Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Kung Fu Panda 3 Adoption Movie Review

Po has learned over his first two films that he is a Panda, that he was adopted by his father, a goose named Mr. Ping, and that he is the long-foretold Dragon Warrior. In Kung Fu Panda 3, Po learns what it means to be the Dragon Warrior – and he comes face-to-face with his birth father, Li Shan. Po must continue to explore all the aspects of his own identity to find peace for himself and for the world. And he needs to do it well, because his birth father and adoptive father are at odds with each other – and because the villainous Kai has returned from the spirit world intent on taking revenge against all Kung Fu masters.


The Adoption Connection

Po is a panda, and is the adopted son of Mr. Ping. Until recently, he did not know that there were other pandas alive. Now, though, he meets his birth father, and is brought to a secret location where many pandas continue to live in peace. Po has the opportunity to explore what it means to be a panda; he learns how they live, how they eat, and how they move. His birth father, Li Shen, is intent on teaching Po how to be a panda. He tells Po how Po came to be separated from him, and often refers to Po as “Lotus,” which was Po’s name at birth.

Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping is worried that Li Shen will reduce Mr. Ping’s role in Po’s life. When Li Shen takes Po to the panda village, Mr. Ping secretly accompanies them, not wanting to lose Po. Mr. Ping’s defensiveness and anxiety are palpable upon first meeting Li Shen, and Li Shen appears somewhat insensitive towards Mr. Ping’s feelings. It’s a bumpy ride, but they eventually do find a way to a healthy shared parental role.

Strong Points

Overall, Kung Fu Panda 3 strikes me as a positive adoption story. By the end of the film (and of course, this is a spoiler), Mr. Ping and Li Shen have learned to co-function as fathers to Po. My wife noted that it was really only Mr. Ping and Li Shen that had any difficulty with this; Po naturally took to calling them, collectively, “Dads,” but it took the grown-ups a while longer to reach this peace. 

There are some hard spots along the way that could be difficult for some viewers – kids and adults – when Mr. Ping and Li Shen both are less than ideal in their approach to the situation, but even those struggles seem to be realistic. Overall, though, Po, Mr. Ping, and Li Shen reach an understanding that they are all family. This reminded me of Lori Holden’s framework of “Both/And” rather than “Either/Or” – Po easily realized that Mr. Ping and Li Shen were both his dads; it took Mr. Ping, particularly a while to realize that it was not an “either/or” situation. Mr. Ping was able to explain his fears to Li Shen in a wonderfully vulnerable moment, “I was worried you’d steal Po from me. That was crazy. Having you in Po’s life doesn’t mean less for me. It means more for Po.” In fact, Po captures it wonderfully, “Who am I? I’ve been asking the same question. Am I the son of a panda? The son of a goose? A student? A teacher? Turns out, I’m all of them.” Well said, and way more insightful than most films.  

Mr. Ping initially warms to the panda culture when he sees elements of Po in the young pandas in the village (they like noodles, just like Po did.) Mr. Ping and Li Shen’s first act of co-parenting comes when they both encourage Po.  

It’s obvious that Mr. Ping and Li Shen both love Po, even as they’re trying to figure out their role with regard to his other father.

It’s touching to see Po return to the panda village. He is amazed to see people who look like him, “You’re like me but a baby. You’re like me but old. You’re like me but fatter.” It’s a heartwarming scene.

At one point, Mr. Ping and Li Shen refer to themselves as Po’s “Double Dad Defense.”


A villain has captured, in some sense, nearly every hero in the world.

In some sense, Po is forced to fight against his friends. While adults will understand the nuanced difference, younger kids might feel that Po has been betrayed

Li Shen lies to Po. When Po confronts him, Li Shen says that he lied in order to protect Po, “I lost you before; I won’t lose you again.” Po’s response is painful, “You just did.”

In one scene, Po and Li Shen talk to each other about looking for their lost relatives. They are in front of a crowd of onlookers who are befuddled that Po and Li Shen don’t realize their relationship. It’s played for humor, but it could be confusing to young children who have been adopted into a family that looks physically different from them. They might need help understanding that, while physical traits are passed on from one’s genetic family, not everyone who shares physical traits with a child is a member of that child’s genetic family.

Mr. Ping initially does not want Po to call Li Shen “Dad.”

Po is told of the traumatic story by which he was separated from his parents.

The sense of competition between dads could be uncomfortable for adopted people, adoptive parents, and birth parents.

While most of the pandas are very warm towards Po, some younger pandas are insensitive, asking “What kind of panda doesn’t know” how pandas move. Po responds, “I’m new at being a panda.”

In talking to Li Shen about how they’ve each lied to Po, Mr. Ping says “Sometimes, we do wrong 
things for right reasons.” While it is not good for parents to lie to their children about adoption, it is realistic to acknowledge that even the lies are told “for right reasons.” They’re misguided and perhaps harmful, but not malicious. It’s a valid nuanced distinction.

Weak Points

Po's dads do lie to him. Li Shen did lie to Po about a very important thing, and it seems that Po will blame Li Shen for taking away Po’s friends – and to some extent, Po’s purpose in life. In an attempt to comfort Li Shen, Mr. Ping tells him, “I lied to Po for twenty years. He still thinks he came from an egg.” Mr. Ping also refers to Li Shen as “a monster” once.

There are some very challenging scenes that will be inappropriate for some viewers, depending on their age, maturity, and understanding of adoption issues. These scenes are not generally “bad” – just “hard,” and maybe too hard for some younger viewers. With parental discretion, this can be a very strong film.


This isn’t going to be an easy film for viewers touched by adoption – there are some very difficult and painful scenes and concepts, but ultimately, Po and his two fathers reach a very healthy spot. The difficulty they experience likely mirrors the struggle that real-life families have to go through on the road to a healthy integration of birth and adoptive families. This is a good movie to watch, but adoptive parents should prepare their kids ahead of time for the adoption issues that will be in the movie, and should intentionally discuss the film with their kids afterwards. Parents whose kids are too young to discuss the adoption issues might want to wait a while on this film, but if kids are able to talk through their feelings about the film, this could be a very powerful and positive conversation starter. Recommended for ages 9 and up. Kids 8 and under might not be ready to do the processing work that will be necessary to benefit from this film, and that work is important here because of how heavy the hard scenes are.

Questions for Discussion

What makes you, you?

Has someone ever lied to you, doing “the wrong thing for the right reason?” Did their good intentions make it less painful? If it didn’t make it less painful, does it make it easier to forgive?

Do you think Po has to choose either Mr. Ping or Li Shen to be his dad, or can he say that they both are his dads?

 A question that Po must answer throughout the series is, “Who are you?” Now that Kung Fu Panda 3 is completed – who do you say Po is?


  1. We have not shown our daughter Kung Fo Panda 2 because felt she was not old enough to deal with the abandonment scene and painful questions it would bring up. In an otherwise very light movie, that scene was even somewhat traumatizing for my husband and I given it hit so close to home, so to speak. Are there similar scenes in this movie, or is it just referenced?

    1. Hi Bridgette! Thanks for the good question. There is a scene that basically repeats the scene you're talking about. The film is brought to a very good resolution, but it does have a scene where Po is left by his mother, within the context of the story of how he came to be with Mr. Ping. In this film, we also get to hear how badly this pained Po's birthfather. It is a film worth checking out, but it might be best to screen it before sharing it with your daughter. There's a lot of good to draw from the film, but there are some difficult parts to get through which might be too hard for younger viewers. I'd love to know what you end up deciding!

    2. I saw Kung Fu Panda 3 with my birthdad, Bret Walker, because of two things:
      1. How will they end the trilogy with Po in a Panda Village being persued by a Chi-Collecting Yak named Kai?
      and 2. How will Po's relationship go now that he found his birth father?
      The one thing I didn't expect (or that it was glossed over) was the inclusion of Mr. Ping, and I didn't expect him to play a big role, and it worked. And yes, I can see that sometimes lying could be used for protection, just as long as you know what you're doing. And I think it all tied up well, especially when Po learned of his past in the previous film.

    3. Thanks for your comments here. I'm glad that the film worked for you and your birthdad. I understand the motivation that parents might have if they choose to lie, and at the same time I think it might be more effective to find a way to protect one's child while also sharing the truth in an age-appropriate way. I'm glad that you shared your experience of the film!

  2. Thank you for posting this. My husband wanted to take our daughter (who will be 6 years old next weekend). I had read about the adoption themes on the first one and wanted to know what the newest movie was about from this lens. We have a semi-open relationship with her birthparents and she knows her adoption story but I am just not ready to discuss some of these complex subjects and scenes yet. Thank you, thank you for viewing it and giving us insight into the themes so we can make an informed decision ahead of time. I would love to know a list of movies that you think have positive adoption themes for 5-7 year olds.

    1. Hi Jennifer! Thanks for the comment... And I do think that the Kung Fu Panda movies have a GREAT arc all together about adoption, it just might be a little above-grade-level for very young kids. In a couple years it might be a bullseye. A while ago, I did a post on good movies for kids under 8 - it's a year old so it might be missing the newest movies, but here's a link :) http://www.adoptionlcsw.com/2015/03/six-good-movies-for-kids-under-8.html

    2. D'oh - it doesn't seem like I can add a hyperlink to that... but just go ahead and copy into your browser :)

  3. I watched this movie with my son who is 5 and adopted. My son does not know he is but his half sister knows her adoption story. My son was 2 days old when I brought him home and I am the only mom he knows. I have been trying to find a way to discuss the topic of adoption with him in a way he can understand. I have pictures of his birth parents and and original birth certificates because it is a part of his adoption story. Every year I celebrate my children's adoption date as an anniversary. He just knows it's his special day that he celebrates with his sister and I. Do you have any ideas on how to tell a child singling? I think he should know but I don't if the time is right.

    1. Hi Leah,

      Thanks so much for your comment, and for your bravery in asking this question. I know it can be a hard question to work through. I commend you for wanting to tell your son his adoption story. I think now is as good as a time as any to start sharing his story with him. I've come to believe that kids are very resilient, and they're able to incorporate lots of truth into their conception of the world - and even into their conception of what "normal" is.

      I've sometimes thought that a great opportunity to talk about adoption happens when kids ask where babies come from. That's a very opportune time to say something like, "Well, there's two parts to that story - how do babies get made, and how do babies get into families. All babies are grown in a lady with help from a man. Some families are made right there, and other families are made when the baby gets a new mommy, or a new daddy, or both." There are some really good and kid-accessible kids' books that do a better job than I do - one that I like quite a bit is How I Was Adopted by Joanna Cole.

      It's great that you and your son watched Kung Fu Panda 3 together; it and films like it will give your kiddo positive things to connect to his own story. There is already a shelf for adoption in his understanding of the world. He might not understand it very well - but it's there. Kung Fu Panda 2 has a great scene, too, where Mr. Ping explains Po's adoption to him. That might be a good movie to watch, too.

      When you do start talking to your son about his adoption, be honest and calm, but also let him guide the discussion. "Did you know that Po was adopted? You came to our family through adoption, too, and just like Mr. Ping loves Po, we love you. And you can always ask me any questions that you have." Sometimes kids have lots of questions, sometimes they don't have any right away. Sometimes they take the news very well; sometimes it might be hard. It's unfortunately not possible to give solid, specific "fail-proof" advice over the Internet, and so it's important for me to also say that sometimes, an adoption-focused therapist might be helpful, and adoption agencies in your town can help you find one.

      Good luck, Leah! You're thinking in the right direction!

    2. Leah,

      In my opinion the longer you wait, the harder it will be. It is his story and IMO he has a right to know. Sometimes the questions and emotions are difficult but like I said it will only get more difficult the longer you wait. A kid is never too young to know who they are and adoption experts recommend not waiting to do this. We've been talking about "tummy mommies" and foster mommies since our kids were old enough to understand words and speech. One good way to help him process after telling him might be to make a Lifebook that is sort of like a scrapbook for adopted kids to work through their life story. Google it for tips.

  4. I should add that I just now read Addison's reply and I just now read that Addison is himself an adoption expert - so listen to him more than me! :)

  5. I took my 6-yr old daughter to see this movie yesterday. The timing was perfect since not even a week ago she met her birth father and spent three days with us (her adoptive parents), her birth father, and his extended family. After the movie, we went out for coffee/hot chocolate and had a wonderful conversation about the similarities and differences between her story and Po's. I was so thankful for the perfect opportunity to additionally process the big week she has had. The earlier and more often we, as parents, provide age-appropriate discussions on difficult topics, the more our children will feel safe to talk to us about thoughts and questions they have. My daughter loved the movie, as did I.

    1. Hi Enat - " The earlier and more often we, as parents, provide age-appropriate discussions on difficult topics, the more our children will feel safe to talk to us about thoughts and questions they have. " -- yes! That's why Adoption at the Movies exists :)

  6. I saw KFP 1, but never saw 2. I had some time to kill, and decided to see 3 without giving it a second thought. Man. I cried SO much, pretty sure my eye makeup was all gone by the time the movie was over. I mostly cried thinking about how angry I've been for so many years that my adoptive parents were so rejecting of my curiosity about my identity. There's always been this huge hole, and wall between us because of that. It was somewhat validating thinking about how Po's dad's went about it, expressing their fears and working through that awkwardness. Obviously it's idealistic thinking, and you've brought up things I didn't even think about but I really needed to see that movie.. and I'm glad I did.

    1. Wow. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I'm glad that the movie was helpful for you, and that I could suggest it for you. It's sad that your family has been rejecting of your curiosity about your identity. I love how Mr. Ping and Li were both honest about their fears, but then worked through it and realized that one does not negate the other. That idea reminds me of something that Lori Holden wrote about in a book geared towards parents, called "The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption" - she encourages folks to adopt a perspective of "both/and" rather than "either/or" - I find myself referring to that kind of a lot. Anyway, thanks for sharing your experience. I'm glad you're here.

  7. I'm hoping someone is still checking this. Our timing in starting to watch this movie tonight was amazing & a bit startling. Just this weekend, after a rough week in our adoptive family, my teen son found his birth family on FB. His birthmom & gma were both addicts, and he was placed in the foster system until he came to us at age 13. I understand the curiosity, but I'm so concerned that this "virtual love fest" that all his relatives are showering on him will lead to a bad place. His birth mom is in prison, but grandma, siblings (2 of which he's never met) and a 1/2 dozen aunties are all eager to reconnect with him. Fortunately my son fell asleep shortly into the movie, but I watched a bit more & could tell what tough issues were coming. I'm just really emotional now, and don't know how to handle either the movie or real life!!

    1. Hi, Mom61. I'm glad that you wrote. The worries that you're feeling are normal. I don't know the specifics of your son's birthfamily's situation, so for the best insight or advice, it might be best to call the agency that you worked with. An adoption-competent therapist could also be helpful for your son, you, and your family as you work to process through a particularly unique aspect of being an adoptive family.

      Some general thoughts that come to mind - if it's safe for a child to be in contact with members of his birth family, then some potential benefits of contact are answers to questions, and a mitigated sense of loss. It's possible that some members of a birth family might not be safe or healthy for contact while other members are. I would advise adoptive parents to journey with their children rather than having the child do it on their own - they need someone to talk to, to support them, and to give guidance. Also, Lori Holden wrote a good book (The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption) that might be helpful.

      Don't stop talking with your son; as best as you can, create a safe place for him to talk about his questions, his thoughts, and his feelings. But I do want to affirm for you that the way you're feeling is normal. And again, I need to acknowledge that I can't really offer professional advice without knowing your story. I want to suggest reaching out to professionals in your area, including the agency that you've worked with before.
      Thanks so much for reaching out, and for being honest about what you're feeling. Like Mister Rogers said, "anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable."


Open Adoption Blogs