Does Dreamworks actively prevent the Kung Fu Panda franchise from falling into a clichéd series of rinse and repeat? Each film follows the same formula: the panda warrior, Po Ping, uncovers a piece of self-awareness which then fuels the power he uses to save China from a vengeful villain. Yet, each movie seems to stand on its own. The spirit of Po’s Kung Fu world is alive and supported by millions of fans, despite the obvious movie flaws. How is this possible?
Dreamworks’s secret is the same as any successful children’s series: a narrative focus audience members can invest in and memorable characters that make excellent action figures. So let’s take a look at these two components, and then see why Kung Fu Panda 3 keeps the franchise strong.
Each Kung Fu Panda movie’s plot relies on the same external conflict of a villain threatening people–whether that be the village, the valley, or the entirety of China. The protagonist’s, Po Ping’s, internal conflict, however tends to vary. The series focuses on ideals regarding self-awareness and self-discovery, which are important aspects of growing up. The knowledge that Po gains then fuels his super powers, thus allowing him to save the day.
Does this sound like a stereotypical superhero movie? Maybe… let’s take a look at how the narrative focus of each film is attractive.
Self Esteem & Respect
The first Kung Fu Panda film (2008) attracts viewers with the popular Call to Adventure and the Hero’s Journey tropes. A Call to Adventure means an average person is asked to leave behind their familiar life and venture into the unknown on a quest. The majority of the time, this quest turns into a journey that transforms the average person into a hero.
Despite Po’s clumsiness and lack of Kung Fu knowledge, Grand Master Oogway points Po out as the prophesied Dragon Warrior. Even though no one believes Po is the true Dragon Warrior, including Po himself, Po is brought to the Kung Fu training facility to learn the art alongside his idols. Through his journey from noodle vendor to Kung Fu trainee, Po learns a thing or two about Kung Fu and discovers that the limitless power of the Dragon Warrior comes from within. Anything, or any person, can be special as long as people believe that thing or person is special. Thus, Po’s weaknesses becomes his strengths, and he uses the power from within himself to send the villain, Tai Lung, to the spirit realm.
‘Believe in yourself’ is the moral being taught in this first movie, and this lesson is one of the most popular amongst children films.
Obtaining Inner Peace
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) provides a deeper backstory to the character viewers learned to love in the first film. Po is unable to fight-off villains efficiently because dark flashbacks cause him to freeze. In general, flashbacks allow stories to connect a character’s past to their present narrative. In this case, Po must understand his flashbacks and accept the fact he is adopted before he can achieve an inner peace which will help him fight better. This narrative focus is effective in teaching that ‘understanding and accepting your past will help you move forward in life.’
Self Identity and Growth
The latest film is no exception to capturing the interest of fans. Now that Po is aware that he is adopted, Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) can further explore themes like family, heritage, and identity. The narrative focuses on Po’s exploration of what it means to be a Panda, to be a son, to be a teacher, and to be the Dragon Warrior. Identity is a huge theme to tackle in a children’s movie, but Dreamworks seems to recognize the story line as relative and relatable.
Memorable characters are important to any children’s story. The Kung Fu Panda characters are easily divided into several groups: The Furious Five, re-ocurring main characters, villains, henchmen, lovable side characters, and extra bodies. Perhaps viewers are drawn to the franchise because of the all-star voice cast?
Unfortunately, the series seems to only focus on Po’s life. What about his five friends–the Furious Five? Or his father’s story? Or the stories of other masters? Would it benefit Dreamworks to create deeper, more complex stories for other major Kung Fu Panda characters?
Keeping the Franchise Strong
It seems that Dreamworks tries to rinse and revamp a formula which seems to work for them. Po teaches audiences members important moral lessons about self-awareness while defeating the villain at the end of the day. Although, I must say, Po’s personal growth and introspection in Kung Fu Panda 3 happens miraculously fast—this is just one of a few flaws in Kung Fu Panda 3 that immediately jumped out at me.
The answers in Kung Fu Panda 3 come easily to characters, and do not seem earned. For example, how does everyone instantly know how to use the power of Chi, when it took another master 30 years to learn? Also, the film does an excellent job at poking fun of clichéd moments, but the fact of the matter is, they are still portraying clichéd moments.
Despite these flaws, Kung Fu Panda 3 is keeping the franchise alive and kicking. Could it be that what the films stand for outweigh their structural flaws? I didn’t bring up the artistic merits of this series. (The imagery and effects are SUPERB by the way.) Please chime in with your thoughts and opinions on this series! Why do you believe these films are successful?
Note: This article only pertains to the films Kung Fu Panda 1, 2, and 3. This article was not written with the special feature films in mind, although I would welcome feedback and commentary on those films!