Monday, June 30, 2008

Lessons I Learned From Watching Kung Fu Panda

Kung Fu Panda is an animated Dreamworks kids movie that to date has grossed more than $631,000,000 worldwide (updated January 2012). It features the voices of Jack Black, Jackie Chan, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie and Lucie Liu.

The hero is an overweight panda bear named Po that learns Kung Fu.

I didn't take my kids to see it but did watch it myself as I was tipped off that it might be something I'd want to blog about.

Wanna know what some of the take home messages included?

  • Fat people are clumsy and fun to laugh at

    As evidenced by Po's belly being the punchline of the majority of the movies jokes with of course the requisite sight gags of his belly knocking over bowls of food and his weight snapping a pole vault, a tree and more.

  • Fat is something that a person can be judged on,
    "That flabby panda can't possibly be the dragon warrior. You were about to appoint the tigress and that "thing" fell in front of her"

    "One would think master Ugway would at least choose someone who could touch his toes...or at least see his toes"
  • Fat people eating are disgusting

    As told by Po when Shifu finds him eating Monkey's almond cookies
    "Yeah, I know, I disgust you"
  • Fat people will do anything for food and get angry if food is taken away from them

    Shifu trains Po by having him try to catch and defend his dumplings culminating in a "fight" with Shifu over the last dumpling (the fight's embedded below); that it's only Po's gluttony that provides him with sufficient incentive to truly become the Dragon Warrior.

    The nice way to look at the ending is that size in the end doesn't matter.

    What a shame that arriving at that conclusion comes at the expense of the gross perpetuation of the last socially acceptable form of stereotyping, with the message really being, that despite the fact that Po's obese, he's managed to overcome it's obvious limitations and flaws to become a useful and productive member of a team.

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    1. Normally I'm on board with you here -- big fan of your blog -- but I don't think you leave much room for storytelling by taking those weight references so seriously.

      It's a cartoon about a kung-fu panda. If he's treated well by others in spite of being obese, where's the payoff at the end when he becomes the dragon warrior and is rewarded for believing in himself? Where's the obstacle to overcome?

    2. I figured this post would end up being controversial.

      I also saw Get Smart! which had a scene where Steve Carrell dances with an extremely overweight woman - it was done in good taste and while of course there was the sight gag of it being a large woman, it didn't really play on stereotypes like Kung Fu Panda did.

      Kung Fu Panda was portrayed as a clumsy, gluttunous oaf who becomes a warrior. He is not in fact treated well by others despite being obese - quite the opposite, he's shunned until as a dying favour to his master, Shifu agrees to train him and does so harnessing the power of Po's gluttonous appetite.

      See the movie and then come on back and let me know what you thought.

    3. It didn't come across in my reply - in the end, he's still portrayed as a gluttonous oaf, just one who's now excellent at Kung Fu. Certainly there's no suggestion whatsoever that he overcame anything, just that Kung Fu allowed folks to see past his shortcomings, not that they were wrong to judge him in the first place.

    4. Anonymous10:39 am

      Just a further comment (from me, not from Dr. Freedhoff) on the Get Smart scene.

      Maxwell actually treated the obese lady like a human being. It is made clear in the movie that he was formerly overweight, so he had some insight into how reactions like described in Kung Fu Panda feel when you are the recepient of them. Because of that, he knew that despite her size, the lady he danced with was still a person who deserved to be treated equally, so it was a good scene. (Add to it a bit of humour that the "pretty skinny girls" were snubbed after looking down their noses at the bigger lady. They weren't pretty, they just looked that way.) ;)

    5. When I saw Panda I never really thought much about him being obese. I was more focused on his clumsiness because once he became a great warrior he was still overweight.

    6. Anonymous10:50 pm

      Maybe it will encourage people to not be fat and live healthy.

    7. First I would like to say I am a big fan of the blog, however, your "interpretation" of Kung Fu Panda is disappointing.

      It seems sad that in our quest to help people overcome obesity that we are blinded to any and all positive messages.

      Granted the exaggerated traits of Po are perhaps over the top I believe the technique used here is using extreme opposites to try and deliver the most powerful impact.

      I find it amazing that someone in your position finds it so simple to focus on the negative and not allow the positive to manage your view of the movie. Helping people overcome ANY sort of health issue and/or social sigma requires an extreme dedication to finding positives in everything we see. The smallest positive has to be a focal point to make through to the next positive moment or else all too often forward progress is lost.

      I understand your point about Po's clumsy nature, however, for me the movie drove home the concept of having a dream. Without a dream how can we achieve any goals? I myself have struggle with obesity. In the last year I have made exception strides that have been a long, discouraging at times process. BUT, I know finding the positive in life and peeling off the negative I have found strength. Kung Fu Panda shows that even if no one believes you can do it, you can, if you believe in yourself. There is "no secret ingredient", except your belief in yourself. This concept applies across the board; it applies to faith, to living a healthier lifestyle, to make your career move in the direction you want it to go.

      Kung Fu Panda's message is about knowing that the secret lies within ourselves, which is why the Dragon Scroll was a mirror to show you the secret was within Po. Conversely the adversary in the movie didn't "get it", because he thought unlimited power came from an outside secret source and not from within. The moral being, Be a good person, believe in yourself and you achieve great things.

      Had Po lost a pile of weight in an unrealistic time frame and then became the Dragon Warrior it would have sent a message that you can only be great if you lose a pile of weight and train like a Kung Fu Master.

      The reality is obesity is as much a mental battle as it is a battle with the "norm" society has created around food. So if a movie can show people that you need to believe in yourself in order to accomplish the dreams and goals you have then I say congrats for delivering that message without creating unrealistic parameters in which to achieve success.

      My personal opinion about helping people deal with healthy living and how difficult it can be is to work on them believing it is possible LONG before attempting major lifestyle changes.


    8. The chop stick scene, using dumplings, is a play-off of any kung-fu movie ever made, where a rookie is being taught something. There is ALWAYS food used. Food being transfered in some way between chop sticks.
      Pandas are universally known as being large, and if you put them on two legs, oh yeah they are going to have a big belly.

      I read your blog daily, and really enjoy it. I say keep up the angry posts, because there are so many places where food education is being mis-taught and mis-guided.

      But ouch, I think you really reached to make this movie negative. Jack Black is the voice of the character and the audience knows that he is a heavier guy, which Disney has played off of, in finding a voice to suit the character.

      The scene where "disgust" is used, is again, a reference from any kung-fu movie where someone is acting without honour. Honour is found in following tradition, and listening to your master. The panda was not doing that, therefore the word 'disgust' was applied correctly based on the language used by western soceity to replicate what a old chinese man would say.

      I could go on for a while, but, Just watch a couple kung fu movies, and see.

      Again, love your posts, just showing the other side.

    9. Great blog, and interesting points by all those who replied as well. However, I have to disagree with some of the negative interpretations of the movie. I definitely see your point that perpetuating the 'fat is funny' stereotype can often be unhelpful and hurtful in the long run. Because KFP is a comedy, it inevitably uses Po's weight and clumsiness for comedic effect.

      This being said, Po's weight and clumsiness are two separate issues that should not be lumped into one issue. Case in point: Ratatouille. Alfredo Linguine, in this film, is just as clumsy and goofy as Po. He is also in a film far more centered around food than KFP (he is even named after food, as is the film itself). The difference is Po is fat and Linguine is, like his namesake, tall and skinny. So why is Po fat? Because he's a panda, and Panda's are fat.

      I don't mean to be overly blunt, and I am sure many people reading this are currently wondering if that last statement is insulting in some way, but it is not. Panda's are only fat compared to other creatures that are skinnier, but Po is exactly the size that he should be for a Panda, just like the other characters are exactly the size that they should be for what they are.

      The real key to KFP is not just that the other characters 'tolerate' (a loaded term) Po's size. In fact, it's much more than that. We the audience, as well as the characters themselves, see that Po is much more impressive BECAUSE of who he is.

      Anyone familiar with Kung Fu films knows that characters are frequently defined by their fighting styles. This is stereotyped very effectively in the 'furious five' in the film. When Po tries to emulate someone else's style, he fails. The epiphany he reaches (along with the rest of us) at the end is that Po is far more impressive using his OWN style. Watch his final fight scenes, everything about his style is as unique as it is effective and impressive. Po learns to tap into his Panda qualities (just like the furious five tap into their own natural qualities that are based on the animal they happen to be) and becomes not just an equal to the 'five' he idolizes, but a warrior far superior to any of them. He is able to single-handedly accomplish what the furious five (plus Shifu) collectively could not.

      As such, even though KFP makes full use of comedic license with a number of fat jokes (the clumsy ones don't count), it is a film that ultimately shows that being ourselves is not just ok, it is both essential and something to be proud of. Po has shed his insecurities about who he is, and so should we in our own lives.

      Thinking this film does little more than get cheap laughs at the expense of the obese is simply not seeing the forest through the trees.

      1. Anonymous2:22 pm

        Great comments: my response was the same, that it's a reach to see this as promoting anti-fat stereotypes. You could actually make a good case for the opposite, Yoni -- that this is a morality tale which satirizes and undercuts the stereotypes concerning being overweight.

        Children are actually quite smart: the panda is the hero, despite being overweight, and the bad guys torment him on this account. I can see the potential for them to respond to this positively: DON'T judge people on their weight or superficial appearance, and certainly don't be cruel, if you don't want to be on the side of the bad guys.