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Kung Fu Panda 4: How Change Turns into True Transformation


Change” is a panda-sized word that isn’t always black and white. It can mean many different things depending on the situation. No matter how the word is used, however, “change” always indicates that things are different from the way they used to be.

When you think about yourself, what changes come to mind? Do you believe that you’ve changed over the years from the person you were before, or have you stayed static in your ways? Do you welcome change with a bear hug, or do you repel it with a furious fist?

When I watched Kung Fu Panda 4, what stood out to me about Po’s arc was that he had everything he needed to change at the beginning, except for one thing: inward acceptance. Po’s circumstances were ready to change, Po’s skills were prepared for a change, but Po himself wasn’t able to change until his mindset shifted.

Po’s disdain for change in the fourth movie is logical when you think about his background. Across the Kung Fu Panda movies, every chapter kickstarts enormous changes in Po’s life. In the first movie, his life turns upside down when Master Oogway “accidentally” chooses Po to become the Dragon Warrior. Po always wanted to learn kung fu, but has never had the opportunity or the confidence to try, so becoming the Dragon Warrior is a dream come true for him. He endures an intense ordeal to train under Master Shifu, and he wrestles with judgment from both others and himself, but in time, Po understands that Master Oogway made the right choice, and he proudly accepts the mantle of the Dragon Warrior.

In the second movie, though Po adjusts well to his new role, his home life is rocked with many changes: He learns that his father Ping actually adopted him, and he also learns what happened to his birth mother. These two discoveries further jostle Po’s life in the third movie, in which his birth father Li shows up while Po is also undergoing the difficult challenge of learning how to train others in kung fu.

After all this, in the fourth movie, yet another big change gut-punches Po without warning. Recognizing Po’s growth in his kung fu journey, Master Shifu tells him it is time to let go of being the Dragon Warrior in order to become the Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace. Po resists the change, upset that he will lose the role he has held for so long. Given the accumulative turmoil in Po’s recent past, I understand why, in the fourth movie, he would desperately cling to that which is familiar, resisting any further change for as long as he can.

© DreamWorks


Po’s arc throughout the fourth movie made me realize that change is not merely an outward force of life; change should and must happen within us, too. This doesn’t mean we should never have consistency in our character; but it does mean that not all consistency is good, and we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace changing for the better. After all, anyone can claim that they have “changed” into a different person from who they were before, but true change needs to occur within the heart before it can be proved outwardly.

In Kung Fu Panda 4, reluctant leader Po is not the only one who wrestles with this. The unabashed thief Zhen, who tags along with Po for most of the movie, and the selfish sorceress the Chameleon, Po’s future nemesis, similarly grapple with learning how to change on the inside. Po needs to change inwardly to grow as a leader. Zhen needs to change inwardly to grow as an individual. The Chameleon needs to change inwardly to grow as a person—but she does not, to her own ruin.

Though Po technically becomes the Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace upon receiving the Staff of Wisdom from Master Oogway, Po isn’t ready for the mantle. He doesn’t think he is wise enough to be Spiritual Leader, and he believes that being the Dragon Warrior will be more fun than leading the Valley of Peace. Thus, he simply holds on to the Staff of Wisdom and procrastinates in choosing his successor—to the point that he even runs away from the valley to go on one last “Dragon Warrior adventure” for himself. To Master Shifu’s dismay, Po can’t truly accept that big life change until his heart and mind are also ready to change.

Much like Po at the start of his journey, Zhen the fox is content with her current way of life. She enjoys the thrill of having a bounty on her head, as she is a master thief with a knack for stealth and sleight of hand. Such an occupation naturally requires dishonesty; and Zhen doesn’t care a bit about the consequences of her dishonest actions. “First rule of the streets,” she tells Po dryly, “never trust anyone.”

True to her lifelong rules and deceptive habits, Zhen pretends to be Po’s friend in order to draw close to him and steal the Staff of Wisdom. However, though their friendship is merely an act on her part, Po genuinely sees her as a friend and wants the best for her. He encourages her to change her thieving ways and to embrace honesty, but she isn’t willing to change. Having grown up under the Chameleon’s tutelage, Zhen has been taught her whole life to be selfish and uncaring. Zhen isn’t convinced that trustworthy people even exist, so, why try to be one?

© DreamWorks

As a masterful shapeshifter, the Chameleon takes great pride in her ability to change her appearance. She uses her powers to strike fear in people’s hearts, whether she disguises herself as the dreaded warrior Tai Lung or as one of her own minions. She longs to prove herself mighty and worthy of respect, because she was belittled for being small her whole life, even being turned away from the places where she wanted to study kung fu. Thus, the more impressive her schemes and the more power she displays, the more pride she can take in her accomplishments. Unfortunately, the Chameleon’s pride in her work goes too far: Not only does she want to flaunt her power to prove that she is capable of big things, she also wants revenge—to look down on everyone who would have looked down on her. Through fright, deception, and manipulation, the Chameleon keeps a chokehold over Juniper City, strangling resources from the citizens and using their wealth to further her selfish work.

As the unexpected, unlikely Dragon Warrior, a panda seemingly unfit for the role, Po is all too familiar with outsider judgment, and with feeling like he needs to prove himself. However, though he understands where the Chameleon is coming from, he does not approve of her choices. After Po learns of the Chameleon’s wrongdoings, he wants to convince her that, despite her history of hurting others, she can choose to leave that behind and become a better person. Before facing her in combat, he urges her to change her heart. Upon hearing this, the Chameleon laughs at his face. “I do nothing but change!” she exclaims.

Only on the outside,” Po challenges. “Real change happens from within.”

At this point, Po genuinely believes what he is telling the Chameleon, because by this time, he has come to learn for himself that inward change is necessary for outward change. He has realized that running away from his Spiritual Leader role has caused many problems—foremost among them, losing the Staff of Wisdom when Zhen betrayed him. Though Zhen’s duplicity hurt him, it caused Po to understand that he needs to be wiser in choosing who to place his trust in. With that wisdom earned, Po could also accept that it is time to go home and face the change that he initially ran from.

Similarly, by this time, Zhen has proven that even those most resistant to change can grow to transform their inward mindsets. Po’s friendship and authenticity have brought Zhen to care for Po as a genuine friend instead of as a pretender. Because of Po, who is trustworthy and honest, Zhen realizes that she can be trustworthy herself—she doesn’t have to be the same dishonest person she was. Though she abandoned him, she regrets her choice, even coming back to Po to apologize and to show him that she does care. Of course, after her betrayal, Po can’t be convinced of Zhen’s inward change until her outward actions prove it—when he realizes that she came to protect him instead of hurt him. Zhen further establishes her changed mindset later when, in complete rejection of her selfish past, she joins Po in his battle against the Chameleon.

Undeniable examples of inward change stand before the Chameleon as Po and Zhen confront her together; unfortunately, unlike them, the Chameleon never has a turnaround. Unwilling to listen to Po’s wisdom gained from experience, and unimpressed by Zhen’s growth in character, the Chameleon fiercely defends her old habits and her old self, only to be defeated.

© DreamWorks


You may be wondering, what need is there for internal change? After all, don’t external circumstances change us automatically?

In response to that, I must ask you: do you ever deliberate on whether or not you should change inwardly? Do you honestly think that you are the best parent or child, neighbor or friend, coworker or customer that you could be? Perfection in this life is, of course, impossible, but knowing that you can’t be perfect shouldn’t stop you from trying to be better. 

In order to avoid remaining static in our bad habits and unhealthy mindsets, we need to continually and proactively strive to keep an eye on how we think, which in turn influences how we treat ourselves and others. This, in turn, shapes our futures. Could you change to accept leadership roles not simply as a title or promotion, but as a charge to lead excellently and become someone truly worth following? Could you perhaps change to be more patient with your sibling in conversation? Could you change to be more polite to the rude customers you wish would never show up at your workplace again? Could you change to be more respectful to the talkative person whose opinions you disagree with? 

If such considerations have never crossed your mind, I encourage you to pause and examine. If you think you’ve changed on the outside, take a look at the inside first. Once change happens inwardly, it can’t help but show on the outside, the same way a buried peach pit can grow unseen in the earth, and then one day sprout aboveground, showing itself as a great, flowering tree.

Life will always be shapeshifting around us, but sometimes, whether intentionally or not, we can get ourselves stuck. Like the Chameleon, I often do not want to make an effort to change for the better. However, like Zhen, I know I need to change on the inside in order to change on the outside. Like Po, I have realized I would much rather change and become a leader of wisdom and peace, instead of clinging to my old Dragon Warrior title forever just because the latter seems more fun. As I strive to honor my Master in all that I do, living to glorify God and shine His light, I would rather hold myself to the continual struggle of change and growth on the inside, than watch my life shapeshift on the outside . . . without my heart or mind ever changing at all.

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:2 (1984 NIV)

Writer, artist, musician and Professional Nerd, Kathryn enjoys waxing poetic over powerful and fun stories with memorable characters. She’d be more than happy to introduce you to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Transformers: Prime, and WordGirl, among many longtime favorites! Forever an animation enthusiast, she admires how far the art form has progressed since the earliest days, in film and in video games.

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