“The reason these films work so well is because Po is so completely endearing”
The long-awaited third installment of DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda franchise topped the box office upon release. Fans have been waiting five years to learn what will unfold after the cliff-hanger ending of Kung Fu Panda 2, which concluded with the scene of a faraway panda village where Po’s father, Li Shan, gets a sudden realization that his long lost son is alive.
Kung Fu Panda 3 begins by introducing a new villain, power-hungry spirit warrior Kai, who wants to steal the chi of every Kung Fu Master in China. Meanwhile, Po (voiced by Jack Black) has been given the challenge of teaching Kung Fu and he is perplexed and worried by this pressure. Next, Li Shan, Po’s biological father, wanders into the village in search of his son. Li and Po are overjoyed to have finally found each other and they begin to bond, to the dismay of Po’s adoptive father, Mr. Ping. Soon after, Kai leads an attack on Po’s village, and Po and his friends learn that Kai can only be defeated by a true master of chi, which has historically been an ability of the ancient panda colonies. Po’s father says that his panda village can teach Po to become a master of chi, so Po, Li, and Mr. Ping all travel to the village in the hopes that Po can indeed become a master of chi and defeat Kai.
The reason these films work so well is because Po is so completely endearing. Here we have this character who is relatable to virtually anyone, both kids and adults alike. He is awkward, loving and lovable, easily distracted, passionate and compassionate, hilarious, and very, very lazy. He is nowhere near the ideal candidate for a Kung Fu Master, however, that is precisely what makes him so likeable and drives the audience to root for him. Po tugs not only at our heart strings but at our instincts to conceal our vulnerability and our weaknesses. He is a pillar for those who feel they can’t possibly succeed or belong, and he is a paragon because he presses on despite his unfavorable odds.
I could go on about the movie’s animation (which is superb) or the music (scored by Hans Zimmer, including a melody of “I’m So Sorry” by Imagine Dragons which is Kai’s theme song) or the casting of each character (starring actors such as Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, and Bryan Cranston). However, the most important takeaways of this movie are not in the physical aspects of the movie, but more in the metaphorical messages they illustrate.
The film deals with many important themes and messages, but one that was especially compelling was the struggle between Po’s adoptive father and his biological father. As Po is drawn closer to his panda roots, Po’s adoptive goose father becomes upset because he feels Po slipping away. Throughout the film, the audience sees glimpses of a very tangible struggle that many families face in regards to adoption. Eventually during a moment of vulnerability, Mr. Ping realizes that Po needs support from both of his dads in order to defeat Kai, and he says to Li, “Having you in Po’s life doesn’t mean less for me, it means more for Po.”
Another message that the film presents is that your identity has power, no matter who you are. Po enlists the help of the panda village in order to defeat Kai, and instructs them to figure out what they love and what they’re good at and to use that power to fight Kai. Po tells them, “Your real strength comes from being the best you you can be.” This is a recurrent message throughout the film (and the franchise) and it is also addressed in the beginning when Po expresses his frustration to Master Shifu about not having his master’s teaching ability. Master Shifu gently tells Po, “I’m not trying to turn you into me. I’m trying to turn you into you.” These are messages that not only resonate with children, but they are also encouraging reminders for adults.
Kung Fu Panda fans will be enchanted by this film. Its ability to capture the audience with both tenderness and humor prompts the third film in this series to go out not with a bang, but with a “skadoosh.”