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Cinema in Focus: ‘Kung Fu Panda’

Courage and identity melded with the hard work of kung fu help a panda become a worthy warrior.

The introduction of the Chinese philosophy of kung fu is presented to children in Mark Osborne’s and John Stevenson’s animated film, Kung Fu Panda.

Legend claims that kung fu was being taught as early as the Yellow Emperor, around 2,600 B.C., and that it’s not only the mastering of martial arts, but the mastering of any skill by hard work and determination. Thus, it is possible for even a panda to discover his unique abilities and become a great “dragon warrior,” just as it is possible for any child viewing the film to be able to work hard and use his or her unique skills and interests to find greatness and fulfill his or her destiny.

Based on the story written by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, the film blends conflicting and complementary aspects, as seen when myth combines with wisdom, individuality struggles with family identity, prejudice is overcome with acceptance, expectations are laced with disappointments, pride is met with humility and courage defeats vengeance. The storyline is a familiar one of children’s films as we walk with Po (voice by Jack Black) through his obvious mismatch with his family to his prophesied destiny as the dragon warrior.

The fictional land in which the story occurs is a place of beauty and peace under the supervision of Master Oogway (voice by Randall Duk Kim). Oogway’s slow tortoise wisdom had created kung fu as a protective art and had placed a scroll in the mouth of a sculptured dragon in the ceiling of their honored hall. Oogway prophesies that one day there will be a great threat to the peace of the realm and a great dragon warrior will come to read the scroll and receive unlimited power.

When it becomes feared that Tai Lung (voice by Ian McShane) is escaping from a prison in which 1,000 guards are watching him as the only prisoner, Oogway sends out the call that he is going to choose the dragon warrior.

With a great determination to see who Oogway will choose, Po makes his way to the top of the mountain where the great hall and courtyard rest. Also present is Master Shifu (voice by Dustin Hoffman) a student of Oogway along with his five students who exemplify the best of Kung Fu: Tigress (voice by Angelina Jolie), Monkey (voice by Jackie Chan), Mantis (voice by Seth Rogen), Viper (voice by Lucy Liu) and Crane (voice by David Cross).

With unique abilities fitting their identities, their hard work and determination are brought to this moment when they come to show their skills. Each one hopes to be chosen by Ooogway as the one worthy to take the scroll from the dragon’s mouth.

We won’t spoil the tale by telling how all of this takes place, but the lessons are paradoxically simple and yet profound, just like the Chinese sayings woven throughout the tale.

The universal struggle to find peace and keep it from being disturbed is a goal all of us share, as individuals, as communities, as nations and as a world. Yet peace eludes us. This tale reminds us that there are forces far larger than ourselves involved in this struggle and that each of us must work hard and dedicate ourselves to using our unique gifts and abilities to accomplish this task.

Discussion:

» When Shifu realizes that his pride in Tai Lung is what kept him from recognizing the darkening heart within his young student, it’s reciprocally experienced by Tai Lung’s belief that he could never be good enough for Shifu. Their relationship reveals an all-too-common struggle that fathers and sons experience. Do you experience this with your father or son? Is it true of mothers and sons or fathers and daughters? Why do you think this happens?

» When Shifu identifies the panda’s strength, he begins to train Po in the unique way that helps him excel. How often do you think we miss the unique abilities of a person because we are blinded by their outward appearance? How do you keep this from happening in your life?

» When Po and Tai Lung both read the scroll, the answer is enlightening. Have you ever had a moment in which you realized that the limitations of your life were self-imposed?

Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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