And here’s why.
Let’s start with the basics. It’s really enjoyable to both my kids and to me. I’m admittedly young at heart, but the challenge of creating art (and it is art) that is not only consumable, but enjoyable to multiple generations, can not be overstated. Kung Fu Panda isn’t the first movie to ever do this but it does take a road much less traveled by animation to do so. It deeply touches a universal theme inside of everyone. Not to mention that it’s a really funny movie. Jack Black voicing the main character is an absolute homerun, and it’s not only full of well executed prat fall humor, but there are some cleverly set up jokes in there.
There is so much happening in this movie, it’s impossible to get to it all. There is nothing outstanding about the Hero’s Journey, it’s been done a million times, but KFP is so subtle about it, it’s wonderful. Star Wars, The Matrix, Harry Potter, and Spider Man, are four very famous examples of the Hero’s Journey. Three of those movies use my favorite kind of hero, the unwilling one. Man, I love a non believer. Neo, Harry, and Peter Parker all believe that a mistake has been made and there’s no way they can be the Chosen One. They spend the entire movie (only discussing originals here) working to convince others that there must be a mistake. But those closest to them know differently, they believe. Po is a large, weak panda “born” to Mr Ping, a goose who is the owner of the best noodle shop in the Valley of Peace. We later see Po improbably chosen by Master Oogway as the Dragon Warrior and no one believes in Po, most notably Po. But he’s so enamored by the talented Kung Fu Warriors around him that he’s living out a dream he’s always had. So we’re left with a group of non believers proven wrong in the most uncharacteristic of ways.
Most importantly though… above all else, KFP is a story about the power that lies within oneself and our ability to draw upon that. The only believer in Po is Grand Master Oogway, a Galapagos Turtle, who made the mistake of choosing him as the Grand Dragon. But “there are no accidents” says Master Oogway. While Po is on his journey to the Dragon Warrior, and to eventually open the secret of the universe in the Dragon Scroll, which would grant him “unlimited power,” Master Shifu (the understudy to Master Oogway) is on a journey of his own. The antagonist, Tai Lung, a snow leopard, trained under and was adopted by Master Shifu in his young years. Tai Lung believed he was the Dragon Warrior, and his ego and power grew to more than Shifu could handle. Escaped from prison, it is now his goal to come back and take the Dragon Scroll, which he believes is rightfully his. Side note, the Tai Lung escape from jail scene is off the wall and rivals any CGI ever created. Master Oogway dies (Obi Wan Kenobe anyone?), and it’s up to Shifu to become Po’s Master and train him, in a way befitting Po, to beat his adopted son and first loyal student.
Once Po has become properly trained, he gains access to the Dragon Scroll, only to realize that it is blank. Everyone is beside themselves with grief and Master Shifu decides he alone must sacrifice himself to his former son and student. A dejected Po leaves the palace and heads back to his father’s noodle shop, where the entire village is fleeing from fear of Tai Lung. His father (clearly not his father) tells him he is ready to reveal the long held secret ingredient to the best soup in the village. “There is no secret ingredient!” This is the moment Po realizes that it is the strength within he must tap in order to defeat Tai Lung.
It’s funny and I can enjoy it with my kids, but the moment Mr Ping tells Po that this secret ingredient he’s been hoping to learn his entire life, is nothing more than an idea. “You don’t add some kind of special sauce or something?” Po asked. Mr Ping replied, “don’t have to. To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.” At that moment, Po opens up the Dragon Scroll one last time and sees his own reflection. Tai Lung doesn’t stand a chance. Greatest movie ever.