It wouldn’t be hard to write an essay-length review of Kung Fu Panda and all of the issues it brings up: the film is a hard one to appraise on a moral and spiritual level, so in some ways I’m thankful that its relative lack of humour and its absence of a fully developed storyline mean that my overall opinion of ‘limited recommendation’ is made a lot easier for me to make.
First of all Kung Fu Panda’s good points: there was a good theme of diversity and anti-discrimination running through the film. For me the way the different animals came together and worked as a team was a good little allegory on inclusiveness despite their various appearances and abilities. It was also nice to see Po, who being a panda was naturally a bit shall we say ‘chubby’, achieving his dreams in spite of his weight issues. In addition to this, Po and the rest of the team’s reverence for the older and wiser Oogway was also admirable. Oogway was also insistent that "there are no accidents" in life, which is implicit awareness of a guiding hand covering all aspects our lives. The animation throughout was impressive, though at times the movement of some of the characters was a little too life like (they had clearly been modelled on humans) and thus a little freaky. Also the animation being to a high standard is only a good thing if the overall message is positive, if not, the neutral or even negative messages are simply being communicated in a more appealing way.
My first spiritual concern: Kung Fu Panda throws up several spiritual issues, the biggest of which, and the over-riding message of the movie, is that you can succeed at anything if you just believe in yourself. This implicitly places the role of faith and religion in life into the superfluous, or placebo, categories. However the achievement of any true yearnings of the soul only ever come about through grace – grace which must be recognised and sought from God as a gift; not something that is manufactured by ourselves in our psyche.
My second spiritual concern: children by nature imitate many of the things they see in the world, and this is especially true for much of the things they see played out on a screen. With this in mind the core subject matter of Kung Fu Panda being an Eastern martial art should be taken into account and considered carefully. Unfortunately Church teaching in this area is scant. However, when one considers that most marital arts are intimately related with Qigong practices, which involve methods of accumulating, circulating, and working with Qi (or energy) within the body, Christians have a rightful reason to be cautious. Therefore parents that suspect their children may be impressed enough by this film to want to enrol in a martial arts class should take note of the requests that may follow. And spiritual issues aside, the use of physical means for self defence over the use of prayer, is a dangerous precedent to encourage.
Kung Fu Panda also threw up a couple of other issues related to Eastern spirituality, though in some ways could be seen to be mocking them instead of promoting them. For example Master Shifu was shown to be trying to achieve “inner peace, inner peace” in a meditation pose, but gave up easily due to worldly distractions. Such meditation is not without risks and Cardinal Ratzinger’s Letter to The Bishops of The Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. October 15th 1989) is well worth a read in this respect.
Those were the main points I picked up on. All in all I found Kung Fu Panda neither particularly funny nor original, and though I wouldn’t be overly concerned with children watching the film as a one off, it’s not something I’d like them to have in their collection to be watching regularly. There are however many decent alternatives.