Because of bureaucratic copyright law, I am forced to remind my brilliant audience that I do not own Kung-Fu Panda. Dreamworks owns the idea, the characters, the plot, etc. etc. I just talk about it.
Forgive my abstraction from the world of the past, but I’ve got to address a rather new movie. Kung Fu Panda happens to be one of my favorites in recent years, and one of the most frustrating plots for me. We root for the wrong group of characters. Tai Lung, the Snow Leopard, is simply a misunderstood hero who has been repeatedly manipulated and wronged by the true villains of the tale. Firstly, one must consider the circumstances of his capture and subsequent imprisonment. What do we know? He was denied the Dragon Scroll, and enacted his revenge by destroying much of the village. This seems straight forward, but takes on a whole new meaning when one considers a few basic facts.
1. We are never shown anything other than vague scenes of destruction. There is no evidence that Tai Lung ever harmed another soul, in fact, it seems likely that he did not. For when he encounters Oogway and Shifu, they are still at the Jade Palace. If Tai Lung were really murdering helpless innocents, it seems likely that they would have come to their aid. If they had dispatched underlings to stop him, why is this important detail completely ignored? And if they simply allowed him his murderous rampage, what kind of admiral heroes are they? So we can conclude that the charges against him are at least minimally inflated.
2. Although it is stated that the Dragon Scroll Oogway and Shifu are protecting contains the secret to ultimate power, we later discover this to be false, in most senses of the word. Yet Oogway knows this to be the case. How can we discern this? Simple; it is stated by Shifu to Po, that Oogway discovered “the secrets of harmony and balance” and gave birth “to kung-fu.” If the Dragon Scroll existed prior to this, Oogway, Shifu, or both, are lying. And if the Dragon Scroll was created later, again Oogway, Shifu, or both, are lying. In any case, it is impossible for Oogway to be the innocent, pure master we are expected to believe him to be. And since in either case, Oogway must have known the Dragon Scroll’s secret, this makes his effect upon Tai Lung even more sinister. If Oogway is somehow perceptive enough to deny Tai Lung a blank scroll on the basis of “sensing darkness within him,” then he ought to have been perceptive enough to realize the consequence of his denial of a blank, useless scroll. Yet Oogway willingly placed Tai Lung into circumstances where he would no doubt fall. Though the blame ultimately lies with Tai Lung, it cannot be argued that Oogway is innocent in the way the film makers present him to be.
3. Talk about punishment disproportionately fitting a crime! Having been locked away for twenty years on the basis of having destroyed much of a village? We have already decided that Tai Lung could not have murdered, or if he did, was judged by those who willingly allowed such murders to occur unopposed. And we are supposed to sympathize with such? This is not justice. It seems to me that Tai Lung was deliberately and systematically removed from the position in which he posed a threat to Oogway. Shifu seems rather blameless in this; he bears no grudge to Tai Lung, and we are shown time and time again his unwillingness to harm his adopted son. If one considers the possibility that Oogway is not perfect, the entire system slides into place.
4. Examine Tai Lung’s reaction during his fight against Shifu. He declares many things, “Everything I did, I did to make you proud, Shifu!” “You knew I was the Dragon Warrior!” Shifu did not believe Tai Lung to be the Dragon Warrior. Nor did he mislead him into thinking he could become the Dragon Warrior. (As we later discover, there is no secret ingredient. Tai Lung technically was the Dragon Warrior in all but name.) Tai Lung’s reaction is perfectly understandable and sympathetic for those who have worked their entire lives for a purpose, only to have someone with a vested interest, and self-righteous attitude reject their work. Tai Lung is far more human and relatable than Shifu, especially during the opening of the film.
Po is innocent. The Furious Five are innocent. The villagers are innocent. And Tai Lung bears guilt, but only for his temper. His reaction was fully justified, and in fact necessary for his own life. To live without a purpose is the same as being dead, and the malevolent duo of Shifu/Oogway did their best to kill Tai Lung. Locked away, unable to move, unable to die, is a fate worse than death. Just ask Bootstrap Bill Turner. Tai Lung’s depth of emotion and compassion, even after spending two decades in hell ought to testify to the unjustness of his fate. Every movie must have a villain; when Tai Lung ceased to be the villain, and became the victim, that role naturally reverted, not to the hero, but to the Old Wolf, the sage, the soothsayer. Oogway is the true villain of Kung-Fu Panda.