How’s this for a youth group or team meeting icebreaker: If you could bring one action hero to life, in the belief that their existence in the real world would make it a better place, who would you choose?
Actually, let’s make the question more challenging: If you could bring one action hero to life, solely on the basis of their character, not their fighting skills, who would you choose?
My answer is that — if someone in the room has already picked the Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire iteration of Spider-Man — I would choose Po the Panda from DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda trilogy.
With all due respect to the Shrek fans out there, and setting aside The Prince of Egypt as a strange anomaly in the studio’s filmography (meaning it doesn’t feel at all representative of their typical style), the Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon films are probably the only productions of lasting quality DreamWorks Animation has ever made. The mediocrity of their usual offerings makes these two standout series all the more significant. (Indeed, somehow the Panda and Dragon films are better than almost anything even Disney and Pixar have produced in the last decade.) But of the two series, the Kung Fu Panda trilogy stands out to me more. When I first saw the original film around ten years ago, I was awed by its action sequences and gorgeous graphics and emotionally engaged by its colorful cast of characters and believable, relationally-grounded stakes. And though it took me a second viewing to come around to appreciating the more ambitious and much darker sequel, one of the reasons I did come to appreciate it was how it took the winning elements of its predecessor and expanded upon them in surprising, even risky ways.
One of the franchise’s strengths is how it presents, and then revisits with some variations, the themes of fatherhood and fate. The first film is about surrogate fathers and mentor figures rather than biological fathers, and the screenplay is built around Master Shifu’s relationships with his own mentor Oogway and with three of his protégés: Po, Tigress, and the villain Tai Lung. (Ant-Man and Doctor Strange have a similar template.) In the background of the first film there is also Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping, who is a duck and is mostly relegated to being comic relief. (How can Po not know that pandas and ducks cannot be related?) But in the sequels, Po’s parentage moves to the foreground. In the second film, Po begins to unravel the mystery of his origins, and the villain also turns out to have a complicated family history. In the third film, Po’s real father finally appears and, as a counterbalancing force, Mr. Ping gets a more substantial role. It is both amusing and touching how these two father figures vie with each other for Po’s love, then come to find kinship in their shared love for him.
Meanwhile, the first two films also dramatize the classic paradox of how trying to outrun fate can make it inevitable, and how trying to thwart prophecies can help fulfill them. So the Kung Fu Panda films have a lot more on their minds than the average DreamWorks animated film, and there’s a thoughtfulness in how one chapter of the saga builds upon the last.
But while all the above are crucial parts of the Kung Fu Panda appeal, Kung Fu Panda 3 helped me realize that the true secret of the trilogy’s success lies in the character of Po. Behind all the clever writing, dazzling visuals, and thrilling kung fu action, the beating heart of this series, the glue that holds it all together, is a joyful protagonist whose core trait is his ability to appreciate his world and his friends with disinterested delight. This is the reason why the world could use a real-life Po much more than the antiheroes — like Batman, Iron Man, and Wolverine — that are so popular today. (And we definitely don’t need a real-life Deadpool.)
One of my pet peeves with character development in films is what I would call “cinematic shorthand.” We the audience are often told which characters are the “good guys,” whether by another character’s testimony or by a heroic musical cue. However, we are not always sufficiently shown how and why a character is good.
I am not saying that a film cannot explicitly say that a character is good, or even that it cannot do so before we can see that character (and judge their character) for ourselves. In the first Chronicles of Narnia book and film, the Beavers famously tell the the Pevensie children, “Of course [Aslan’s] not safe! But he’s good!” This is well before the Pevensies meet Aslan, but when they finally do meet him, his demeanor, his speech, and his actions will remove all doubt: Aslan is genuinely good through and through, and yet also somehow entirely unsafe.
If a character is honest, the filmmakers ought to show us multiples scenes wherein that character tells the truth, especially at great risk. If the character is generous, the audience should witness acts of kindness, especially at great personal cost. Films ought to give compelling reasons for us to root for their heroes. When they do not, it is like expecting the audience to howl at a joke that is not funny, prompted by the canned laugh track of the sitcom, or to cry at an emotional moment that has not been earned, manipulated by the swelling strings of the film score.
For example, in Black Panther, the protagonist’s father tells him: “You’re a good man with a good heart, and it is hard for a good man to be king.” I can name three different instances when T’Challa — both in that film and in Captain America: Civil War — spares an opponent’s life, and that’s exemplary. I can also accept that he’s conscientious and eager to do the right thing, and that too is exemplary. But the trouble is that his character arc is flat. He is a passive, reactive character. At his crucial third-act turning point, he doesn’t have a profound change of heart so much as a violent change of mind, brought on by a revelation of his father’s flaws and other outside pressures. What is missing from the film is one or more occasions to witness T’Challa proactively doing good. Moreover, in the final confrontation, T’Challa triumphs over Killmonger not by being a “good man with a good heart” but by being just a little bit more agile. So T’Challa is commended as worthy of emulation because he can (eventually) take down the bad guy, and because he can make snap judgments under duress, not because of some inner quality.
Similarly, toward the end of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, K-2SO tells Jyn Erso (another passive, reactive character) that her “behavior . . . is continually unexpected.” But what has Jyn ever done that’s unexpected and would move this sardonic droid to change its tone toward her? She begins the film as an apathetic ex-rebel and ends it as a selfless martyr, and if that arc is haphazardly constructed and unconvincing (and it is), that is not a good kind of “unexpected.” (In the same film, Cassian Andor fares much better in terms of demonstrable character traits. When we first meet him, he kills an ally so that ally won’t be caught by the Empire. We can see that he’s willing to get his hands dirty, but we can also see that the desperate measures he has taken continue to haunt him. Without this, the conflict he has with Jyn later would not be convincing.)
Often this cinematic shorthand is simply the result of shoddy screenwriting. It is not necessarily the case that the filmmakers have a poor sense of what a good hero should look like. Rather, they do a poor job making a hero be truly good, with a winsome goodness that is expressed in actions and would gain the audience’s admiration — not just presume upon it — and maybe even inspire imitation. But what concerns me all the more are the times when it seems the filmmakers haven’t the faintest idea what moral goodness is. At the end of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Will and Elizabeth insist that Jack Sparrow should not be executed because he is “a good man,” even though we have been given zero evidence in support of this claim, and every evidence against. Are these two lovebirds so infatuated with each other, and so drunk with the thrill of adventure, that they have totally forgotten that this wily drunkard (and thief, and murderer) endangered their lives to get revenge on his enemy and get his ship back?
However, it’s worth noting that this cinematic shorthand is not as common with the “bad guys.” Shortly after their dramatic entrances, virtually every movie villain is seen doing something indisputably despicable. The Joker puts a grenade in a banker’s mouth. Captain Hook shoots one of his pirates just for singing. Darth Vader chokes someone. We are told, in no uncertain terms, that Mr. Potter is the meanest, greediest man in Bedford Falls, but that’s not why we come to hate him. Like Aslan, his reputation precedes him and is followed by unambiguous proof.
In his book Through a Screen Darkly, Christian film critic Jeffrey Overstreet observes that, “While visions of horrible behavior can turn us away from darkness, it’s much more difficult for an artist to create an inspiring portrait of virtue.”1 This may explain why, when discussing Black Panther, we can easily point to actions that prove that Killmonger is immoral, but not so easily point to actions that prove that T’Challa is good — not just moral, but good. Overstreet also dedicates a few chapters of his book to considering the issue of violence in films, and his analysis suggests that it is particularly difficult to make action heroes be these “inspiring portrait[s] of virtue.” How can characters known for violence — and often for vengeance — also be known for compassion, gentleness, or humility?
I’ve taken this detour into the current state of blockbuster filmmaking to illustrate why Po is refreshingly different. Po does become a warrior, and he must use his fighting skills to win. But nevertheless, in all three films, he ultimately triumphs over his adversaries by drawing upon his virtues. His victories are moral, not just physical.
The creators of Kung Fu Panda do not commit cinematic shorthand with Po. No character is overheard saying what I wrote above, that Po is marked by disinterested delight, and that this is why he’s the hero of the story. The three films show, not tell — and better still, they do so consistently, repeatedly. Po is in an almost constant state of wide-eyed wonder at the world around him and at the abilities of his friends.
Po not only has a voracious appetite; he enjoys his food. (I’d hesitate to charge him with gluttony, given that pandas do naturally eat a ton.) He “geeks out” in the first film when he explores the hall of weapons and artifacts used by kung fu legends of old. He geeks out again in the third film, when he and his father play with those weapons like two boys opening presents on Christmas morning. He is star-struck when he first meets the Furious Five, and even after he becomes the Dragon Warrior and accomplishes feats they never could, he never ceases to be amazed at — and never becomes jealous of — their special moves. He is always humbled and honored by the privilege of fighting side by side with them. There’s a comic moment in the second film when he and the Five are charging at a pack of enemies and are hurtling through midair in slow-motion. In that gravity and time-defying moment, Po looks to his right and left to see Tigress, Mantis, Crane, Viper, and Monkey, and yells, “I looooove youuuuu guuuuuys!” It’s beyond cheesy, and probably not something a real warrior would shout while charging into a fight, but it makes my point vividly.
Po’s appreciation of his friends and their talents is a perfect example of the word disinterest in its original sense, before it was treated as synonymous with apathy. He wants to learn from his teacher Shifu or the Five, and never dreams of one day upstaging them. This puts Po in stark contrast with the villains of the films, who are each marked by jealousy and the lust for greater power over others. He is able to see and enjoy the good in others, and he helps them to see that good in themselves and in each other.
In the third film, Po learns that the best way to be a teacher is to show others not how to become more like him but how to recognize and cultivate their own latent potential. He takes his key character trait of appreciation — something we’ve already seen demonstrated across three films — and uses it for instruction. He runs around the panda village of his father, excitedly showing the villagers how their mundane skills and personality quirks can be weaponized against an approaching army. Up until that point, the film has been subtly introducing these skills and quirks and disguising them as comic relief. At first I thought of them as nothing but punchlines, and then, in a moment, Po set me straight. Where I saw humor, Po saw amazing potential. Where I saw a ragtag group of clumsy, lazy pandas, he saw uniquely talented individuals and a community able to defend itself. This, too, is in contrast with the villains of the films, who, like Goliath, are amused or offended when they see how unlikely and unimpressive an opponent has come to challenge them. The final confrontation between the panda village and the zombified kung fu masters ends up being a rehash of the Ewok battle in Return of the Jedi, and even more preposterous. But though this finale doesn’t make sense in terms of logic — if that word can even be used at all when talking about these films — it does make complete sense in terms of character and theme.
Thankfully, Po does not live in a world that is sealed off from pain and suffering. He is not a naive optimist unable to reckon with the existence of evil. That would have made his boundless joy seem artificial and disingenuous, easily dismissed by those who know better. Especially in the second film, the filmmakers are not afraid to take this unassuming bear into darker territory. We learn that much of Po’s species, including his mother, were wiped out by a genocide ordered by a peacock warlord, the most maniacal and disturbing of the trilogy’s villains. One would think this news would ruin Po’s innocence. Instead, Po learns to harness “inner peace” and remains resilient. The wonder is, in a time when Hollywood equates grit and grime and general unpleasantness with maturity and seriousness, that Po is never jaded.
Now, when reading the words “inner peace,” some will automatically think of the gnostic connotations of the phrase. Certainly, there are moments when Po’s teachers start sounding like Yoda, who famously said in The Empire Strikes Back, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter!” But while Po is to some degree spiritually-minded, he is no ascetic mystic. He’s about as hedonistic as a person can get without being immoral. (Again, could you ever charge a panda with gluttony?) In a world that continues to gravitate toward either pole of the Athenian dichotomy of Stoics versus Epicureans, Po is once more a remarkable anomaly. He models how someone could wholeheartedly embrace the world’s goods without being consumed by them, and how one might practice self-denial without becoming something less than human. The Yoda-like Grand Master Oogway tells Shifu, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is gift. That is why it is called the present.” Po embodies that mantra, unwrapping each day with eager anticipation and gladly sharing what he finds.
Is it possible that a real-life incarnation of Po could make our world a better place, even without the powers of the Wuxi finger hold or chi? I believe so, because going on adventures with Po for three films has made my own life just a bit more joyful. Po is more a master in the school of life than the school of kung fu, and he has taught me to look around with eyes wide open and enjoy life with more gusto. He has modeled for me a disposition toward others that has been called “appreciate inquiry”: to seek out the best in others and labor to bring it to the surface.2 And he has reminded me that a peace and joy undaunted by tragedy and darkness has the potential to overcome armies. I’ll take this silly old self-forgetful bear over any self-serious man-in-tights antihero any day.
Jeffrey Overstreet, Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies (Regal, 2007), 296.
I learned the concept of “appreciative inquiry” from Steven Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s influential book on Christian humanitarian work, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (Moody Press, 2012), but the concept can apply to practically any area of life, not just poverty relief. I first read that book around the time I first saw Kung Fu Panda 3, and so the film showed me how “appreciative inquiry” is especially valuable as a pedagogical strategy.