Time Story Story Time: Kung Fu Panda, A Stitch In Time

Mama Fisi
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No one can accuse the animated Nickelodeon series Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness of being at all scientific.  Aside from being one of the best TV shows on the air these days--animated or otherwise--it really doesn't belong on a science fiction-oriented site.  Except that it recently dealt with time travel, and in a way that's so unique that I decided to profile it in my series on time travel stories.

In case you're unfamiliar with the franchise, Po is an overweight goofball of a panda who inexplicably has been chosen the Dragon Warrior of the Jade Palace, an event which has cheesed off Master Shifu and the Furious Five, serious Kung Fu masters who have been using their fighting skills to protect the Valley of Peace from enemies of all species.  Po is obsessed with food, tries to shirk his duties every chance he gets, ignores the advice of his master, plays fast and loose with the truth, and never seems to actually learn any lessons from his misadventures--yet somehow he is also a powerful warrior and has, at his core, a good heart.

In this particular episode, after creating his usual havoc by disregarding Master Shifu's rules about not playing field hockey indoors, he finds a bag of mysterious seeds concealed in a crack in the floor.  The seeds, when thrown down on the ground, cause time to skip backwards a few minutes, yet Po is aware of the "do-over;" when Shifu orders him to burn the seeds when Po tells him about finding them, Po uses a seed to go back to a few minutes prior, and then does not tell Shifu, and proceeds to use the seeds for his own selfish and lazy reasons.

The seeds, according to Shifu, came from a magical Shuyong tree that existed from before the dawn of time, and thus contain little bits of time, which account for the back-skipping phenomena when the seeds are destroyed and the encapsulated time released. If one were to eat the fruit of this tree, he could then control time itself.

While Po is gloating over his find, and using the seeds to re-fill his dumpling bowl, he hears the sounds of fighting coming from the great hall of the Jade Palace.  Fenghuang, a highly skilled and dangerous owl, has broken in, and with her knowledge of the "twelve impossible moves" is whipping the stuffing out of Shifu and the Furious Five, killing Shifu.  Po engages her in combat, and attempts to use the seeds to go back in time and evade her tricks, but Fenghuang recognizes the seeds for what they are, and snags a few for herself, quickly flying away.

Po now has to try to undo the damage wrought by Fenghuang, and uses a seed to go back in time so he can tell Shifu and warn him about Fenghuang before she arrives, but as it turns out, Fenghuang has already planted the seed, grown a tree, eaten a fruit, and is now master of time, a skill that an evil creature like her should never be allowed to have.  She proceeds to blink back in time and prevent the parents of each of the Five, and of Shifu, from ever meeting, and so one by one they disappear from existence.  She gloats over Po's ultimate defeat, but before she can vanish, he catches hold of her legs, and refuses to let go as she tries to shake him in flight; the bag falls from their grasp into the throat of a volcano, which then releases all the power pent up in the seeds, and they end up in that empty place before time began, and now Fenghuang's power is useless.  They will be trapped there forever, unless they can get the single fruit which dangles from the Shuyong tree.

The tree, however, is guarded by three giant, yet eerily empty, moving suits of armor, which Po and Fenghuang succeed in defeating.  But the tree itself proves to have defenses, and demands to know what they would do with its precious fruit--and the one whose answer is more worthy will get the fruit, while the other one will be thrown into eternity.

First they argue about what brought them there, and then Po and Fenghuang fight. Po tries to cut a deal with her--if she will restore his friends to life, then he will let her have the fruit, and send him into the abyss.  She readily agrees--and we all know she's lying to him--but the tree intervenes, freezing them both in place to ask again what their intentions are.  Fenghuang admits that she wants the fruit in order to have mastery over time, while Po says he just wants to save his friends.

The tree decides in favor of Po, and sends Fenghuang into eternity.  It grants Po "the mother of all do-overs," sending him back to the moment when he first barged into the training area to tell Shifu about the seeds; he still doesn't mention the seeds, but after reassuring himself that his friends are safe, he goes to burn them.  Ominously, one seed is left in the bag, unburnt.

I think this is the first time I've heard of seeds being used as a time travel device, and it makes for an interesting, if technically impossible, story.  Granted, time travel itself is impossible, but this treats more in the realm of magic than in science.  The seeds explode in a burst of light when they hit the ground.  The effect is not consistent--one time Po skips back only a few minutes, another time, several hours.  When he attempts to use them against Fenghuang, she happens to be to be touching him at the time, and so she, too, travels back a few moments, which is how she discovers the seeds.   And when Fenghuang erases Shifu from existence, logically, the Five and Po would also disappear from the Jade Palace, as it was Shifu who brought them there and trained them.  This, of course, is a level of causality that probably doesn't need to be cluttering up a cartoon for twelve-year-olds, but I'm sure a lot of kids also shouted "Wait a minute--!" too.  After all, Fenghuang was also messing around with the ability to be "everywhere and nowhere," popping in and out of time, then appearing in multiples against which Po could not hope to fight.

The metaphysical aspect of the immortal, eternal Shuyong tree making a choice between good and evil, is also pretty advanced stuff for a cartoon, but then Kung Fu Panda has often dealt with this subject.  Po's simplicity is his greatest weapon, and why Master Oogway, the elderly tortoise who built the Jade Palace, chose him to be Dragon Warrior in the first place--because Po, despite all of his shortcomings, usually manages to save the day by having a sincere desire to help his friends. Even when invested with tremendous power, Po usually chooses to use it for good.

Which puts him in the same class as that famous time lord, Doctor Hu.