While staying at home with my infant son and toddler daughter, I have had many opportunities to see motivational theories in action in non-school settings. Specifically, I have noticed beliefs about abilities in the characters of the three Kung Fu Panda movies, which my daughter requests almost daily. In each of the three movies, the main character Po (a panda voiced by Jack Black) demonstrates different aspects of ability theories listed by Wentzel and Brophy (2014) in his beliefs of his successes and failures.
In the first movie, Po is struggling with whether he is the originator of his actions or if he is a “pawn whose fate is determined by factors beyond [his] control” (p. 148). He also begins to see the connection between effort and mastery, developing a belief in effort-outcome covariation.
Chosen as the prestigious “Dragon Warrior” through seemingly accidental circumstances, Po is thrown from a life of making noodles to the dubious fate of becoming the best kung fu warrior in China.
At the beginning of the movie, Po perceives himself as a pawn. He feels discouraged and lost that the events in his life and his own abilities are beyond his control. As the movie progresses, and he puts forth effort to change, he begins to see himself as the origin of his desired outcomes.
But, he meets with a set back and returns to his old beliefs of being at the mercy of the universe. At the pivotal moment in the movie, his adopted goose-father confesses to Po that
“The secret ingredient to my secret ingredient soup is . . . nothing. All you have to do to make something special is say that it is.”
Po’s eyes light up in revelation as he replies, “There is no secret ingredient.”
In a moment reminiscent of Dumbo’s “magic feather,” Po learns that being the Dragon Warrior doesn’t take a special set of abilities or decisions made for him by “fate.” He knows his choices are under his control, and success starts with him and his effort.
In the second movie, Po has to face demons from his past as he battles with locus of control, or the source of his control over change. He wonders if his choices and actions are within his control, meaning he has an internal locus of control, or if they are determined by outside influences, meaning an external locus of control.
The villain Po must face in this movie is a bitter and ambitious peacock who is responsible for making Po an orphan. Po must choose to be defined by the external events of his past or by his internal capabilities. Throughout the movie, he is challenged with the task of finding “inner peace.” He finally finds it when he accepts the past without letting it control him (external locus of control) and takes responsibility for what is within his power to change (internal locus of control).
Po is stretched beyond his current abilities in the third movie. He comes face-to-face with his own entity, or fixed, theory of ability and must shift to an incremental, or changeable, theory of ability. By this point in the overall plot development of Po’s character, he has come to define himself by his efforts as the Dragon Warrior, his abilities to control his fate, and the power within himself to achieve success.
At the beginning of the movie, Po’s master gives him an assignment he is sure to fail. When asked why Po was set up to fail, the master replies, “If you always do what you can, you will never be more than you are.”
Po has an entity theory regarding his abilities and identity, that is, he views his capabilities as fixed and permanent. In his mind, he is the Dragon Warrior who fights alongside the Furious Five to defend their valley. He feels he has reached the end of his growth and development. This belief is challenged, though, when Po meets a villain who is impervious to every trick Po knows how to do.
He must go outside the realm of what he can do to become more than what he is.
At the climax of the plot Po’s thinking shifts to an incremental, or flexible, theory of his and others’ capabilities. He comes to believe that “ability can be increased incrementally through effort” and he starts to “focus on remediating [his] deficiencies” (Wentzel & Brophy, 2014, p. 148).
The power of changing his theory of ability causes him and all others around him to defeat the villain that could not be defeated.