I seem to be on a comparison kick: A while back I did a massive comparison/contrast between Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and The Empire Strikes Back. Then I followed up with a comparison/contrast of Fantasia and Fantasia 2000.
More recently, I found myself in a discussion weighing the relative merits of two of DreamWorks Animation’s recent features, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. How do they stack up? My exhaustive analysis is below! (If Mark Shea thought my Harry Potter/Star Wars post was super-nerdy, wait till he sees this one!)
Warning: Spoilers ahoy!
- Overall scope: Kung Fu Panda offers a funny-animal genre spoof of every kung-fu movie and hero’s journey tale of a chosen one who becomes the ultimate hero. How to Train Your Dragon offers something a bit more ambitious: a quirky hybrid adventure of Vikings and dragons with imaginatively differentiated dragon species. Decision: Dragon.
- Protagonist: Dragon Warrior or Dragon Trainer? In this corner, Jack Black as kung fu geek panda Po; in that corner, Jay Baruchel as aggrieved Viking nerd Hiccup. I like both characters; Po’s boundless enthusiasm is endearing, while Hiccup starts off abrasive but quickly becomes more sympathetic and interesting. I think I like Po better at the beginning, but Hiccup better by the end. I’m going to call this one … too close to call.
- Father figures/mentors: Kung Fu Panda has (a) the Yoda-like turtle Oogway, (b) Dustin Hoffman’s gruff Master Shifu, and (c) Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping. Dragon has (a) Stoick the Vast, a rather unreconstructed authoritarian stereotype of a father who doesn’t understand his son, and (b) Gobber the Belch, the more sympathetic old trainer. Gobber’s a great character, but Kung Fu Panda packs more father-figure punch. (Alas, neither film has any mother figure — although Dragon does have a great, slightly bawdy joke alluding to Hiccup’s absent mother.) Decision: Panda.
- Peers/supporting cast who initially reject the hero but eventually embrace him: Kung Fu Panda has the awesome but rather under-utilized Furious Five, who are never quite allowed to be as heroic as they’re supposed to be and are never quite given the opportunity to make it up to Po for initially rejecting him. Dragon has Astrid, Hiccup’s friend Fishlegs, and various other types that you remember all too well from gym class, all of whom are eventually won over by Hiccup’s way with dragons. Astrid is a better and better-utilized character than Tigress, and the rest of the peers follow suit. Decision: Dragon.
- Character who represents hero’s biggest challenge: An awkward category lumping together the two most significant characters not mentioned yet: Toothless the dragon and Tai Lung the snow leopard. Tai Lung benefits from Ian McShane’s rich performance (“He’s a panda! You’re a panda!”), but Toothless packs an emotional punch without a word of dialogue. I would call it for Toothless in a second — right up to the climax. In view of the next item below, though, this one’s too close to call.
- Climactic father figure emotional breakthrough (in confrontation with above-named character): Panda has Shifu’s confrontation with Tai Lung; Dragon has Stoick rescuing Toothless. No contest. Stoick diving down to rescue Toothless does bring a tear to my eye. But Shifu’s murmured pre-battle lines to his pupil-turned-opponent—“I have always been proud of you”—full of reget and shame and broken-hearted love, makes me want to bawl like a baby. Yes, I am a sucker; I’m teary just writing about it. Decision: Panda.
- Opening action sequence: Pseudo-anime kung-fu spoof dream fantasy sequence (“I see you like to chew! How about you chew on my fist!”) vs. dragon raid on Viking village. Decision: Panda.
- Initial ritual humiliation training sequence of pathetic hero: Po trying to do kung fu vs. Hiccup trying not to get killed by dragons. Decision: Panda.
- Breakthrough action scene: Dumpling training sequence vs. Toothless and Hiccup’s first flight. The Panda scene is hilarious and brilliantly inventive; the Dragon scene is gorgeous and genuinely thrilling. Too close to call.
- Climactic action sequence: In this corner, Po’s showdown with Tai Lung; in that corner, Hiccup and Toothless take on the monster dragon. The Panda climax offers a number of satisfyingly clever conceits, but the Dragon climax has additional virtues. Hiccup uses teamwork; his peers all have a part to play, rather than being sidelined like the Furious Five. Toothless’s handicap that Hiccup has overcome becomes a liability and generates real suspense. In the end, Toothless selflessly protects Hiccup. And the victory comes at a permanent cost to Hiccup. No contest. Decision: Dragon.
- Other action set pieces: Panda has Tai Lung's escape sequence and his battle with the Furious Five at the rope bridge. Dragon has … whatever you want to cite. Decision: Panda.
- Most glaring unexplained plot point: In Panda, Oogway vanishes in a puff of deus ex machina so that Po will have to confront Tai Lung on his own. In Dragon, Stoick (somehow) hits on the plan of (somehow) forcing the captured Toothless to (somehow) guide the Vikings to the dragon nest. Oogway’s disappearance is much more flagrantly unexplained, but Oogway is a turtle of mystery, whereas Stoick has no reason to think that he can get information out of Toothless. Too close to call.
- Additional coolness: Shifu's superhuman interaction with environment (manipulating air currents to extinguish candles, levitate flower petals, etc.) vs. the Viking book of dragon lore. Too close to call.