HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is soaring at the box office, but does the DreamWorks Animation sequel fly as high as its predecessor? Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski think not, and you can find out why by listening to the Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast Volume 5, Number 23.
Three or four story ideas collide like cars at a busy intersection, refusing to give the right of way, so that no one ends up going anywhere fast.
Wow, playing in theatres right now is the best film ever from DreamWorks Animation! No, not HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2. I mean the trailer for THE MADAGASCAR PENGUINS. That’s right: after years of playing second fiddle to goofy lions, zebras, and giraffes, the action-packed penguins Skipper, Rico, Kowalski, and Private finally step into the limelight of their own feature film, and the two minutes of footage you see is guaranteed to provide the most entertainment you will get after purchasing your ticket to the aforementioned dragon-training sequel.
Speaking of which: What is the one thing you will not see in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2? How to train your dragon – that’s what. The training was pretty much completed in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, so there’ s not much left to do this time except haul the familiar characters out of the mothballs and put them through their paces again, in search of a new plot to justify the sequel’s existence. Unable to settle on any one story idea in particular, writer-director Dean DeBlois throws in three or four, which intersect at odd moments, like cars colliding at a busy intersection, each refusing to give the right of way, so that no one ends up going anywhere fast. The result is beautiful but dull, coming to life only in isolated sequences that should have been saved for a better movie.
HOW TO TRAN YOUR DRAGON 2 is a reminder that, despite the billions of dollars DreamWorks Animation has made from SHREK sequels and other animated fare, the company’s batting average is inconsistent in any terms other than box office. Yes, DreamWorks knows how to formulate films for broad demographic appeal, but too often the result is an awkward and easily identifiable formula. Last summer, TURBO (2013) broke the mold, insofar as it felt more like a Pixar movie than a DreamWorks effort. Unfortunately, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON sees DreamWorks Animation getting back into the business of churning out standardized DreamWorks animation. Too bad no one realized that DreamWorks was better off imitating Pixar’s formula than reverting to its own.
In the grand tradition of prevous DreamWorks computer-animated films, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON shoe-horns in a frenetic but gratuitous set-piece early in the first act. Refining their technique to the ultimate degree, DreamWorks actually starts the film with said set-piece, which essentially consists of the supporting cast playing quidditch on dragons. There is lots of activity – flapping wings, hair-pin turns, characters hurling bon mots in mid-flight – but none of it has anything to do with what follows. Which might be tolerable if the scene set the tone or at least reintroduced our protagonist Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), but no, that is saved for the next scene – another set-piece, this time featuring Hiccup and his lovable Night Fury, Toothless, soaring above the ocean.
Why DeBlois though his film needed to back-to-back showstoppers before the show even got started, is anybody’s guess, but at least the ocean-going flight provides screen time with the characters we actually want to see. Moreover, the sequence stands out as a visual highlight. The nervous editing of the opener is discarded, in favor of allowing the audience to see and savor – in glorious 3D – the joy of flying a dragon among the clouds. The sense of weightlessness, when Toothless pokes his nose out of the screen at us and then descends into free-fall, is vertiginous, and Hiccup’s own efforts at flight (in a webbed get-up reminiscent of a flying squirrel) cement the feeling of two companions sharing a magical experience.
Unfortunately, you cannot sustain a whole movie on friendship and flying, no matter how glorious, so the plot(s) kick in. First, Hiccup is worried because his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) has decided his son is ready to take over leadership duties. Although Jay Baruchel does his best to convey Hiccup’s lack of self-confidence, anyone in the audience familiar with the events of the first film already knows that Hiccup has nothing to worry about.
Nevertheless, the film feels need to provide Hiccup with some way to prove himself, so the second plot kicks in: some poachers are capturing dragons for the villainous Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who is assembling a dragon army that could cause trouble for Hiccup’s village. Stoick wants to batten down the hatches and prepare for war, but Hiccup insists on flying to meet the threat, in the hope of negotiating peace. Stoick tries to stop Hiccup’s planned peace negotiation on two or three occasions, but Hiccup will not be dissuaded. Well, at least not until his noble effort is derailed when he stumbles upon Valka (Cate Blanchett), who turns out to be his missing mother, previously assumed dead. At that point, the film stalls into a fitful idle, as Hiccup more or less forgets his vital mission, choosing instead to hang out with Mom.
This provides opportunity for flashbacks and back-story to explain Valka’s long absence, the explanation of which strains credulity more than the thought of flying, friendly dragons. Leaving that aside, it turns out that, during the intervening years, Valka has become quite the dragon-wrangler, which makes it a little hard to swallow her apology for abandoning Hiccup all these years (think of the decades of enmity between vikings and dragons that she could have avoided if she had simply bothered to go home and teach them the lessons she had learned).
After a tearful reunion between Stoick and Valka, the film gets back on track with the whole Drago situation. As nice as it is to see the touchy-weepy story set aside in favor of something resembling a plot, what follows is not an improvement. Drago is less a memorable villain than a simple plot device. He hates dragons because one took his arm, but he doesn’t mind using dragons as an army to conquer other humans (though what he has against those humans is unclear – unless it’s simply the fact that Hiccup’s village now likes dragons?).
Drago’s plan consists of using an Alpha Dragon (you know how there was a giant evil dragon that was the real villain in the previous film – well, let’s do that again!) to control all the other dragons, including Toothless, who turns briefly evil, kind of like Superman in SUPERMAN III, except that was a lot more fun. What goes completely unexplained is how Drago controls the Alpha Dragon; apparently they came to some kind of an understanding years ago.
Can Hiccup overcome Drago and rescue Toothless from Alpha Dragon’s spell? That’s not really a question, is it? The real question is how will the events play out, and the answer is: not particularly well. Hiccups doesn’t do anything particularly clever to resolve the situation, and his ultimate solution is barely removed from something he tried unsuccessfully at an earlier stage, but this time it works, because, hey, this is a happy family film, and things always work out in the end, amiright?
In any case, all of this is supposed to prove that Hiccup is up to the task of taking over as leader – not that we ever doubted, so it’s not as if we feel any character arc has been completed. Along the way, the question of whether war or negotiation is the best approach is pretty much answered.: war! Though the film pretends to hem and haw on the issue, killing the bad guys seems to be pretty much the answer. Does this life lesson leave Hiccup a sadder, wiser man? Um, no.*
If nothing else, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 features all the production value one expects from DreamWorks. The backgrounds are beautiful; the animation is amazing; the 3D effects outshine anything you see in live-action these days. And Toothless remains a wonder to behold – the dragon equivalent of a supersonic jet fighter. Unfortunately, the filmmakers seem afraid of letting him steal the show from the human characters, so he tends to be sidelined too much (rather like Wolverine in X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED).
Ultimately, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is such a convoluted mess of random story fragments and uninteresting supporting characters, that it fails to service the franchise’s main strength, which is the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. When the inevitable HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 3 arrives, hopefully the filmmakers will learn from this mistake.
- And does he have trouble adjusting to the fact that his pet dragon toasted Stoick to death like a viking marshmallow? Also no. Interesting that dead fathers carry so little emotional weight this summer. Check out MALEFICIENT, in which Princess Aurora doesn’t even need to forgive the title character for killing Aurora’s father; it’s simply assumed to be fine and dandy.
Avoid it like an Alpha Dragon!
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 (2014). DreamWorks Animation. 102 mins. PG. Written and directed by Dean DeBLois, based on the book series by Cressida Cowell. Voices: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Djimon Hounsou.
I’m at the point where I can pretty much take or leave 3D. As a techie, I want to embrace any technology that’ll expand the cinemagoing experience, but even I have to concede that most of the time 3D is employed as little more than an add-on, just a way to charge extra for stuff that’d be the same with or without depth (visual, that is. We’ll save a discussion of dramatic depth for another day).
Which is why I’m usually jazzed to check out the latest release from DreamWorks Animation. More often than not, those folk go the extra distance with 3D, using it to enhance both the visual canvas and the dramatic impact of their films. That was definitely the case with the original HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, the 2010 fantasy adventure where the third dimension became an active player in an already entertaining and visually stunning film.
So, yeah, there I was at my local multiplex, shelling out the extra bucks for my 3D experience with the new HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2. Did this new adventure — in which the young, Viking dragon-rider Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) faces down a powerful warlord (Djimon Hounsou) and has a family reunion with his long-lost mother (Cate Blanchett) — pay back my investment? In a way, yes; in a way… welllll… Check out my HOUR OF THE WOLF review for the details. Click on the player to listen.
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We should be grateful that mainstream entertainment has evolved enough for an animated tale of a prehistoric family not to be solely defined by how many times the work “rock” is prefixed to other nouns. The new DreamWorks film, THE CROODS, is about a primitive clan — led by cautious father Nicolas Cage — facing their own evolutionary upheavals, including a rebellious teen daughter (Emma Stone), a brainy stranger — he’s got shoes! (Ryan Reynolds), and a little thing called the continental drift. Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons saw this fanciful tale of survival, and got together to discuss the awesome production design, the occasionally-serviceable, occasionally-better comedy, and when we’ll see it’s-all-about-family plotting finally collapse from total exhaustion.
Plus: Dan discusses the low-budget horror film, A RESURRECTION; what’s coming to theaters; and Steve vanishes into a temporal rift, only to emerge later in the week for a Laserblast episode.
20th Century Fox releases this 3D computer-generated prehistoric comedy from DreamWorks Animation. The story follows a curious daughter who chaffs against the restrictions of her father, who warns them of the dire consequences of disobedience and especially the danger of leaving the safety of the cave – until unforeseen circumstances force a reappraisal. Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders wrote and directed. Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, and Cloris Leachman provide voices.
U.S. Theatrical Release: March 22
With THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, Disney succeeded in extending the holiday film season from the beginning of November to the end of the year. Now, DreamWorks has upped the ante with RISE OF THE GUARDIANS, a CG animated, 3D fantasy that not only has a burly, Slavic Santa (Alec Baldwin) heading up a team of dedicated fantasy icons charged with protecting the innocence and wonder of children, but also extends the market into spring by adding the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) to the corps, and then covers the gaps with Jack Frost (Chris Pine), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and a mute, but adorable, Sandman.
The film has an impressive pedigree, with Guillermo del Toro as producer and a scenario loosely based on William Joyce’s Guardians of Childhood chapter books. To discover how loosely, we invited beabetterbooktalker.com‘s Andrea Lipinski to give us background on the movie’s literary roots, and to join Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski and Dan Persons in determining if RISE rises (see what we did there?) to its self-imposed mission as champion of all that’s wonderful in genre film.
Then: Steve delivers his capsule review of the the-Commies-are-coming, domestic warfare fantasy RED DAWN; plus, what’s coming to theaters next week.
Second trailer promoting the November 21 U.S. theatrical release of DreamWorks Animation’s CGI fantasy film.
So, there, that’s one New Years resolution out of the way for me. A few months after the theatrical release of KUNG FU PANDA 2, I was able to score an interview with its director, Jennifer Yuh Nelson. With the home video release of the film (in just about every format available, including Amazon Instant Video and a Blu-ray boxed set that also includes the first KFP and a new short film, SECRETS OF THE MASTER), I felt it was time to raise some attention for this beautifully mounted, entertaining sequel.
KFP2 was, I felt, unjustly maligned in its original release. Thing is, what most critics seemed to feel was its greatest flaw — not enough focus on lovable doofus panda Po (Jack Black) — I saw as its greatest strength. Instead of the first film’s fish-out-of-water scenario, the sequel uses Po’s elevation to kung fu master to engage in a full embrace of Hong Kong action, casting him into a story that sees the panda facing off against a megalomaniacal peacock who has developed a weapon that may render martial arts obsolete: the cannon. It’s Jackie Chan enhanced with a lush, animation style — bridging over numerous formats, including 2D and shadow puppets — and highlighted with exquisitely choreographed battle scenes; exciting, funny, and a dazzling visual feast. For the love of martial arts, or pure, bravura animation, you need to see this.
Click on the player to hear my interview with Nelson.
A world where everyone remains young and pretty forever? No, it’s not the CW prime-time schedule, it’s IN TIME, Andrew Niccol’s latest weaving of science-fiction speculation and wry social commentary. Imagining a civilization in which time literally is money — minutes, hours, days are earned and spent, the poor living a genuine day-to-day existence while the rich are practically immortal — Niccol casts Amanda Seyfried and Justin Timberlake as a two souls from the opposite sides of the time-line who decide to right what they see as an inequitable system, by violent means, if necessary.
Theofantastique.com‘s John W. Morehead joins Cinefantastique Online’s Dan Persons to look at how Niccol — who here produces, writes, and directs — brings this curious scenario to the screen, and discuss whether Occupy Wall Street should take time out from their protests in order to catch a screening.
Also: Dan delivers his verdict on the latest entry from the Shrekiverse, PUSS IN BOOTS.
Ready for another visit from the most awesome martial arts master ever? Well, ready or not, Po, the legendary Dragon Warrior (and roly-poly panda) is back in this follow up to the well-received KUNG FU PANDA. And this time Po (voice of Jack Black) and his compatriots, the Furious Five — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) — are facing a challenge that threatens the whole of China: Lord Chen, a power-mad peacock with abandonment issues and a well-stocked armory of newly-invented cannons to back up his claim to the throne. Can Po overcome this threat by confronting the secret of his past that binds him inextricably to Lord Shen? And will audiences find KUNG FU PANDA 2 an exciting and innovative blend of Hong Kong action with energetic CG animation, or is this just another sequel that’s satisfied to serve up more of the same? Join Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they debate the issue.