Kung Fu Panda is the story of Po (voiced by Jack Black), a portly panda who lives in a village at the foot of a mountain, atop which is a legendary Kung Fu temple. Po dreams of being able to learn Kung Fu, and of joining the exploits of the temples famous martial arts warriors, The Furious Five.
But being a Panda, and thus… a large individual to put it kindly, Po seems destined to a common life serving the customers at his father’s noodle shop.
Little does he realize the greatness he’s destined for.
As the movie opens, the temple is inaccessible to Po. Both literally and figuratively. Not only does admission to the temple as a student seem an improbable daydream for an overweight Panda, the temple itself seems unreachable. It’s located at the top of a mountain of stairs nearly impossible for him to climb.
The temple holds a festival to pronounce the selection of the recipient of the legendary “Dragon Scroll”, a scroll that conveys untold martial arts powers to reader and elevates them to the status of the “Dragon Warrior”. The Dragon Warrior is prophesied to be a legendary martial artist, and Po is excited to attend the festival. Yet his father insists he bring the noodle cart in order to sell noodles. The difficulties he has bringing the cart up the stairs cause him to be late, and Po finds the gates locked.
His place in his father’s noodle business, combined with his weight issues, are literally keeping him out of the temple.
But fate intervenes. When a fireworks accident launches him over the wall, Po not only finds his way into the temple, he finds himself ordained “The Dragon Warrior”.
His greatest obstacles lie ahead, however.
The students of the temple, The Furious Five, each trained hard for years, hoping to earn the honor of being selected to receive the scroll. Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Snake (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen) and Crane (David Cross) all resent Po. He’s untrained, he’s overweight, he’s uncoordinated. It was purely a fluke accident that put him in position to receive the scroll. Surely, any one of them would be more worthy.
In agreement with them is the Furious Five’s diminutive instructor, Master Shifu. Shifu, as voiced by Dustin Hoffman, is flummoxed by Po. How is he supposed to train an overweight, clumsy Panda to do Kung Fu? THIS is the legendary Dragon Warrior?
Fortunately for Po, the temple is still under the guidance of the elderly tortoise, Master Oogway
It was Oogway who recognized the hand of fate when Po landed at his feet during the Dragon Warrior selection ceremony, and it is Oogway who encourages Po to continue on with his training in spite of his difficulties – that it was no accident the universe chose him as the Dragon Warrior. It is also Oogway that calms Shifu, and convinces him to keep searching for a way to reach Po.
But Oogway’s time has come. With his wisdom imparted to Po and Shifu, Oogway blows away with the wind.
They are on their own now.
And the pressure is on. For while Shifu, the Furious Five and Po struggle with his selection as the Dragon Warrior, the notorious criminal Tai Lung has escaped from prison.
Tai Lung, voiced in incredibly bad assed fashion by Ian McShane, is a former member of the temple and a former student of Shifu’s. He was the most promising student at the temple, and an adoptive son to Shifu, until he was blinded by greed and ambition and attempted to steal the Dragon Scroll. Prevented from doing so by Master Oogway, he has spent the last twenty years shackled in a pit within a highly guarded prison.
Now he has escaped, and is on his way back to the prison to take the scroll he believes is rightfully his.
Thankfully, Master Shifu has come to a realization. Po is not like the other students. And thus, he needs to train him differently. When Shifu realizes that Po is motivated via his appetite, he adjusts his training methods to incorporate food.
Thus begins one of the cleverest, most enjoyable training sequences of all time. Shifu vs. Po in a battle over a dumpling.
Using chopsticks like mini Bo staves, the two stab at and try to grab the dumpling, all the while blocking and countering the other’s moves. They have a fight over this dumpling that expands beyond the table and out into the surrounding area. When it’s over, Po is victorious, yet declares he is not hungry, and doesn’t eat the hard won dumpling.
Shifu declares his training complete.
And not a moment too soon. For as they trained, Tai Lung was busy defeating all five of the Furious Five at the same time in an incredible fight scene on a rope bridge crossing a seemingly bottomless chasm.
So when he finally arrives at the temple and defeats Master Shifu, one can hardly blame Tai Lung for being dismissive when all that’s left between him and the Dragon Scroll is a winded, huffing panda.
What he doesn’t realize is that Po has already read the scroll, and now understands the contents. Thanks to his father explaining to him that there is no secret ingredient in the secret ingredient soup, Po realizes that the message of the Dragon Scroll is that he possesses all of the qualities of the Dragon Warrior already. He’s ready now to fulfill his destiny by unleashing his own style of Kung Fu – in a way that only HE can.
Kung Fu Panda was originally intended to be a spoof of Martial Arts movies. But the creators realized they loved those movies too much to make fun of them. So instead, they decided to make the movie a tribute movie, complete with the best action sequences they could make, and a big heart.
This is a movie that imparts the lesson of being yourself and believing in yourself. It also portrays the martial arts extremely well, clearly demonstrating that the strongest martial artists aren’t necessarily those with the highest kicks or strongest punches, but those who have a clear mind, inner peace, confidence, and a style which suits their own particular strengths. As a former martial arts instructor, I can vouch for the validity of those lessons.
Kung Fu Panda is one of my favorite animated films of all time, and I would argue, one of the greatest. It’s gorgeously animated, hysterically voiced, and full of memorable, exciting action sequences. It balances humor and action perfectly, and contains far more than its share of the requisite animated movie lessons.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.