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HEAR ME OUT: KUNG FU PANDA HAS A LOT TO SAY ABOUT LIFE, DESTINY, AND THE CORRUPTING POWER OF EGO

Hear Me Out: Kung Fu Panda Has a Lot to Say About Life, Destiny, and the Corrupting Power of Ego

It’s clear that “Kung Fu Panda” contains a multitude of important lessons for children, but it also has themes for adults to parse through and learn from.

I adore the Kung Fu Panda movies.

I truly do and have never made it much of a secret. From the soft, fat, AND ferocious warrior panda known as Ping Xiao Po (voice by Jack Black) to the rest of the amazing voice cast to the poignant way in which these movies (particularly the first one) handles the cyclical nature of life and the inevitability of death through Master Oogway, it’s safe to say that like most good “kids movies”… Kung Fu Panda is really a movie for adults to find lessons in. You’re probably wondering why I’m bringing any of these movies up (to be clear, I’ll be focusing mainly on the first one—with sprinkles of the second one), considering that the last one came out in 2016 and the fact that it’s actually a pretty serious movie is technically old news.

However, I’ve been revisiting it a lot lately mainly because it’s one of the few films that I’ve consistently returned to on my spiritual and emotional journey.

…Which is to say that the film has taught me a lot about myself, destiny, and how it can be derailed and perhaps aided—by one’s overgrown ego.

I’ll be the first to say that spirituality is still a thing I’m trying to navigate. As someone who is still struggling with the ill effects of Christianity (I’m a former Baptist) and scars that its offspring—purity culture—left on me, I have struggled a lot with questions of faith and spirituality and the absence of a “religion” in my life (hello Taurus problems). But in recent years (circa 2017), through the help of an ex-friend (funny how life works), I got into tarot cards and, subsequently, astrology. Which, to my surprise, gave me all the answers I needed… and then some.

But perhaps the most poignant lesson both of these spiritual tools have imparted on me (besides patience being the lesson of my life) is the fact that life will truly take you on the most perverse ride if you dig your heels in and remain committed to a certain outcome that was never really intended for you to begin with. And, in its worst form, would even cause harm to you.

And this is precisely where KFP comes in. Besides its clear message about how “the hero” can look nothing like we expect (look at Dreamworks tackling how embedded fatphobia is even in fictional archetypes and tropes), KFP is clever because it is telling a story on two levels. One is in fact about Po and his unexpected journey into becoming the hero he always dreamed about (did he lowkey manifest that? Mayhaps!) and the other one… is about how his own journey helps resolve the troubled journey of Master Shifu, the other panda in the film.

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I’m not gonna sit here and summarize the whole movie for you, as that would be fairly condescending. But part of the reason there’s a film to begin with goes back to Master Shifu and his hyperfixation on a certain outcome for both he AND the film’s antagonist’s (Tai Lung) life. Shifu trained him, raised him as his own son, but basically fucked it all up because he was fixated on the fact that he believed it was Tai Lung’s destiny to be the dragon warrior (and by extension… his). I don’t know for sure if Shifu had ever pondered the possibility of he himself being the legendary warrior, but he most certainly came to believe that he and only he would be the one to bring that warrior forward, rather than the force of destiny being the one to do so. 

It seems to me that Tai Lung was always gonna be gifted in the ways of Kung Fu. And by this merit, it’s safe to assume that he was always gonna be “great” in some sort of way (even if that “greatness” turned out to be… negative in nature as we see in the film). And, yes, I do believe that he was always going to be particularly prideful and that this pride would be a dangerous mix when unchecked and working in tandem with his ambition. But had Shifu’s ego not consistently gotten in the way and had he not gassed Tai Lung up about a destiny that was not promised to him, things might have looked different. Because, to be clear, pride and ambition aren’t inherently evil forces. It is the final addition of ego (and the illusion of total control) that can turn these things away from the good that they are capable of. And, occasionally, change the course of one’s destiny or ironically bring it about (this happens again in KFP 2 with Shen and his attack on the pandas).

And the film makes this point so many times, but perhaps the most humorous one is when Tai Lung finally escapes prison after being locked in there for twenty years. Master Oogway tells Shifu that this is going to happen. I’d even go as far as saying that it is something that is presented as unavoidable (because Shifu cannot truly achieve inner peace until he confronts the destruction that his ego wrought through his pupil, Tai Lung). But once again, Shifu thinks that he can control this outcome and bring about another. He thinks he can exert enough control to change his destiny and the destiny of those around him. Because of his know-it-all tendencies that are stemming straight from his ego, Shifu sends a messenger bird to tell the prison in question to beef up security and make sure Tai Lung cannot escape (as if he could ever prevent it). And it is this very move that aids Tai Lung in doing just that, as he proceeds to escape with the help of a mere feather that fell from the body of the messenger bird.

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The funny part about all this is that both the film and Shifu don’t really move forward in any way that is productive until Shifu’s ego is killed and he subsequently lets go of any and all expectations when it comes to what and who he wanted the dragon warrior to be. He is not able to properly train Po in a way that is accessible to him until he removes his ego from the equation. And he is not able to truly be at peace and properly apologize to Tai Lung’s inner child (to his face, which I admit was very brave, self-reflective, and highly self-aware) until he calls his own ego to the mat and assumes accountability for how it ruined both of their lives for far too long. 

Then, and only then, is he truly able to fully step into his destiny.

I’ve been at this spiritual shit for about three years now and I still don’t know what the fuck I’m doing most days. And sometimes I can get really pissed about having to operate on the universe’s timing rather than my own (I mean, it’s not like the Universe readily and overtly texts you about these things, but I digress). But as time goes on, life has become a lot more bearable for me because I am beginning to grasp the fact that my life is on a certain path and that there are certain things (no matter how difficult or painful) that I must go through in order to complete this path. But none of that will happen if I allow my ego to convince me that this is all supposed to go or end a certain way, rather than just accepting that there are gonna be certain moments that I have no say in any of this shit whatsoever.

Because, to speak plainly, I don’t believe anyone is able to truly start living their life until they let go of the foolish notion that they know everything about how this thing called life is supposed to go.

And KFP, a mere “kids’ movie” has always been a pretty good reminder of this. 

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