The (Kung Fu) Panda Metaphor

So it took me two years to post a blog entry about one of my favorite animated movies: “Kung Fu Panda”. I recall I was anxiously waiting for a DreamWorks comedy, but what I actually got has been so much more rewarding.

Considering the multitude of hidden and not-so-hidden messages and lessons, “Kung Fu Panda” is a movie that is destined for children and adults also. Kids can be charmed by the wonderful Asian style world depicted in the story, but the adventure of Po is quite a resource for learning so much about values like honor, honesty, modesty, the importance of one’s roots in his/her destiny, the power of belief (and especially self-belief), significance and basically getting to know that life is what you make of it!

***I should perhaps warn my readers that haven’t yet seen the movie that the text below contains spoilers***

The “zero to hero” syntagm is what I think best portrays the story of Po, the young panda that goes a long way from being a helper in his dad’s restaurant to being the legendary Dragon Warrior.

In the beginning, Po is an admirer of the Furious Five warriors-Tigress, Crane, Mantis, Viper, and Monkey- and he is dreaming about becoming the Dragon Warrior. So it all starts with having a dream…

However, the dream seems intangible, given the fact that his father wants him to take over the family business, the restaurant, and that his body shape doesn’t seem to fit the legendary warrior profile. The idea of silly dreams, or actually, of dreams that aren’t pursued and therefore become “silly” is emphasized by the history of his father, who once wanted to leave home and make tofu instead of noodles, but he gave up on that idea because it was just a “silly dream”. This is how Po learns that the “giving up on dreams” gene runs in his family and that is somehow an eye-opener.

Being a real enthusiast, Po travels to the Jade Palace to see the ceremony in which the future Dragon Warrior will be chosen, although his father only sees this as an opportunity to sell more noodles. The kart filled with noodle plates and other dishes that Po is carrying up the stairs towards the Jade Palace is a great symbol for the introjections, cognitions, burdens, and tasks we carry in our lives, though they are not really ours to carry, but we have absorbed them from our background (mainly our family). Friends outrun the panda that is too slow to keep the pace with everyone. The line that shows his determination is the reply he gives to his friends that tell him they are going to bring him back a souvenir from the ceremony: “I’m going to bring me back a souvenir!”. So he drops the kart and climbs the stairs.

An image that is really meaningful and an important part of the life metaphor the whole movie portrays is that in which the big gates of the palace close in front of Po, leaving him outside because he arrived too late. How many of us have had the feeling that all opportunities have come to an end at some point and that we just might have lost our chance? I imagine this is how Po must have felt… Having a character that does not let you give up comes in handy in situations like these and if knocking at closed doors doesn’t bring the expected outcome, trying creative problem-solving techniques might just do the trick. Well, I’m not saying you should use the flying Chinese chair to get into a manager’s office, but you might want to try and seek more solutions for one problem and stick to the goal.

So Po managed to enter the Palace right in time for the moment when master Oogway – a wise old tortoise – will be choosing the Dragon Warrior. The obvious candidates are the Furious Five. These warriors have been trained all their lives for this moment by master Shifu and they all hope one of them will be the next Dragon Warrior. Their appearance and skills emphasize the idea that one must have a certain (obvious) quality in order to be seen as a winner (speed, technique, smoothness, etc), and is just as obvious that in appearance, Po does not meet the qualities of a kung-fu warrior. Not judging a book by its covers is a great lesson children can learn from this movie.

What seemed against all odds becomes a possibility when master Oogway’s instincts guide him towards choosing Po as the next Dragon Warrior. The Furious Five and Shifu are not happy with the choice, and consider it wrong. And they are somehow right, Po proves to be a real dummy on the training ground, but that is only because they were expecting him to behave as if he has been trained in the arts of kung-fu, just like they have been trained. Adjusting your criteria when assessing something or somebody in your life may prove to be a good approach if you are open towards the new and want to avoid disappointment.

So okay, Po stinks at kung-fu in the traditional way. Everybody expects him to give up. He himself has doubts and considers giving up. And this is where two more great lessons appear. One of them teaches the viewer about the surprise regarding a thing that one may consider to be ordinary, but that at a closer look proves to be “magical”, meaningful, and full of essence. This is the case of the Sacred Peach Tree of Heavenly Wisdom that Po sees at first as a regular peach tree. Wonderful things may be found where you would least expect them. Another lesson regards the power of being in the “now”. Master Oogway says to Po: “Yesterday’s history, tomorrow’s a mystery, but today is a gift… that is why it is called a present”.

Master Oogway also guides Shifu toward believing in his instincts and in Po’s potential to be the Dragon Warrior. Identifying and using one’s inner resources is also at the core of psychotherapy. So Shifu is in charge of finding out a way to motivate Po and bring his resources to the surface and put them into action. We will now not address Po’s bulimic tendency of eating when upset, but see this as his secret motivator. The panda would do anything for food! And that’s the base of his training. Common efforts of Shifu and Po lead to great training outcomes. We also have to notice the fact that Oogway disappears -his time comes- once his task of choosing the Dragon Warrior and making sure that Shifu treats him right is fulfilled. A master is only there for the apprentice until the last one has “wings” of his own. That is the moment when the master steps back.

But what is a hero without a powerful opponent? This is where the feared Tai Lung comes into play. We have to stop a bit upon this character’s background story. He was once the favorite apprentice of Shifu, he had great skills and they both had high confidence regarding Tai Lung becoming the Dragon Warrior. But when Oogway had a different opinion – because he saw the evil in Tai Lung – the apprentice turned against his master and became an enemy that had to be held in prison for everyone’s safety. Again, this is an attitude we encounter in our everyday lives. Escaping prison, Tai Lung is after what he always desired, the Dragon  Scroll, which is said to give great power to the owner.  The idea of artifacts is present in the movie as a symbol of legacy.

The news of Tai Lung being free activates the desire in the Furious Five of fulfilling their own destinies and try to defeat him, as they have been trained especially for that. However, it is not our task to fulfill someone else’s destiny, we have our own paths in life and therefore it is highly possible that we would not succeed when trying to act as something/somebody that we are not. This is what makes the Furious Five fail when they try to assume the Dragon Warrior’s role and fight Tai Lung.

They are sent back to Shifu as proof of Tai Lung’s power. This is the time that Shifu considers it is proper for Po to receive the power granted by the Dragon Scroll. But surprise, the scroll contains nothing at all, no text, no message. This is another critical moment when they all decide that Tai Lung is too powerful and that the panda is not capable of confronting him, especially now, when no extra power is granted by the scroll. So Shifu decides to fight Tai Lung and try to destroy his creation, while the others should escort the villagers to safety.

Again in the village, Po suddenly becomes the son of the chef again, a chef himself. He is facing his old destiny again. However, his father now thinks Po is worthy to find out the secret ingredient for his father’s famous secret ingredient soup. And the secret ingredient of the secret ingredient soup is…. nothing. You only have to believe is special, so it becomes special. Emphasizing the fact that one’s answers and solutions often come from one’s background or are at least linked to it, Po uses the information received from his father about the soup to re-construct his view about him being the Dragon Warrior. He is the Dragon Warrior if he believes he is! So he goes back to the Palace in order to face Tai Lung.

Meanwhile, we witness a heavy fight between a former master and a former apprentice, once a team with a common goal, now just two opponents, each trying to destroy the co-creation or its consequences. The words of Tai Lung are very powerful, and I believe very hard to take by a master: “Not your fault? Who filled my head with dreams? Who drove me to train until my bones cracked? Who denied me my destiny?”.  Again, this regards the “false destiny” and being trained to be something that you are not, a situation that may generate lots of frustration. In my opinion, Tai Lung is a mean character only through his opposition to the hero of the movie, otherwise, his character is legitimately feeling all that fury, because it is a legitimate reaction to being denied something you think you are entitled to. The last drop that fills his cup is when he realizes that the Dragon Scroll has been given to the new Dragon Warrior and his most aggression is turned against Shifu, almost killing him.

This is the moment when the panda appears and starts fighting Tai Lung. Their fight is skillful and worthy of two apprentices of Shifu. However, the thing that most impressed me is the attitude Po has towards Tai Lung when he also discovers that the scroll is blank. Although they are opponents, Po finds the resources to accompany and comfort Tai Lung in his disappointment: “It’s okay, I didn’t get it the first time either. There is no secret ingredient. It’s just you.”.

Their legendary fight continues and Po defeats Tai Lung. The Furious Five accept him as their master, his father is proud of the new destiny Po has and Shifu finally finds his inner peace after finding out the result of the battle.

A happy ending to a great metaphor for life and its unpredictable elements. I would recommend “Kung Fu Panda” to children and parents too, for its message, great humor, and amazing graphical display.

I will end my article with one of master Oogway’s lines… In life, “there are no accidents”. So be there to catch and use the secret messages life is sending you!

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