Saturday, 26 September 2015

Narrative - Kung Fu Panda Review - The Hero's Journey

Fig. 1. Kung Fu Panda poster. 

Kung Fu Panda (2008) directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson tells the story of a lazy, kung fu enthusiastic panda named Po who despite being overweight and utterly useless at kung fu finds himself chosen as the Dragon Warrior who is meant to bring peace to the valley.

The beginning of the movie shows Po dreaming about a life in which he is a respected martial arts champion; his dream is quickly interrupted as he is woken up to help his father in the noodle shop. This scene illustrates Po’s dull life to the viewer, he thirsts for a more fulfilling life however he is stuck serving noodle soup to customers.

It is possible that Kung Fu Panda follows Joseph Campbell’s ‘the hero’s journey’ structure, the movie is set up in act one to show Po’s boring normal life and his desire for more. The first stage, the call to adventure is expressed by a poster that explains that it is the day Master Oogway will choose the Dragon Warrior. This causes Po to leave his normal life and head to the ceremony. The refusal of call is expressed as more of an obstacle; Po arrives late so the doors are shut on him, stopping him from being able to get inside. The supernatural aid or meeting the mentor could have two possible branches, for one it could be Master Oogway, as he is the one who chooses Po to be the Dragon Warrior. On the other hand it could be seen as Master Shifu as he is the one who will ultimately train Po.

Fig. 2. The training still.

It could be interpreted that crossing the threshold is Po being brought into the world of martial art experts, perhaps it is his first steps in the sacred hall in which he meets Master Shifu or more likely it is his first look at the training hall. This brings us into act two which leaves Po in the belly of the whale, he is now in a new world filled with characters that are gifted at kung fu and is made to train in front of them as shown in figure 2. This is an uncomfortable situation for our hero who fails miserably; this could potentially be the road of trials as the training exposes Po’s weakness at martial arts. The next stage is meeting the goddess, in this case it could be seen as the furious five as they end up boosting Po’s morale as he has always idolised them, even though they are relatively distant to him. Po’s temptation is food; it is what he uses to escape from the difficult world he is in, this is shown when he eats because he is sad. Although this also becomes his strength as Master Shifu discovers later that he can train Po by using food. Following temptation is atonement with the farther, this happens when Master Shifu accepts Po as the Dragon Warrior and takes on the challenge of training him. It could be that the moment of apotheosis is when Master Shifu is visually put on a pedestal and exclaims he will make Po into the Dragon Warrior. However it also can potentially be expressed in the scene, in which Po beats Master Shifu in training and gets the last dumpling, he refuses to eat the dumpling and the whole scene shows a huge transformation in Po. The ultimate boon is evidentially Po becoming the Dragon Warrior and learning kung fu. Following this is the refusal of return, this is when Po refuses to evacuate the village with his father and go back to his normal life, instead he chooses to go back to help Master Shifu fight Tai Lung.

Fig. 3. Beating Tai Lung still.

Act three is the stage for the magic flight; this is when Po fights Tai Lung to save Master Shifu and the valley. During the battle Po is knocked to the ground by Tai Lung and momentarily stunned, this allows Tai Lung to read the dragon scroll. It is possible that the rescue from without in this case is the dragon scroll, as it is a blank scroll that Po understands due to his father’s words. It could also potentially be his fat, as it saves him from being injured by Tai Lung. Po goes on to defeat Tai Lung which demonstrated crossing the return threshold; he is then accepted by the furious five and the villagers. This makes Po the master of two worlds as he is now respected as the Dragon Warrior and accepted by his father. The whole journey transforms Po into a better overall character; he masters kung fu and finishes the final step which is the freedom to live.

To conclude, Kung Fu Panda does seem to follow the structure of the hero’s journey, some of the stages may be a little hard to read however it appears that they can all be interpreted throughout the film. The movie has a positive message to display which is that everyone is special if they just be themselves; the hero’s journey makes that message easy to read and an enjoyment to watch.

Illustration List:
Osbourne, M & Stevenson, J. (2008). Figure 1. Kung Fu Panda poster. (Accessed 26/09/2015)

Osbourne, M & Stevenson, J. (2008). Figure 3. Beating Tai Lung still. (Accessed 26/09/2015)


  1. Nice review and nice to read your take on the steps. The only thing I would add in future reviews (structurally) is to give the film, directors, or stars a link to other work (context)...for example, saying at the start that the the film is "made by Dreamworks who have also made...etc" or "The director's other works include" - This gives the film a bit more context initially and you may discover running themes that become relevant later in your review.

    1. Thank you, I shall keep that in mind for the future reviews, I appreciate the feedback.