Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Kung Fu Panda- Anti-Christian? An attempt at film analysis

Most of you probably have watched or at least have heard about the recent cartoon film Kung fu Panda. And there is a sequel coming in May.

On the surface, it seems like an innocent prototypical children's cartoon where the underdog hero (Po, the fat lazy Panda pictured above) overcomes obstacles and his own limitations to beat stereotypical Strong Bad Guy.

However, a closer look reveals the movie to be a war of ideology. That is, East vs. West. More specifically, war of religions: Buddhism (reality is false, just "believe" in yourself and you can overcome the illusion of reality) vs. Judeo-Christianity (Man is Fallen/broken in need of God).

The philosopher Zizek summarizes the message of the film as "“There is no special ingredient (to life). It’s only you. To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.”

While the lines that lend credence to this are numerous in the film, the basic idea of what I argue can be seen in one example....

In the following scene, which is the climax of the film we will see the tiger, Tai Lung (the enemy) opening up the Magic Scroll.

As a preface, the Magic Scroll was believed to contain the secrets of the universe and hidden wisdoms. Earlier, Po, who had inherited the scroll, opened it up to find that there was no words on the words but rather just his own reflection on the shiny scroll itself. Essentially, the "wordless" scroll was saying the secret ingredient to life is within you (As in the secret of reality was already within Po as he saw himself in the scroll). Po, accepts this wisdom and goes on to become the Dragon Warrior....

(One need to only watch the first 2:30  to see enough to understand my further analysis below)-

The scene speaks volumes to me....

And if one considers the Scroll equivalent to the Bible or any sacred text..the Secret Scroll in the scene is essentially declaring that there is no such thing as a sacred text. The only thing that is sacred is the individual themselves....if only they believe in themselves. Or to go one step further, it is saying that the only reason the Bible or other writings are sacred is because they are believed to be sacred.

We then see the Tiger get upset as the lack of message within the scroll (because he was believing the Word within the scroll would help him). Notice too that when the tiger opens up the scroll and sees his reflection, he says "it's nothing!" Is this not a jab at the Christian faith which says man is nothing without God and he needs the Word to sustain him? Thus when the tiger says "it's nothing," the movie is saying that when an individual relies on something outside himself for belief, his value is nothing. At such a rage in realization, the fight continues right after Po says "there is no secret ingredient."

Subjective Speculation: At the 1:35 mark in the video do we have an allegorical jab at Christianity wherein Panda's shooting the Tiger up into the heaven's to the point of disappearing in the sky (complete with angelic song to accompany the Tiger's ascension) and the Tiger's fall allude to the "false" resurrection of Christ wherein such an ascension never happened and Jesus was just a man (he comes falling back to earth)

The one last piece of note in the scene is when the Tiger calls Po "just a BIG....FAT...PANDA" and Po replies, "I'm not a big, fat, panda. I am the big, fat Panda." The emphasis on Po's line is that he substitutes an "a" with "the" and thus in a way elevates his own being to the point of divinity. Thus, Jesus is not a Messiah, but rather he is the Messiah. Or similarly, if I were to say "I am THE Joel Riley," the allusion would be that I am an egotistical maniac making himself something of myself beyond that of a normal human being.

I am not preaching that we can't watch such films, but I argue that there are always underlying ideological assumptions in films...and many times in those which we think are entirely innocent (such as children's film). I would similarly argue that the message of Kung Fu Panda, is the fallacy of our age wherein we are told to just "Believe in yourself and you can achieve whatever your heart desires."


John said...

You have got to be kidding.

Believe in yourself is a standard motif in children's film and literature. Think Dumbo.

"There is no special ingredient" This overlooks that the film clearly shows that Po (the panda) has high levels of natural ability and trained extensively with a skilled teacher. We should take that the Kung Fu Panda is telling us that through with hard work, ability and confidence you can overcome any obstacle and achieve your dreams. This is not Eastern philosophy this is the American dream. Is the American dream un-Biblical, probably but it is not Eastern. Buddhism oversimplified focuses on the avoidance of pain by removing desire.

"And if one considers the Scroll equivalent to the Bible or any sacred text" I must disagree the Scroll is not equivalent to a sacred text but to a WMD, a weapon. With the plot twist that it is a dud. This is the same pilot as Start Trek "The Chase."

"Panda's shooting the Tiger up into the heaven's to the point of disappearing in the sky" Also a standard motif, just look at Bugs Bunny.

"I'm not a big, fat, panda. I am the big, fat Panda." A standard reply to an insult formatted a "your just a ___." The does not imply divinity but a rejection of the inconsequentiality of the insulted.

I have two thoughts on culture wars in general. First the evidence perused for such wars is often weak at best. Second the implicit understanding that Judeo-Christianity philosophy is too weak to withstand some competition. I can not disagree more. I welcome an open and fair market of ideas because I know true Christianity will prosper in such a market.

You are right that the: "fallacy of our age wherein we are told to just 'Believe in yourself and you can achieve whatever your heart desires.'" But this is a an old fallacy that has infected American ideology for a long time and is spreading from America to the rest of the world.

Joel Riley said...


First, I hope you see this is why i am so loving film analysis right now (reading up on it, etc...)...it allows for different interpretations, etc...

I would argue that my interpretation is much more subtle than yours, and i dont mean that in an arrogant way. Sure, the Tigers floating into heaven could be a throwback to Bugs Bunny, but the power/weakness of interpretation is this doesn't put us at an either/or standstill of which interpretation of the clip is right....it can be both (though i would once again point to the angelic voices as a ..point of reference for the scene)

The comment about the training scene...here's the irony:

Po, in a matter of a few minutes of training montages in a movie, with quick-cuts, etc...surpasses in his talent of Kung-Fu that of his peers who had been training for years and years....

As for your Dumbo analogy...

This definitely throws a wrench into my argument... although, at first blush...does not Dumbo's weakness becomes his strength? Whereas Po's success comes in spite of his weakness?

As for the culture war (and Christianity not being strong enough)....I agree John. I did not suggest we are too weak to withstand such competition...If it comes out that way, I apologize....

I fear that underlying your attempts to overturn my interpretation (which generally you did not other than to say, "well it could be this instead")...is that you are thinking i have a traditional polemical agenda against "the bad guys."

I really dont. I think we can make ideological critiques without making it a preaching point....

Pumice said...

I often point out in school when the subject comes up that many of the themes in modern movies are based on eastern religions. The force is the Ying/Yang division. Obe Wan fading away demonstrates the goal of Nirvana. Darth Vader being really good inside is standard secular humanism. I don't go to movies much so I miss a lot of it but thanks for the reminder. I did see the trailer for this movie and it looked like fun but not enough fun for me to return.

Recently I was asked if I believed in Karma. I answered like I always do to those types of questions, "No, I believe in Jesus." When they continued to ask questions I was able to talk about reincarnation as opposed to judgment.

Grace and Peace.

Stevo said...

Good post! I wouldn't doubt anyone of your assumptions. We live in a wicked world that wants to promote humanism and all manner of wickedness. What better medium than to use children's movies? Just by doing a little research on the web about, "Is Disney of the devil?" You will find many convincing theories about how evil and sinister big companies are, particularly media based ones.

God bless!


Fran said...

I must admit that reading this at first, shocked me, but then after watching the film again i do see where your points are coming from.

However, I am a Roman Catholic and a volunteer with the Youth Ministry Team of Hexham and Newcastle Diocese. Our work is to introduce young people to a spiritual message in a relevant and enjoyable way. I must tell you that this film has been one of our resources since it came out and never have i heard an interpretation quite like yours.
I do agree that it is down to interpretation but i must stress that this film accompanied by some tailored input has been a very strong resource for us and the young people we work with.
From my own opinion, if you don't mind me sharing, Shifu helps Po to realise that his potential is stored inside of him, he need only believe in himself. This to me is like a relationship with God. As young people discover their own relationship with God, He works with and through them to help them reach their hopes and dreams.

I am only young myself, so forgive me if I do not fully understand all of your argument but i will stand by what i have said, this film with correct input has been a fantastic resource for our young people. Maybe it comes down to my optimism and positivity that i see this in the film but still, i have seen this film make a difference in the spiritual lives of young people.

Coltosh said...

Perspectives and interpretations are relative things. I was quite intrigued and entertained by your “Kung Fu Panda- Anti-Christian? An attempt at film analysis”

Joel Riley said...


My one regret about this post is that it came off too much like a "Burn all the Kung-Fu Panda Movies" because it's from the devil kind of rant.

I would never take the stand and say people shouldn't watch it...and if necessary I would even watch it again.

In short, I was not trying to polematize the film, but I did see some themes problematic about it with the storyline.

As for the "Believe in yourself" question, I do see the differences between saying "Believe in God who is in you and likewise because you are his child, you should believe in yourself" and simply "Believe in yourself" that Kung Fu Panda talks about.

In all 3 monotheistic religions, at the very least, there is a reliance on God outside of man. So the belief must be admitting man's weakness and therefore trusting on God for help. In Kung Fu Panda, I think the message was the exact opposite: There is nothing to trust in but yourself alone.

Theologically, I think the differences between the two interpretations (belief in self vs. belief in God who believes in you) are great.

In terms of teaching kids, I would not hesitate to continue showing the movie to them if it encourages them and helps them. It's not like a kid is going to watch Kung-Fu Panda and say "That's it, I'm a buddhist. Reality is an illusion." I was just simply saying the need to be aware that in the most innocent of domains (children's movies), ideology is working very subtly.

Amie Wills said...

It really is interesting what people "see" in a movie. I considered it a great re-telling of the story of Moses. Under persecution a mother leaves her child in a box knowing that he will be safe; and, in doing so, fulfills the prophecy made about him to save his people.

After all, aren't we all just fat lazy pandas until we're doing what we're destined for?