The differences between Western and Eastern animation come down to the key factors of values and culture. A region’s humor, in general, is determined by its values. This is because to find something funny, you must in some sense be able to relate to it. If the subject matter is entirely out of your field of reference, the humor is lost on you. It is this fact that leads many filmmakers to make their movie’s humor as universal as possible.
The prevalence of slapstick and absurdity in mainstream cinema should come as no surprise- these humorous subjects are universal. Despite the usual conformity to universal appeal, there are some animation philosophies that only western animators seem to favor. Animated movies like “Rango” and “Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs” are great examples of these regional different perspectives. In the West (United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom) there is a much greater preference for unlikely heroes. You have small ordinary animals saving the day, losers rising to hero status, and impossible odds being overcome by quick thinking and courage.
Rango is just a household chameleon for all intents and purposes; he’s not fit to take on the role of sheriff in a lawless town. The clumsy and socially inept genius, Flint, can be expected to save the town- surely he’ll just make things worse. It’s all about rooting for the underdog and seeing them overcome their challenges.
In eastern animation, like Japan or Korea, you instead see a preference for established heroes and competitive plot points. The concepts of rivals and honor are often at the forefront of the storyline and there’s usually a lot more at stake than reasonably possible. For example, in “Yu-Gi-Oh: The Movie,” a card game is essentially going to determine the fate of the world. Fortunately, the protagonist is a master of all games and rarely loses. More often than not, the main character is an established champion with more than enough tools at his disposal to come out on top in the end. Instead of an underdog theme, eastern animation takes on a preference for storylines based upon rivalry or a global scale of danger.
In order to be an international success, movies like “Rango” need to appeal to a broad audience. The jokes don’t need to be too exclusive – you want to hit as many target audiences as possible. This means not only conquering the age barrier, but also the cultural one. The setting is one all too familiar – the old west. When many foreigners think of the United States, this is exactly what comes to mind – the old west and cowboys. In much the same way that Americans tend to image samurai for Japan or martial artists for China. These heavily romanticized time periods are popular and precede their country of origin.
Right away it’s established that Rango is a little pet with big dreams. By nature he’s meant to ‘blend in’, but desperately he wants to be a hero. Circumstance drops Rango right where he needs to be if he wants to prove himself – a disorderly desert town in need of a hero. Sound familiar? Unlikely animal dropped in iconic setting that must become a true hero to save the day? Don’t blink, or you’ll miss the similarity to “Kung Fu Panda.” Clichéd or not, the plot hits a warm, familiar place in our minds. We think of past Disney films with a similar premise like “Hercules” or “Lion King.” As this would-be hero endures his trials, we laugh, we cry, and we learn a little. It’s a classic story that could make or break Rango’s future – both in his world as a hero and in ours as a sequel.