I had skipped Kung Fu Panda for some years, thinking it would be a mediocre Jack Black vehicle. It was only after I had gotten married that I finally watched it, and was surprised by how good it was. (For the curious: No. 1 was great, No. 2 was okay and a bit of a missed opportunity, No. 3 was a fantastic culmination of the trilogy that elevated the whole thing.) A little later, my oldest would watch the movies on repeat, so I had the opportunity to notice lots of little details about the movies that were easy to miss on the first viewing. In particular, the soundtrack did something very clever that is a good object lesson in how any element in a story—not just the dialogue and action—can convey meaning.
When we first meet Master Shifu, he is sitting in a garden, playing a mournful melody on a flute.
You might have thought this a throwaway moment; I certainly did at first. But upon rewatching, I noticed that the melody Shifu was playing was one that we would soon hear again: during Tai Lung’s escape from prison. In that scene, we first hear the melody transposed and transformed, in an aggressive descending three-note figure on the horn. As the scene unfolds, the melody recurs in full; but unlike the mournful legato of Shifu’s flute, here the music is staccato, angry, urgent. It soon gets transposed into higher and higher keys, becoming nearly unrecognizable.
The theme is briefly heard again during the flashback history of Shifu training Tai Lung from a child.
We now know how close the two were. And the recurring music confirms that there is still a link between them. But what sort of link? We should now ask: does the flute theme properly “belong” to Shifu, or to Tai Lung? Is Shifu still mourning the fall of his student, or does Tai Lung still crave the approval of his master? Or both?
The theme returns several times during the battle on the bridge between Tai Lung and the Furious Five. Here, it has been transformed so thoroughly that it bears almost no resemblance to the original flute music.
The theme returns in its original form (albeit with strings rather than flute) when Shifu and Tai Lung face each other at last, during two moments: when they meet in front of the temple, and when their fight takes them through the roof and into the air (roughly 2:30 in the following video). In between, we get plenty of the transformed versions as well.
During the scene, Tai Lung confirms that even after all these years, he still wanted the approval of the master who raised him like a son. He even has a moment of something like regret before the battle begins. Shifu, for his part, rebuffs his murderous student, but later admits that he has never stopped being proud of him.
Meanwhile, we still can’t determine whose theme it is, Shifu’s or Tai Lung’s. It is tempting to say that it actually represents their relationship, rather than either of them individually. To a degree, it does; but that’s not precisely correct, as we discover in the finale of the movie:
The mournful music has now become a triumphant fanfare, as Shifu’s new student Po comes into his own and defeats Tai Lung. Moreover, now that we see Po associated with the theme, we can look back to the training montage and hear that the theme was present there as well, transformed and infused with traditional Chinese flourishes.
So after all that, what does this theme represent? I think that the theme represents not Shifu or Tai Lung, but kung fu itself—in its ideal form, a discipline for training body, mind, and spirit.
We saw early in the movie that Shifu’s kung fu practice had encountered a block: he was unable to find inner peace, troubled as he was by regrets over Tai Lung. This prevents him from truly mentoring Tigress in particular, and it takes Master Oogway and Po’s special brand of stubbornness to finally get through to him. For Shifu, the musical theme is minor key, mournful. Tai Lung, for his part, had taken his prodigious talent and twisted it to selfish ends, achieving superhuman strength but lacking any spiritual development. His version of the theme is angry, frustrated, staccato.
Po, who begins the movie as an aspiring ascended fanboy (to the point of being the featured image on the linked page!), is the one whose kung fu training leads to the key epiphany: “There is no secret ingredient. It’s just you.” This is different from self-satisfied complacency—Po still works very hard to get where he gets. To me, this seems similar to a concept in Judaism about “being happy in one’s portion.” This is often poorly translated as “being satisfied with one’s lot,” which to my ear smacks of resignation and defeatism. A better understanding of the concept is a deep comfort with who you are and where you are, in the truest sense. Po stops trying to be like the Furious Five and instead is able to develop his own unique potential.
Fittingly, at the end of his fight with Tai Lung, Po starts incorporating “soft style” techniques, redirecting Tai Lung’s attacks rather than opposing them by force. This is the more internal form of Chinese martial arts, a hallmark of tai chi, baquazhang, and other soft styles. It relies on deep and subtle knowledge of self and sensitivity to your partner. (Po’s exploration of the internal gets expanded on and developed over the next two movies.) And that is what proves decisive; Tai Lung, lacking such introspective sensitivity, is brought up short by the relative neophyte despite having earlier demolished the Furious Five and his former master.
Some of this is made explicit in the dialogue and the plot action. But the hints in the soundtrack add a deeper level to the story, without being heavy-handed or bogging down the plot in exposition. King Fu Panda thus provides a nice illustration of how all the different elements in a story can contribute to meaning. Even for artists not working in a visual medium, such as authors, you can still take the lesson and apply it. Maybe it’s a recurring symbol in your prose. Maybe it’s recurring arc-words that never get fully explained except from context. At any rate, the key is for all the pieces of the art to work together and enrich each other.