Even A Warrior Eats: Food from Shame to Strength in Kung Fu Panda (2008)
By Shirley Pu
Kung-fu masters are agile, lithe, quick. At first, our hero appears that way. He takes down a whole restaurant of villains just after tranquilly eating a bowl of dumplings. When his dream is disturbed and Po awakes to reality, however, the audience is faced with a much more mundane figure. Instead of the revered warrior he fantasizes of being, he is a clumsy and fat panda who only aspires to meet his kung-fu idols, the Furious Five. The stacks of bowls clattering in his bedroom mise-en-scène speak to Po’s secondary passion, aside from kung-fu: he loves to eat. This love of food is treated as comedic initially, especially in relation to Po’s body, but it becomes a source of strength for Po once he embraces it. Kung Fu Panda questions the aesthetic ideal of the self-denying kung-fu warrior by allowing Po, with his large body and appetite, to realize himself as the true hero of the movie.
Po, fittingly for such an avid eater, is the son of the noodle shop owner Mr. Ping. Mr. Ping’s brisk nature is conveyed through his quick chopping of green onions as he asks Po about his dream. Po lies and says he was dreaming of noodles, which leads to a close-up shot of a turnip as Mr. Ping cleaves it, the violent action adding tension to the scene and representing Po’s fear of Mr. Ping’s reaction if he realized the truth—his father would cut down his dream just as he does the turnip. The fake dream, however, excites his father. “My son finally having the noodle dream,” Mr. Ping enthuses, bringing over a noodle hat and apron for Po to wear. The reward for this maturation is the sharing of a secret, the ingredient to Mr. Ping’s secret ingredient soup. After the secret is divulged, Mr. Ping says, Po will “fulfill [his] destiny and take over the restaurant!” The distance this unwanted fate puts between Po and his secret dream is emphasized when a gong from the Jade Palace, where the Furious Five reside, sounds. The camera quickly travels over the village up to the distant mountain where the palace is to zoom in on the master Shifu, showing how far apart Po, a noodle cook’s son, and Shifu, a revered warrior, are, in both social and physical positions.
Mr. Ping lets Po go to see the Furious Five and the selection of the Dragon Warrior in the Jade Palace on condition that Po brings a noodle cart with products to sell. This noodle cart is a physical manifestation of the baggage of Po’s supposed destiny. His struggle to drag the heavy cart and move up the stairs to reach the Jade Palace shows the burden he feels of responsibility to his father. When he resolves to leave the noodle cart at the bottom of the stairs, Po is casting aside his responsibility in order to pursue his dream. He does end up becoming the chosen Dragon Warrior, but he is inept and scorned by both the master Shifu and his new comrades, the Furious Five. They make pointed remarks about his weight and his appetite, joking about how “when he walks, the very ground shakes” and that he cannot see his toes. Po eventually internalizes this criticism, as when Crane, one of the Furious Five, tells him he “doesn’t belong here,” Po believes he means in the Jade Palace itself, when Crane actually means that Po is trespassing in his room.
The contrast between the ideal of a warrior and Po comes to a head at a dinner Po prepares for his teammates. Although his martial arts skills are lacking, Po’s ability as a cook is displayed through his expert slicing of a turnip and quick ladling of soup into several bowls. The camera cuts to the various members trying his soup and voicing their compliments. As they praise his soup, the camera cuts to a medium shot of Po’s face lighting up. While he was unable to gain the respect of his teammates through his fighting prowess, they admire his cooking skills. This shared meal serves as a bonding scene for Po and his teammates and marks a shifting point in their relationship. Food is an equalizer for Po, allowing him to provide for his idols in a way he cannot with his fighting. However, one teammate refuses to participate in the meal. Tigress, the previous leader of the team, resents Po for becoming the Dragon Warrior, a position she had trained for her entire life, and believes him unworthy, calling him a “disgrace to kung fu.” She, instead of the noodles, eats plain tofu, stating that “the Dragon Warrior can survive for months on the dew from a single ginkgo leaf and the energy of the universe.” The refinement and discipline of her meal in contrast to Po’s is evident from the manner in which she eats—she silently picks up a small cube of the tofu with chopsticks, while Po slurps down his soup. Tigress also does not comment on the taste of the meal or show visible delight in it, treating it as mere sustenance, while Po eats with gusto. Po’s lack of warrior-like discipline is additionally emphasized when he uses a stray noodle on his lip to mimic Master Shifu, who appears and derides him for joking around when a threat is imminent. Po’s casual treatment and toying with food as a subject of pleasure, not just necessity, continues to distance him from the disciplined and self-restraining warrior.
A shift in the treatment of Po’s appetite occurs when Shifu realizes Po is capable of great physical feats when motivated by food and begins to train him by using food as a positive incentive. A montage of training follows, with Shifu and Po sparring using various foodstuffs and bonding over meals they share after these sessions. This montage serves not only to show Po’s physical growth but the growth of Shifu’s emotional openness. Shifu, who was before emotionally repressed and a strict disciplinarian, begins to relax and shows his enjoyment in material enjoyments such as food. This creates a blurring of the divide between the warrior and the civilian that Shifu and Po previously represented, as one relaxes and the other becomes more disciplined. The training culminates with a battle over the last dumpling, which Po manages to claim but does not eat, saying he is “not hungry.” While this could be read as him casting off his shameful appetite, it also harkens back to his habit of eating when distressed. His refusal of the dumpling represents his newfound confidence in himself, but this confidence is ultimately based in the ideal of the warrior as self-denying, an ideal which must eventually be destroyed if Po is to embrace the perceived non-ideal parts of his body as well.
Po later loses his confidence that he can defeat Tai Lung, the villain of the movie, after the Five return defeated from an encounter with him. Po, returning home to evacuate alongside the other civilians, is nervous. He has abandoned his father’s hope for him in order to pursue his own. His father, though, openly welcomes him home, yet continues to insist upon Po helping in the kitchen. Po has thus returned to the start of his journey, which appears to be a failure at first—after all, his primary goal was to escape the fate of being a noodle cook and chase after his dream of becoming a warrior. This return to his food-centered roots proves, however, to be a necessary part of Po’s journey. After Po apologizes to Mr. Ping for failing at his own selfish dream, his father finally chooses to divulge the secret ingredient of his soup, which turns out to be nothing at all. According to Mr. Ping, “to make something special, you just have to believe it’s special.” This message of self-acceptance finally allows Po to realize that his pursuit of the warrior ideal was counterproductive. Even though his talents are unconventional for a warrior, he can fight best by embracing them. The mystery of the secret ingredient as the key to unlocking Po’s full potential also serves as a final rebuttal of the idolized warrior ideal. Po gains his insight from his father, a civilian noodle cook. Warriors are not distant and unattainable figures, and a noodle cook can teach them as well as a kung-fu master can and merit the same amount of respect.
The revelation Po has about his body and identity as a warrior gives him the resolve and belief in himself he needs to defeat Tai Lung. During his battle, he incorporates food and utensils into several of his strategies– he uses a noodle to wrap around Tai Lung’s tail and trip him, uses bamboo stalks as chopsticks to shuffle woks around, and imagines an object as a cookie to motivate himself to climb. In embracing food, Po is also embracing his body as capable and maximizing his strengths.
From the wreckage of Tai Lung’s defeat, a heroic silhouette, clad in helmet and cape, emerges from the dust clouds. But it is revealed to be only Po, with a wok on his head and an apron draped over his shoulders. This subversion of expectation is not only comedic but speaks to his origins and values as well. Po is the son of a noodle shop owner and fights using what he loves and knows well, food. He manages to be the hero he dreamt of being at the beginning of the movie and becomes accepted despite his unconventionality.