Skip to main content

Good dragons under the control of bad people do bad things.

How to Train Your Dragon 2
(2014)

(SPOILERS) There’s good reason to be cynical about the current state of animated sequels, what with every studio shamelessly strip-mining properties for franchise potential, irrespective of whether they merit it or not. No one is screaming for more Cars and Kung Fu Panda. Actually, they probably are, but they don’t know any better. DreamWorks is particularly guilty, although they at least never betrayed lofty pretensions the way Pixar did. That the first How to Train Your Dragon was such a pleasant surprise, the best animation from the studio since the first Shrek, instantly rang warning bells. Were they going to relentlessly plunder Hiccup and Toothless, creating disdain the way they did with that series? The answer is no, fortunately. How to Train Your Dragon 2 may not scale the heights of the first outing, but it more than arrests the studio’s backwards slide in quality.


Returning director Dean DeBlois cited The Empire Strikes Back as informing his approach to the sequel, hardly a surprising touchstone, but one he feeds from in all the right ways. This doesn’t mean Dragon 2 ends on a cliffhanger, or that Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, whose vocal nuances ensure that his character will never be the most butch of heroes) must undergo a training regime to make him a master before discovering his parent is a villain. 


He does meet his long lost mum, and loses his dad, which ensures the series’ internal mythology grows in entirely complementary ways. It’s refreshing to have a character, in an environment beset by Marvel, Joss Whedon, and Steven Moffat, where a character dies and stays dead. Best of all, DeBlois ensures this has a powerful emotional impact (the only shortcoming is that, in a movie that is always moving, the hero is back to being supremely perky for the subsequent set piece).


More than that, DeBlois even has his own involving take on turning to the Dark Side, in which the loveable Toothless has his mind possessed by a Great Bewilderbeast, an “Alpha” dragon that can direct the actions of any dragon. That Stoick (Gerard Butler, having much more fun, and showing much more emotional range, than we ever see in the flesh) should fall at the fiery breath of Toothless makes the loss all the more potent, and ensures this is a family film more in the early Disney tradition of not soft-pedalling loss and darkness.


It leads to a bracing climax, far superior to the majority of last summer’s blockbusters (which, even the best of them, fell back on blowing shit up), in which little Hiccup challenges the Alpha. The massive monster mayhem of the Alpha is also much more impressive than the massive monster mayhem of Godzilla or the previous year’s Pacific Rim, because there’s emotional investment in the carnage on display.


The character design is generally no more distinctive than any other CGI affair, which is, alas, one of the banes of a form of animation that chooses to play things safe. But DeBlois had previous directed one of the few Second Golden Age Disneys to mix things up, Lilo & Stitch, and, within the physical features that could easily be dropped into Rise of the Guardians or The Croods, he ensures there’s warmth and idiosyncrasy.  


The voice cast, curiously divided into a Scottish older generation and American younger, generally acquit themselves well. Kit Harington, formally consigned to slightly wet leading roles, has a bit of fun with the Han Solo-esque Eret, while Craig Ferguson provides the majority of the chuckles as Stoick’s right-hand man Gobber (“This is why I never married. This, and one other reason”). I’m not so sure about Cate Blanchett’s Scotty accent as Valka, Hiccup’s newfound mumsy, though, and Djimon Hounsou is shoutily hissable but one-note as villain Drago.


Perhaps Dragon 2’s most illustrious aspect is that, unlike say Madagascar, it absolutely is not propped up on its comic sidekicks. The events befalling the main players are much more engaging, such that the antics of Hiccup’s crew (comprising America Ferrara, Kristen Wiig, Joan Hill and Christopher Mintz-Bleeding-Plasse) could be blissfully excised without anyone much noticing. The reunion of Vaka and Stoick is a quite wonderful scene by any standards; live action movies would do well to be so moving without descending into manipulative mush (notably, it also, wisely for a family movie, sidesteps offering Valka recriminations for abandoning her family).


So there’s good reason this was the biggest animated movie of 2014, even if it showed a disappointing performance in the US (quite why is anyone’s guess; the taken for granted title, and inability to explain why it was different to the first might not have helped, but that didn’t hamper Despicable Me 2). It may make a meal of its message in the final stages (“This is what it is to earn a dragon’s loyalty”, and too much talk of Hiccup as a voice of peace), unnecessary as it has already set out its stall with accomplishment, but this is a minor criticism. There’s good reason to look forward to How to Train Your Dragon 3 in 2018, even if we have to suffer Kung Fu Panda 3 and The Croods 2 in order to get there.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm on the one hand doesn’t feel overly like a Rodriguez film, in that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus – but on the other, it doesn’t feel particularly like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. Despite that, there’s something likeable about the whole ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel, a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).