Kung Fu Panda: Fat, Fit, and Fighting

Liz Henry says:

Kung Fu Panda is an animated movie about Po, a panda who gets laughed at a lot. He’s big, fat, and clumsy, and feels bad about himself. He doesn’t want to be a noodle seller like his dad. He wants to be a martial arts hero!

By accident, his dream comes true and he’s chosen to be the legendary Dragon Warrior, instead of one of his idols, the Furious Five. They laugh at him for being fat. His teacher Si Fun constantly beats him up to make him quit his training.

In one scene, Po explains that the brutal training and beatings are easy to endure, because they’re nothing compared to the pain he suffers every day being himself, as he says, “just being me”. As he speaks, his eyes roll downward while he sadly hefts his big stomach. It’s pretty clear he equates “me” with his fat body and that he feels a lot of shame. He also explains that when he’s upset, he eats.
The turning point in his training comes when Si Fun realizes that Po, motivated by a jar of cookies on a high shelf, does amazing acrobatic feats. They begin to train with food as a reward. Po does pushups over hot coals while trying to slurp noodles from a bowl of soup, and there’s an extended homage to Jackie Chan’s chopstick duel in Xiao quan guai zhao (Fearless Hyena), with Po and Si Fun battling over a bowl of dumplings.

Here’s the dumpling battle!

I couldn’t find the clip from Fearless Hyena. If anyone has it, please link from the comments.

At some point in Kung Fu Panda, I realized there was an expected narrative line where the hero would lose weight, become skinny, and then be happy and competent and respected — but that was not going to happen. Instead, Po becomes a kung fu master and the Dragon Warrior, while fat and fit.

The movie has a very clear message of respect for bodily differences. The Furious Five, a tigress, viper, monkey, crane, and mantis, all have radically different bodies. The mantis is notably tiny and fragile, and a great fighter. While there is a lot of humor and mockery based on fat jokes at the panda’s expense, he learns to believe in himself. He trains hard to become wise, fearless, and talented — not to lose weight. He becomes a hero, but stays a big fat panda.

17 thoughts on “Kung Fu Panda: Fat, Fit, and Fighting

  1. Correction, from the film itself: He stays *the* big, fat panda.

    I loved the core message of the film: there is no secret ingredient, there is only you. The mystical scroll that gives ultimate power is blank, reflecting the reader. Po is wise enough to learn that this means that the power has always been inside of him, that it is believing he is special that makes him so, not years of arduous training. After the screening, the kids in the audience were practicing their kung fu chops, obviously excited by the action of the film. I hope the message sticks with them as well.

  2. Liz,

    I just watched the dumpling duel. Thanks for reviewing this, it would never have occurred to me that Kung Fu Panda would be body positive and (from what I saw) delightful.

  3. So he’s fat and clumsy and only motivated to learn kung Fu by having food dangled in front of him? And he’s sad because he’s fat and eats because he’s sad? Does he smell bad too? Because that would be hitting all the stereotypes. I don’t care what the message is at the end, if you are a fat kid seeing this movie- or any kid for that matter- what you see before the warm, fuzzy message at the ending- is the stereotype of the big, fat, idiot fat person who thinks only of food and hates himself. I don’t need to pay money to see that. My kids and I can see and hear it every single day on television, in print and in the remarks we hear about fat people.

  4. You know, this isn’t Jack Black’s first foray into body positivity. Watch School of Rock. There’s a great scene where a chubby little girl with a stellar voice is afraid to sing in front of people because she’s afraid they’ll laugh at her for being fat. Black brings up Aretha, et al, and then himself as examples of sexy, rockin’ fatties. When the little girl asks him why he doesn’t just go on a diet, I expected him to say something about big bones, glands, whatever. But no! He says “Because I like to eat–is that so bad?” Awesome.

  5. Yes, he does smell bad, too.
    I saw this movie Saturday night and have to say… I did not read it as very fat positive. It has several redeeming qualities – they never mention his health, ask him to diet, or make him actually loose weight. And in the end he is the great hero as a fat panda (although not fit, he still can’t climb stairs without needing massive time to cool down afterwards). But how positive is it if you have been laughing at fat jokes for an hour and a half before he succeeds because he’s so fat that he can bounce the enemy off his belly and because he falls on him over and over again? Sorry, I would never let my children see this film. It’s one big fat joke, and it’s a more cruel, overt set of fat jokes than I’ve seen in most other children’s movies thus far. Made me want to go home and cry.

  6. Ok,
    I saw this 2 days ago and was really wondering who I could talk to about the scenes where he says he’s an emotional eater and that his master trains him with food. There was a WHOLE lot in that movie I could have gone on and on about had I had a blog anyone in FA cared about, b/c I saw a lot in there.

    Thanks sooooo much for covering this, I liked the movie, he saves the day! It was interesting how at first the 5 masters are discriminating against him and one of the major ones was Angelina. Then at the end they’re bowing to him and calling HIM master.
    I also half expected to see him thinner, as well but he stayed the same!

  7. Now see I came away dissapointed. I did overall like the movie and the message, but was upset at the subtle messages within as well.

    Po eats when he’s upset…fat people are emotional eaters.

    They hated Po for being fat…Panda’s are FAT, you ever see a skinny panda? They didnt pick on him for being a panda, just being fat. Racism=bad Fat Phobia=okay.

    Po’s motivation was food…the only way to get threw to a fat person is to reward with or deny food.

    I fear the only reason that Po didnt lose weight is because they boxed themselves in with making him a Panda, you cant have a skinny fit panda, just doesnt fly.

  8. I sort of agree with lynnie, but it’s a start. Not as bad as other movies, and probably funny. I wish they would have left out the stereotypes, though. :(

  9. I haven’t seen the movie, but I really can’t get past the “ha ha, the fatty’s crazy for teh foods” crap. I think you really have to address that if you want to make a convincing argument for this movie. As of this point, I can’t see how using fat-hating stereotypes helps to subvert the fat-hating paradigm unless it’s camp or parody or satire.

    My friend gave me the book “The Saggy Baggy Elephant” last week. It is much, much more subversive and was 1st published in the 60’s. I recommend it in the place of this movie.

  10. When I saw a trailer the other day, I could’ve taken it as a movie about an out-of-shape panda rather than a fat panda (which would be even better if the out-of-shape character was not fat and other characters were, and also they avoided the pitfall of making the supposedly fat-but-still-cool characters not actually very cool), until they got to the part where he is motivated by food. At that point it’s just “welcome to stereotypeville center square.”

    I am still gonna see this movie because I love talking animal movies (it would have to look really profoundly horrible to scare me off). From what I have read, we are supposed to like the panda, sympathize with the panda, and root for the panda. But since the panda is the main character, this is all kind of a given. (Not so much of those anti-protagonists in talking animal movies because they are always kid-oriented.) And yet we also laugh at the panda for being a fat stereotype. I’m going to see this movie, but I don’t expect it to be terribly progressive. I expect the fat-positivity level to be about as low as possible for a movie with a fat, sympathetic protagonist, but having a fat, sympathetic protagonist is perhaps progress in itself. Now if only it were a girl panda!

  11. I haven’t seen this movie yet, and so I’ll reserve judgment until I do.

    Meanwhile, I would like to state something for the record. Pandas are not fat — they’re pandas. Ditto elephants, hippos, cows, pigs, and whales. They simply are what they are.

    There. Got that off my chest. It’s been bugging me for years. Thanks!

  12. lynnie: Yes – actually all those things made me have reservations about the movie and there were SEVERAL mentions of the panda smelling bad.

    The thing that made me like it though, was that he’s sad not just because he’s fat but because his dad has trapped him in a future he doesn’t want for himself. He’s also sad because he’s fat, which makes him feel even more trapped. But by the middle of the movie and certainly by the end, he’s NOT sad because he’s fat. He says that he’s sort of “just me” and that he likes himself and believes in himself, big fat body included.

    So yeah, the many fat jokes and the way Po is humiliated give a bad message, and can be cheap humor moments, but on the other hand you could see it as somewhat realistic representation of problems fat people face from societal discrimination, and how to overcome that.

    I also noted the way Po plays into the fat person = jolly good humored person / clown role, but the movie broke out of that too and the character was likeable and had depth, serious and sad moments, and was thoughtful & insightful.

  13. I would be very wary of this movie as a boatload of tired, racist cliches about Asians.

    (came here via Alas, A Blog, and couldn’t help but chime in…)

  14. Just saw this; loved the animation and martial arts, strongly disliked the way Po was trained through stereotypical “fat people want to eat all the time” means, and the way his finally refusing the dumpling was treated as a victory. I thought he would learn…er…more martial arts than he did, though I grudgingly liked that his style was definitely HIS style.

  15. I also finally saw this recently. Unlike a lot of folks it didn’t engage me, so I only saw part of it. I was uncomfortable with the predictable Asian martial cliches, and also found them less than interesting.

    I didn’t see enough of the film to see Po’s transformation, so I probably shouldn’t comment on the fat politics.

  16. I just watching it again on TNT. I realized after the third viewing that this is a very fat positive movie. And it bothers me. In the end, Po just uses his bouncy fat body to defeat the bad guy, learning basically nothing about discipline. I think it’s terrible that Po learned he was awesome just because he is, defeating a character who had devoted his life to martial arts and endured the limits of “humanity”. In the end, the message is that as long as you are baselessly self assured, and fat enough to not feel pain, you can be the best there is. Good message.

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