you can’t change but to embrace those immutable things that make you who you are.
But plenty of children’s stories tell kids to believe in themselves. Kung Fu Panda does it with an undeniable style and thoughtfulness, but it’s certainly not the only example of the message. No, what makes Kung Fu Panda special is its focus on how parental figures and mentors influence a child’s self-perception to begin with. It does this most effectively through the relationship of Master Shifu and his student: the film’s villain, Tai Lung. For most of the film, Tai Lung is a very typical antagonist. After being trained by Master Shifu his entire life, he wanted the film’s MacGuffin, the Dragon Scroll, said to be the key to limitless power. He was denied it and so went on a rampage to obtain it, being defeated and put in prison for 20 years before escaping. The movie says that he had darkness in his heart, and that’s what drove him to anger and violence and a lust for power. It would have been very easy to leave it at that in a kid’s movie. But during the film’s climax, when Shifu and Tai Lung face each other for the first time in 20 years, we get some more insight into what Tai Lung has been fighting for this whole time.
“All I ever did I did to make you proud! Tell me how proud you are, Shifu! Tell me!” screams Tai Lung as he beats down his former master. The one who raised him as his own child. Told him that he could be the Dragon Warrior, told him that he deserved the Dragon Scroll. Tai Lung never asked for those expectations. He never wanted that purpose. That was thrust upon him by Shifu. “Who filled my head with dreams?” asks Tai Lung. “Who drove me to train until my bones cracked?” And when he was unable to meet those expectations, Shifu turned his back on him. Tai Lung’s rage was not an immutable aspect of his character. The darkness in his heart wasn’t just a part of him that couldn’t be changed. It was put there by the master, the father, who failed him.
It’s one thing to tell kids to believe in themselves. But it’s a whole other thing to tell them that no one else should ever define who they’re meant to be. And that it’s not their fault they were expected to be something they could never be.
And honestly, CeeLo Green’s “Kung Fu Fighting” kind of slaps.