Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Kung Fu Panda -- destiny and faith
Directors: Mark Osborne & John Stevenson, 2008.
Like the Olympics, there is a top tier of animation studios, led by Pixar, Disney and Dreamworks. Three recent movies from these studios highlight the hierarchy: WALL-E was clearly the best animated movie of 2008. Bolt, the recent release from Disney was its best in years, but not in the Pixar realm. Kung Fu Panda from Dreamworks is a close third to Bolt but not as good as its earlier (and best) release Shrek.
The movie starts with a classic animation look and feel as Po, the giant panda joins his kung fu heroes the Fabulous Five (Tigress, Monkey, Viper, Crane and Mantiss) to save the Chinese world. These images with sharp angles and bright colors dissolve into more realistic animation when Po awakes from this dream. He is still a large and ungainly panda. He is no kung fu panda.
When Po tells his dad, Mr. Ping the noodle maker, that he had the dream, he misinterprets this as the sign: "You are almost ready to be entrusted with the secret ingredient of my secret ingredient soup. And then you will fulfill your destiny and take over the restaurant just as I took it over from my father." Destiny is one of the themes. But Panda's lineage is in question as his father is a goose. And destiny is in question as Panda wants nothing more than to be a kung fu master.
When Grand Master Oogway, the old turtle, announces that it is time to appoint the new Dragon Warrior, Po just wants to watch the ceremony. Little does he realize that events will conspire to make him this warrior.
Against the wishes of Master Shifu and the fabulous five, who each wanted this great honor, it falls to Po. The pudgy panda must learn to be the wise warrior. In so doing, he must fulfill his destiny, this destiny, and so save the region from the evil snow leopard Tai Lung, a former apprentice of Shifu who turned to the dark side.
Drawing heavily from Star Wars, Kung Fu Panda plays out to a formulaic finale, with good battling evil, Panda vs Leopard. Shifu is a version of Yoda, even looking a little like the wizened Jedi master. Tai Lung is the dark Darth Vader, once the most promising student now wanting total power. And Po is an unlikely Luke, diminutive in spirit if not girth.
Kung Fu Panda has an excellent voice cast, led by Jack Black as Po and Dustin Hoffman as Shifu, and supported by Angelina Jolie (Tigress), Ian McShane (Tai Lung), and even kung fu star Jackie Chan (Monkey). Its animation is good. But its script is clichéd and pseudo-philosophic. For example: "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present." Or, "One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it."
The film splits time between the training of the heroes and the three major fight sequences: the first between the five and Tai Lung, the second between the master and the grown padwan, and the finale between Tai Lung and Po. In the training, one of the lessons of the film emerges. While Shifu tries to make Po a warrior in the same way he has done before, he fails miserably. But when he realizes Po is different and is motivated differently, he tailors his training to Po's unique personality. When he does this Po immediately responds. It is almost instinctive. When we treat everyone alike we are making cookie cutter characters. When we find their distinct styles and tastes, and customize the motivation to these distinctives, we can help them become the people they were made to be.
That brings us to the major theme of the movie: destiny. Oogway says, "There are no accidents." No accidents, no coincidences, only destiny. And we don't control destiny, we simply discover it and follow it. There is some biblical truth in this. God is sovereign. He is in control. There are no accidents. He is moving humankind through a history, some of which is still being written, to a finale of good and evil where good, in the person of Jesus Christ, wins out finally over evil, in the person of Satan. As followers of Jesus, we must discover his path for our lives and follow it. Serving him, we help restore the created order.
But this all takes faith, belief. Shifu demonstrates a lack of faith early in the movie. When Oogway tells him he has no control, but must believe in the chosen one, Po the "Dragon Warrior," he finds this hard to accept. "No, you just need to believe," Oogway tells him. He is called to faith in a "Savior" that does not fit his expectations. He imagined a famous warrior and he found a fat weakling. He looked at the externals. This was similar to the coming of Messiah. People expected a great warrior and they saw a lowly carpenter. Outward appearances can be deceiving.
Finally, there is the issue of self-acceptance. The only reason Po endured the hours of painful training, he tells Shifu, is "because I thought if anyone can change me, can make me not me, it was you!" He wanted to unbecome, to become someone else. He was not happy. His destiny was to be a pudgy noodle-maker, and he did not like that. He did not like himself. But the message that changes it for him comes not from Shifu but from his dad: "To make something special you just have to believe it's special." This simplistic message works in the film but is not true to life. We cannot simply believe we are special and we are so because we believe. That is magical thinking. It has no foundation. Yet, it is true that we are all special, uniquely created by the loving creator. We are all loved for who we are. But we can be special in this sense because of the underlying reason -- God made us this way. And he is in the process of changing us from within to become like him, beautiful beyond imagination! That is, if we let him. So, believe that you are special, not as an act of magic but based on biblical truth.
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
at 7:00 AM