Kung Fu Panda. Dir. John Wayne Stevenson and Mark Osborne. Paramount Pictures. 2008.

Kung Fu Panda (2008) is a CGI animated family film directed by John Wayne Stevenson and Mark Osborne. Set in a fictional village in ancient China, Shifu the red panda and Kung Fu master is training the Furious Five, a group of particularly skilled fighters, with the hope of one becoming the next ‘Dragon Warrior’: the ultimate master of Kung Fu. When Oogway, the old and wise tortoise, and founder of Kung Fu predicts that a former, evil student of Shifu named Tai Lung will escape from the prison where he is being held, it is vital that the Dragon Warrior is chosen immediately. Much to the shock of everyone, Oogway selects an obese and clumsy Panda named Po, who has only ever dreamed of learning Kung Fu. He thus embarks on a difficult journey to become a Kung Fu master and earn the Dragon Scroll, which contains the secret to perfect technique and his only hope of defeating Tai Lung.

By combining the generic features of Family Film and Animation, Kung Fu Panda is able to construct a series of characters and a plotline that provides endless entertainment and visual spectacle. Animated characters are typically ambivalent, they are able to morph and adapt throughout the film, often undermining typical stereotypes in the process. In Kung Fu Panda nearly all the characters undergo a transformation, learning a valuable lesson regarding self-belief. Therefore, as is often the case with animation, we are rapidly transported through a variety of high emotional states. The film moves from moments of high comedy to scenes of tension and fear in the contrast between scenes involving the clumsy Po, such as his impression of Shifu, sticking noodles over his top lip, and more dramatic and visually dark scenes, such as Tai Lung’s escape.

The visually exciting aspect of the film is evident in the many fighting scenes, which play on the skills of the characters’ respective animal abilities as they jump and run between what seem impossible spaces. Paul Wells has noted, however, that there are many questions to be raised regarding the issue of the representation of the body in animation. He notes, “Animation has the capacity to render figures indestructible in a more plausible way than in any live-action fantasy”[1], suggesting that the mode “de-physicalises” the body. This is therefore the ideal genre for a family film about Kung Fu, where problems regarding the unrealistic nature of the fighting and the lack of injuries are undermined by the visual delight of the scenes.

There are no humans in Kung Fu Panda at all; the film is entirely occupied by anthropomorphic talking animals. The animals thus replace the humans, living human lives and demonstrating human characteristics and ambitions. Po the panda is the hero of the story. Pandas are typically docile, slow creatures and are not associated with aggression or fighting. They are also an endangered species, and are generally admired by humans because of their endearing appearance. The film thus follows the archetypal hero story, whereby an unlikely, typically non-heroic character is chosen to defend his village from an evil villain. Po’s journey to master Kung Fu is not without difficulties, and eventually Shifu learns that the best way to train him is by using food. This is where the advantages of animation emerge, as the many elaborate training scenes involving dumplings, soup and chopsticks work most successfully because of their visual extremity. Po and Shifu are able to jump and move at extreme speeds, whilst simultaneously juggling and fighting over a bowl of dumplings that are regularly thrown into the air and never dropped. They also fight over a bowl of soup, catching the soup safely back in the bowl after it is launched into the air like the dumplings. The visually entertaining spectacle of the scene and Po’s progress undermine the unrealistic nature of the events taking place and instead provide us with intense comedy. Through this scene the film also plays on the classic comedy trope of the grotesque body, drawing attention to Po’s weight and his attachment to food as a source of humour.

“You are free to eat”

This provides a stark contrast to the Furious Five, whom Shifu has been training for the sole purpose of defeating Tai Lung: Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Viper and Crane. These are all typically agile animals associated with the ability to fight or defend, and their exaggerated embodiment of their respective animal characteristics in their fighting demonstrates the accompanying animalization in the film. When watching these scenes, the success of animation is again obvious. There are no limits to what occurs; even if at times the fighting seems unrealistic, it is ignored as part of the delight of animation or is celebrated as part of the extreme skills of these animals. Additionally, the animals also do not appear to come to any real harm, they are not shown experiencing pain, but instead rebound back unlike ordinary humans.

This is evident when the Five battle with Tai Lung on an old rope bridge, jumping between and balancing on strenuous ropes with ease. The fight takes place in a remote and cloudy setting, creating a tension surrounding the safety of the warriors through our inability to see the potentially dangerous distance from the bridge to the ground. Tigress and Tai Lung in particular embody their animal characteristics, growling at one another throughout their confrontation, using their claws and demonstrating their agility through the rapid speed and continual changing of direction occurring throughout the fight. Tigress is the first of the Five to attack, thus embodying the aggression and boldness that is associated with a tiger. However, Tai Lung’s overruling strength is made obvious when she is thrown forcefully back through the planks of the bridge, which we see and hear shatter.  Similarly, sound effects are used to exaggerate the force of the punches and kicks, as we hear every hit taken by each character and thus grow more concerned for their safety. The only relief we receive from the tension in this scene comes from Mantis, who despite his small size, is left supporting the entire weight of the bridge after Monkey is forced to intervene, stating: ‘ah! What was I thinking?’

Much the same occurs in the final fight scene, where Po and Tai Lung are shown jumping down a mountain, landing unhurt. They continue to crash between buildings and trees, whilst Po comically produces a ‘boing’ sound, further juxtaposing his overweight appearance to that of the physically superior Tai Lung. Furthermore, Po crushes Tai Lung by sitting on him as they tumble, which is shown in slow motion, accompanied by Tai Lung’s muffled cries, to further emphasise this moment of comedy in an otherwise tense scene. Moreover, Po is seen giggling throughout the fight, despite taking hard punches and falls. This detracts from the violence, reinforcing the film’s genre as a family film.

Interestingly, according to Kung Fu legend, in order to master Kung Fu, one must learn to embody the skills of five animals: the tiger, crane, snake, leopard and dragon. It therefore makes perfect sense to create an animated film about Kung Fu using animals, as they are part of the roots of Kung Fu itself. Three of Shifu’s current warriors are part of this original five (Tiger, Crane, Viper), Tai Lung is a leopard, and the dragon is the perfection of the four other styles when one becomes the Dragon Warrior, thus not a style itself. The film has thus deliberately employed the use of specific animals due to their ancient connections to the discipline. This acknowledgement of the traditional elements of Kung Fu provides an element of cultural respect to the film by demonstrating a regard for the history of Kung Fu.

Finally, the death of Tai Lung is never confirmed; we only know that he has been defeated. In this scene Po demonstrates his mastery above Tai Lung and the Five through his learning of the Wuxi Finger Hold. This is another name for what is known in Martial Arts as the ‘Touch of Death’, or rather the belief in a force of energy exerted to small part of the body as being strong enough to cause death. The alternative name for the act allows for Tai Lung’s death to occur almost obliviously to the younger audience. It happens off screen, as a wave of golden energy sweeps the valley, and we return only to find Po victorious and no sign of Tai Lung. We are thus given the heroic ending we desired, without too much emotional intrusion or awkward encounters with death, and we are left in the knowledge that anyone can succeed if they just believe and put their mind to it – even a fat Panda can defeat a Kung Fu fighting leopard.

The Wuxi Finger Hold The mixture of anthropomorphism and animalization in the film helps to develop the characterisation. Po’s Panda characteristics – his large size and clumsy nature – help to make him a much more endearing hero. With levels of childhood obesity on the rise, Po is universally relatable, overcoming his obstacles and mastering Kung Fu despite his large size. His lack of confidence, an issue typically associated with humans, stems from his lack of dangerous attributes as an animal. He states, ‘I’m not like the Five. I have no claws, no wings, no venom’, which provokes sympathy for him.  He is thus the underdog with whom we rally behind throughout the film and rejoice with in his victory due to his endearing nature, both in terms of human and animal characteristics.

The panda’s association with passivity thus employs a greater lesson regarding the negativity of pre-forming judgements. The comical juxtaposition between the aggressive and seemingly natural fighting ability of the Five and Po provokes initial ideas regarding who will be the more successful fighter, but the film later destroys these notions. Kung Fu Panda therefore educates through dual means. The use of specific animals to embody certain characteristics through which the audience can identify with and the use of a moralistic storyline, which ultimately undermines prejudices, works simultaneously to inspire children by shattering preconceptions.

In addition to this, by using animals and animation, the film provides us with a visual spectacle that could not be achieved through any other medium. Animals are able to move, jump and fight in ways that humans cannot, or rather in ways that would look too unrealistic using humans. Any unbelievable sights are simply enjoyed and add further to the spectacle of animation. Furthermore, the traditional connections that have forged animals with Kung Fu mean that the film stays true to the discipline itself, whilst providing entertainment for a younger audience.

The archetypal hero narrative throughout Kung Fu Panda is similar to that in Finding Nemo (2003), also an animated family film. Marlin the clownfish draws parallels with Po in that he fulfils the role of the underdog, as he journeys across the ocean in search of his son, Nemo. He too encounters difficulties along the way, facing sharks, jellyfish and seagulls, and he too is underequipped to do so, possessing no dangerous or threatening characteristics. Just like Po earning the respect of the Five, word spreads across the ocean of Marlin’s achievements, finally reaching Nemo, who awaits his heroic dad’s rescue. These films thus seek to educate a younger audience about the importance of self-esteem and hard work, which always prevails. Their effectiveness stems from using animated animals, which captivate the attention of children with ease, and their anthropomorphic nature makes it easier for the audience to relate to them.

Further Reading

British Kung Fu Association – https://www.laugar-kungfu.com/laugar3.asp

Paul Wells, Understanding Animation (Routledge, 1998)

Paul Wells, The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons and Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2009)


Wells, Paul, Bestial Ambivalence

Wells, Paul, Understanding Animation (Routledge, 1998)

[1] Paul Wells, Understanding Animation (Routledge, 1998) PG 191

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-O_IQ__zwB8&oq=kung%20fu%20panda%20training%20sc&gs_l=youtube..0.5j0l2.70.4748.0.6755.…1ac.1.11.youtube.ck9cZApeCBc (Accessed 18/11/2013)