As always, spoiler alert! Let’s add a content warning for suicide while we’re at it.
Most children’s films which have gone down in history have done so because they had a touch of darkness. Look at classics like The Princess Bride, Harry Potter, and The Iron Giant. They touch on mature issues like loss and grief, and don’t talk down to their audiences. People tend to associate truly dark children’s movies with the 1980s, but current media has been trending back in that direction with movies like ParaNorman and shows like Gravity Falls. In fact, one of the first kids’ movies released in 2016, Kung Fu Panda 3, has the main character kill himself to save the world. Holy hell, isn’t that messed up? It would be, if the movie wasn’t trying so hard to distract you.
To much surprise all around, the franchise where Jack “High Above the Mucky-muck” Black plays a cuddly animal who learns martial arts is actually pretty good. It balances the kind of goofy jokes you’d expect from the premise with luscious CGI and badass fight choreography. There’s also some important (albeit pretty standard) lessons for kids like “be yourself”. This theme is hit most soundly in Kung Fu Panda 3, where protagonist Po learns he can achieve great things by honing the skills he already has, rather than coping with new ones. Sadly, most of the movie is spent on fat jokes and fart jokes and not on the threat at hand. There’s a rapidly increasing death toll at this point, but by all means, please show me how many sticky buns Po can fit in his mouth. This would all be perfectly passable children’s faire, but kids can handle so much more.
Having learned to fight in Kung Fu Panda and how to find inner peace in Kung Fu Panda 2, Kung Fu Panda 3 follows Po as he masters the art of chi. Chi is the force which gives us live, connects us to the rest of the universe, and in most action films, helps you kick the other guy’s ass better. Our baddie is Kai, a vengeful spirit who steals chi from his opponents and reforms them into jade statues under his command. Let’s be absolutely clear about this: the villain is stealing his victims’ life force and enslaving what’s left. Well, damn. This includes two of Po’s mentors, and all of his best friends save for one. Po has to fight a horde of his loved ones. Who will spend the rest of infinity as undead slaves if he does not succeed. Long story story, Po thinks he can save them if he “finds” himself, so he tries to be the best panda he can be. He then spends a solid third of the movie rolling down hills and tickling babies and napping, while his zombified friends are off adding their fellow kung fu masters to the horde. The movie never gives you a minute to really worry about what’s at stake, because we’re too busy bouncing on trampolines. Where’s the existential dread? That way, the goofiness would be a breath of well-deserved fresh air, instead of seeming like both the protagonist and the movie itself are totally ignoring their responsibilities. It seems odd to complain that an animated Jack Black character wasn’t sad enough, but it makes a lot more sense after the previous movie.
Kung Fu Panda 2 is jaw-droppingly classy. I’m well aware that sounds like the setup to a joke, but it is genuinely one of my top 50 favorite films. It has it all: endearing heroes, a terrifying but relatable villain, a dramatic threat, beautiful animation, and a charming sense of humor that doesn’t get in the way of any of the other factors. The villain and the plot are the best aspects, since they come as such a breath of fresh air. Lord Shen is a psychotic aristocrat who invented his own heavy artillery in order to take over China, and nearly succeeded in waging genocide to ensure that no one could stop him. He is also a peacock. Let’s get those snickers out of the way now. This guy personally slaughtered an entire village, including Po’s mother, and now it’s Po’s job to defeat him once and for all. In the end, however, Po recognizes that inner peace comes hand in hand with mercy, and he offers to spare Shen. It doesn’t work out, but it’s the thought that counts, right? Kung Fu Panda 2′s subject matter is more mature than many “adult” comedies I’ve seen, and when added to some gracefully executed jokes and action, you’ve got one hell of a movie. And then the next movie takes a step backward. No, wait, it gets a running start and then pole-vaults backward. We’ve already talked about death, no need to shy away now. Speaking of which…we should talk about how Po totally killed himself.
To the best of my recollection, nobody ever says any iteration of “kill” or “die” in Kung Fu Panda 3, which is odd for a movie which so heavily features death. Kai’s just escaped from the Spirit Realm, an afterlife in all but name. We know this because we see Oogway, Shifu’s mentor who passed away in the first movie. Okay, so actually he evaporated into a shower of cherry blossom petals, but either way, he’s clearly no longer with us. Po’s plan for most of the movie is to off Kai with the Wuxi Finger Hold, a wave of chi that sends its victim to the Spirit Realm. That’s funny, because in the first movie, the Wuxi Finger Hold just made you explode. As Shifu says, “You know the hardest part of this? The hardest part is cleaning up afterwards.” But no, I guess it sends you to nirvana now. Turns out it doesn’t work on spirits, though, so Po uses it on himself instead and somehow vacuums Kai into the ensuing anime-tastic shower of cherry blossoms. Yep, Po straight up kills himself. You don’t have to say the word “dead” for the audience to put two and two together, assuming they’re old enough to add. And yet Po’s sacrifice has no weight, because the movie doesn’t think you can handle being sad for five minutes.
Po comes back just fine. Of course he does. Even the characters say, “He’s coming back, right?” Yes. Yes he is. He’s the hero. Unless proven otherwise, audiences are hardwired to assume that the heroes will survive anything thrown at them. Even though we know they’ll pull through in the end, we love seeing our favorite characters go through hell because it’s that much more satisfying to see them do it. There’s a reason football fans go wild and break bottles and set trash cans on fire when their team makes the winning touchdown and not when their 3 year old cousins roll a plastic ball a couple feet away. It’s all about stakes. The more there is to lose, the better it feels when you win. If every second can spell either life or death, every second matters. If you’re totally sure that taking a nap will fix your friends, every second is just a tedious pause between now and the end.
The truth is that I don’t mind Kung Fu Panda , but I prefer what it could have been. Po’s friend’s transformations into unearthly crystal servants could have been horrifying, both physically and emotionally. The jade could have crackled up their body like a parasite, the glow reflecting into their desperate eyes. So what if that’s too scary for kids? Our childhoods are already chock full of depressing, horrifying movie moments. Look up any list of the “Top 100 Films That Traumatized Us As Children”, and it’ll be suspiciously similar to “Top 100 Kids’ Movies of All Time”. Simba watches helplessly as Mufasa falls off a cliff. Judge Doom disintegrates a cute little cartoon shoe. Artax sinks into the Swamps of Sadness. Anyone who saw these movies at an impressionable age probably came out with a few battle scars, but whether you love them or hate them, who among is going to argue against The Lion King, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and The Neverending Story being huge staples of nostalgia? We were afraid for the characters we loved, but then we found peace, and we grew from there.
Not every kids’ movie has to be scary, but you better believe the scary ones are what ultimately stick with us. Feel free to show the little tykes a movie about kittens playing with balloons on a rainbow. Actually, that sounds freaking adorable and I want this movie made right now. But cuteness by itself is a short-term solution to make you smile for a few minutes. If you really want to feel inspired, if you want to keep that smile with you, just know those kittens only got to the rainbow after punching a wolf in the teeth.