Po loves to play with action figures of the legendary Furious Five—Tigress, Crane, Mantis, Viper and Monkey. He dreams of being in their ranks as a true deliverer of kung fu awesomeness. But, alas, he is only a chubby, stumble-footed and easily winded panda, not a lightning-fast, disciplined martial artist. So he's stuck in the family noodle business.
When word goes out that a Dragon Warrior will be chosen to fulfill legend and defend the Jade Kingdom from the dreaded martial arts master Tai Lung, Po can't contain his excitement. With a great deal of effort he lugs his considerable heft up the hundreds of steps to the Jade Palace to see who will land the great honor.
Turns out, he lands it—after accidentally crashing the tryout party.
Nobody can believe it. Especially not the Furious Five and their kung fu master Shifu. But since the enemy is already on his way, they have to do something. If Tai Lung gets his hands on the lauded Dragon Scroll, he will surely be powerful enough to rule the world. Po must do whatever it takes to face the fearsome and treacherous foe. Uh ... right after lunch, that is.
Po wants to honor his father even though he is drawn to martial arts and not to the family business. When dad realizes where Po's gifts lie, he embraces his son and gives him his blessing. They both express their love for one another.
Doing your best and believing in yourself is a theme that runs throughout the movie. Master Shifu doesn't believe that Po is the right choice to defend the kingdom and initially he tries to get him to quit. But when the older and wiser Oogway asks him to train and believe in Po, Shifu submits to his mentor's request and gives the task his all. Later, Shifu risks his life to give the townspeople time to escape Tai Lung's wrath. And the Furious Five, though great warriors themselves, honor Shifu's request that they take care of the innocent rather than fight.
Master Shifu raised Tai Lung from a small cub and loved him like a son. Before the two battle, the elder master speaks of his pride for Tai Lung. But he goes on to apologize for how that same pride negatively impacted the angry fighter.
This being a martial arts story set in China, characters are influenced by the Eastern spirituality around them.
Oogway, the philosophizing turtle master ("Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift—that is why they call it the present"), has a dream that the imprisoned Tai Lung will escape his bonds and return to the kingdom (which comes true). He also believes that there are no accidents and that "the universe" has delivered Po to be their Dragon Warrior. When sensing that his end is near, Oogway dissolves into a swirl of fruit tree petals that float into the sky.
After being chosen as the Dragon Warrior, Po is ushered into the Sacred Hall of Warriors. There he finds an urn that is supposedly filled with the souls of a defeated army. And when he accidentally breaks the urn, a glowing puff of smoke is freed.
Po and Master Shifu visit a small mountain lake called the Pool of Sacred Tears that the master says is the birth place of kung fu. When seen from above, the pool looks like the ancient ying and yang symbol. In a dream, Po sets off to fight "10,000 demons of Demon Mountain."
[Spoiler Warning] A great deal of spiritual mystery revolves around the Dragon Scroll. Many believe that when a great warrior reads the scroll he will be imbued with magical superpowers. In truth, when the scroll is finally unrolled, it has nothing to do with magic at all.
When Po clamps two noodle bowls to his chest, it gives the impression that he's wearing a bikini top.
Oogway is the only character who "dies." But the kung fu fighting is constant and furious—though often presented in a humorous manner.
Beginning the starstruck Po's training, Shifu tells him, "The only souvenirs we collect here are bloody knuckles and broken bones." He proceeds to oversee Po's preliminary pummeling at the hands of the Furious Five as well as mechanical creations designed to poke, prod, whack, thwack, toss, tilt, twirl and burn would-be kung fu fighters.
There are a few battles with Tai Lung that, while not really scary, could seem fairly intense to very young viewers. He's a pretty powerful-looking, always snarling presence, much like Shere Khan from The Jungle Book—only with roundhouse kicks. In one case, Tai Lung escapes from prison and battles numerous rhino captors with spectacular kicks, leaps and throws. The rhinos are hit (in slow motion) with their own spears and clubs. And the Furious Five battle the villain on a whiplashing rope bridge suspended above a bottomless chasm. (It looks like someone could fall to their death at any moment.) The bad guy paralyzes several of the Five with a nerve pinch. Tai Lung fights with Master Shifu and the two hit and kick each other with acrobatic swirls. Tai Lung throws blade weapons at his former master and Shifu knocks them aside. Shifu hits a stone pillar and is knocked unconscious.
[Spoiler Warning] The film culminates with a huge fight between Po and Tai Lung (which is played for laughs all the way through). Fur flies. A building collapses. Craters are blasted into the earth as bodies crash down upon it. A nuclear-level shockwave expands outward when the final blow lands. When it's over, Po runs to Shifu's side and it appears that the kung fu master has died. But he soon points out that he's really just getting some much-needed rest.
Other Negative Elements
A passing reference is made to gambling. Po straps himself and a bunch of fireworks rockets to a chair. When he lights them, he's blasted high into the sky.
When Po first shows up, the Furious Five are not happy about his presence. One says, "You're a disgrace to Jade Palace and everything we stand for."
Po is hit in the crotch while training and exclaims, "My tenders!" While being hit by Tai Lung, the panda's belly is jiggling so hard that he laughs, "I'm gonna pee."
When I walked into the screening for Kung Fu Panda, my expectations were low. The movie's trailer looked only so-so and I was anticipating that the theater full of kids and I would be bombarded with heavy-handed Eastern mysticism, pummeled by imitable fist-to-face bash and smash, and—based on comedian Jack Black's past film choices—handed a noodle bowl full of poo-poo humor.
I was pleasantly surprised. I found a colorful garden where I half expected a bog. Lush watercolor visuals and fun characters instead of flat animation and bland storytelling. A few kids will certainly come out of the theater itching to try out some of the roundhouse kicking, panda-belly-bouncing bedlam they've seen onscreen, but if the little roughhousing rascals a colleague of mine saw after the film are any indication, the moves they'll try are going to be of the friendly variety, not headlocks and punches. Previously stated spirituality is definitely present, but it's as spare as a martial arts cartoon set in ancient China will reasonably allow. And the humor runs clear and fresh.
In the film's production notes, co-director Mark Osborne had this to say: "It was important to all of us, from the start, that Kung Fu Panda would have a theme, a positive message that we really believed in. We wanted it to be a fun experience loaded with comedy and great action. But we also wanted there to be a takeaway that we all believed was a good one."
To that end, the story projects a well-worn "Follow your heart and believe in yourself" theme. But it also encourages finding your own strengths, being disciplined, learning from those who are older and wiser, protecting the innocent and standing up for what's right even when you're afraid you might fail.
Oh, yeah. There's one more thing this film encourages: hordes of cuddly stuffed animals forever frozen in kung fu poses.