This essay was originally published in 2014 on https://www.quora.com
This is an important question for our time and must therefore be considered carefully.
First one must challenge the assumptions of the questioner. Po is not a slob. He is a panda with an appetite and lack of athleticism to match, and principally fat because of this.
From a defensive perspective, we find out early that Po’s rolls of fat insulate his nerves from being easily accessed by Mantis’ acupuncture needles. We also learn that Tai Lung’s most impressive power is his perfection of various nerve attacks in the style that Master Oogway used against Tai Lung to keep him from the dragon scroll. Thus we see at the climax of the film that it is Po’s very fat that keeps Tai Lung’s nerve attacks from having any effect on Po beyond a tickling sensation.
Next, Tai Lung underestimates Po as an opponent. The snow leopard is so contemptuous of Po that he never focuses on defeating him until it is too late. Instead, Tai Lung is focused exclusively on gaining the dragon scroll as he sees it as his rightful entitlement. This gives Po plenty of opportunity to understand Tai Lung as an opponent while Tai Lung chases the scroll and Po chases them both.
Lastly, and most importantly, Po is not a classic ‘student’ of Kung Fu. There is no ‘bear style’ and Shifu, mindful of his failure with Tai Lung, teaches no one techniques like the WuXi finger hold. Thus Po is left to find the secrets of his own power as a self teacher. And this, in my opinion, is the real secret to the whole film.
Oogway is a self-teacher. As a turtle, he is even less appropriate than a Panda as a Kung Fu archetype. But we learn that it is Oogway who, in apparent solitude at the pool of sacred tears, unravels the ‘secrets of harmony and focus’. Thus Oogway is a self-teacher trying to pass the secret of self-teaching. But how can he do this as to train a student risks crowding out the self-teaching modality? So he decides to pick a self-teacher by choosing the panda whose only achievement is to break into a Kung Fu competition by turning a fireworks cart into a makeshift rocket to hop a wall. Yet this act of improvisation tells the great turtle that he is better off working with this humble unconventional maverick than with the overtrained tigress or other conventionally trained high achievers.
Po then realizes that he can create without waiting to receive wisdom down the chain of masters. Po uses Tai Lung’s own power and vulnerabilities against the snow leopard and finishes him off with a trick that he realizes he can reverse engineer without needing to wait for a knowledge transfer from Shifu that will likely never come.
This is a highly subversive, deep, and subtle film. Pretending it is a comedic children’s cartoon with a simple ‘be yourself’ message is perhaps the ultimate Kung Fu move. You are so busy being distracted, you never really see it coming.