Tag: DreamWorks

Movie Review: How To Train Your Dragon 2

I’m not sure why I didn’t see How To Train Your Dragon sooner. Other than the fact that it has dragons in it, it also features Vikings, who tend to make things more interesting and fun as a general rule (see also The 13th Warrior). While I was aware that its protagonist wasn’t a physically capable specimen and relied more on brains than brawn, which is another interest of mine when it comes to characters. Even with all of these elements I was all but guaranteed to enjoy, How To Train Your Dragon surprised me with its writing, its vivacious and highly detailed art, and the fact that actions had consequences that were not easily dismissed or explained away. In the interest of supporting such art, I made it a point to see How To Train Your Dragon 2 on its opening weekend.

Courtesy Dreamworks Animation and thegrzebol.deviantart.com

Five years after defending Berk and teaching its people to embrace dragons rather than hunt them, Hiccup is exploring both the ocean around his home and new ways to expand both his abilities and those of his dragon, Toothless. His father, Stoic the Vast, wants him to become chief so Stoic himself can retire, but Hiccup fears he is inadequate or ill-suited for the task. Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid run afoul of some dragon hunters, who are capturing the beasts to join the army of someone named Drago Bloodfist. Determined to try and talk some sense into Drago, Hiccup sets out in defiance of his father’s orders, and is quickly caught up in events that teach him more about dragons, people, and himself.

A proper sequel should spend the bulk of its time on expansion. Since characters, locations, and plot points were established in a previous outing, there’s no need to rehash them in the new story. Those that do tend to feel bloated, boring, or both – for examples, look no further than the sequels to The Matrix or Michael Bay’s Transformers. How To Train Your Dragon 2 is very quick to get a bit of exposition out of the way through a voice-over from Hiccup, and then gets right into telling its own story. The world outside of Berk is expanded rapidly, and established characters show varying degrees of growth, holding on to attributes that made them memorable while demonstrating how they’ve changed.

Courtesy Dreamworks Animation
There’s a lot going on even in the backgrounds of this movie.

There is a great deal of good storytelling here, and much of it is not contained within the dialog. DreamWorks Animation has shown that it can convey a great deal of meaning and emotion in quiet scenes bereft of dialog, and How To Train Your Dragon 2 is proof that their skills are only growing. Toothless, in particular, is even more expressive than he was in the previous film, interacting with Hiccup and other dragons in fascinating and endearing ways. We feel we know this otherwise inscrutable and even alien creature as well as we do Hiccup, and Toothless doesn’t speak. We are shown, time and again, that the two have an indelible bond, and its depiction is lovely to behold, even moving at times. The art in general is gorgeous, with characters well-defined and bearing unique facial features and mannerisms, and landscapes all but leaping from the screen with their fresh and breathtaking vistas. This is even the case in non-3D viewings.

When characters do speak, they do so in spite of any celebrity association. Nobody’s a stunt voice, and nobody’s phoning it in. Despite multiple opportunities, the likes of Gerard Butler and Cate Blanchett never wink at the audience or make clever references to other established characters. Indeed, the film avoids pop culture references altogether, and while Jay Baruchel and the other voices of younger characters speak with a more modern affect, it feels natural given the disposition of said characters. Our immersion doesn’t break when Astrid and her friends plan their next move. Instead of relying on their voice actors as gimmicks, the creators of How To Train Your Dragon 2 ensure that what we’re hearing underscores rather than overshadows what we’re seeing. The scene where Hiccup’s mother and father see one another for the first time in twenty years is particularly moving for this reason. Butler and Blanchett emphasize the emotions we’re seeing, and we’re shown rather than told the depth of feeling between these two characters. It’s absolutely brilliant.

Courtesy Dreamworks Animation

I really don’t know if there’s anything more I can say about How To Train Your Dragon 2. Its story focus is tight, its visuals are breahtaking, it moves at a healthy but not breakneck pace, and its characters are extremely likable. Any quibbles I have are relatively minor ones: Drago Bloodfist is somewhat one-dimensional as a psychopathic anti-Hiccup, and Valka (Hiccup’s mom) could have demonstrated more combat skills and shown why she’s been able to hold off Bloodfist for so long. While it’s difficult for any story to be completely free of concerns, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is refreshing in its earnest intent and nearly flawless in its presentation. It doesn’t shy away from intense scenes, continues to show us that actions have lasting consequences, and while bad things can and do happen to good people, there are forces that will always be more powerful than tragedy and mad ambition. It’s very much its own animal but it undoubtedly shares its DNA with the previous film: it is a true family film. There’s comedy and bright colored animation for children, and compelling storytelling with rich characters for adults. It hits all of the right notes and balances things out pretty much perfectly. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m considering seeing it again, in 3D this time to get the most of those fantastic visuals. How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a wonderful time at the movies for all ages. It’s not just a treat for the kids; it just might awaken your kid at heart, as well.

Film Review: Mr. Peabody & Sherman

When I was young, between daily corrals of mammoths and making-fire-with-rocks lessons, my mother introduced me to The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. As amused as I was by the antics of the moose & squirrel, the segments that stuck with me the most would have to be Peabody’s Improbable History. I can’t recall exactly, but I think I was introduced to the singular genius dog Mr. Peabody, and his boy Sherman, long before I read The Time Machine or saw my first episode of Doctor Who. It’s entirely possible that these short tales of historical fiction and education were my first exposure to time travel. Many years and several stories later, Dreamworks has set about the task of bringing Mr. Peabody & Sherman forward to our time, before sending them back to the past on more adventures of a modern audience.

Courtesy DreamWorks Animation

The story goes that Mr. Peabody was born in a pound, like many dogs, but had a hard time finding a home. Apparently people don’t like having a dog that talks back, especially about things like particle physics and differential calculus. But rather than let such things get him down, this extraordinary canine devoted himself to intellectual and physical perfection, eventually becoming such a player on the world stage that, instead of a boy adopting him, he instead adopts a boy. To educate the orphan, named Sherman, Peabody invents a machine he dubs the WABAC (pronounced ‘Wayback’) to introduce his boy to historical periods in the past and the figures prominent in them. But when Sherman tries to go to public school, things go awry, and Peabody must show that his home is exemplary, even as Sherman seeks to use the machine to impress a fellow student.

There were a lot of fears that the creators of Mr. Peabody & Sherman would miss the point of the original animation. This is a fear founded in some of the frankly deplorable adaptations of the works of Doctor Seuss and other franchises of yesteryear. Thankfully, despite what seems to be at first a purely aesthetic connection to the source material, within the first few minutes of the film’s opening it’s clear that the writers and animators did more than glance at a few pictures from the original show.

Courtesy DreamWorks Animation
There are some great gags and visuals here.

Not long after the movie opens, the first trip back in time happens, and it easily could have been lifted from the old show. While the look and feel of things has gotten an update, the ‘DNA’ of the core concept is very much intact. Peabody and Sherman learn about where they are and who they’re around, the situation escalates, hijinks occur, and Peabody cracks at least one pun. Even after that, the movie has a consistent tone. Peabody is well-meaning but high-minded, Sherman isn’t the best student in the world even if he is good-natured, and the two of them really do need and compliment one another. What’s interesting is that around the usual space-time shenanigans, we get to see how the world reacts to Peabody. It’s cute, to be sure, and it does feel loyal to the tone of the original shorts.

There’s also plenty of slapstick as our heroes stumble across historical figures doing what made them famous. While Mr. Peabody & Sherman does not fall into the trap of repeating the same gag over and over again for its running time, it does seem that the slapstick outweighs the puns and ‘dad jokes’. It’s definitely helpful to keep the attention of the kids, but it does take something away from the core concept and the interplay of the characters. The gags are funny in the moment, but in retrospect there might have been time for another historical stop if some of the antics had been cut. Then again, the third act of the movie kicks off with a very interesting take on the nature of time travel paradoxes, which I couldn’t help but appreciate.

Courtesy DreamWorks Animation
The relationship is very cute, organic, and endearing.

This is a film that definitely relies on the chemistry between the leads, rather than leaning entirely on its jokes or conceits. In addition to their arch characterizations, the interplay between Mr. Peabody and Sherman is geared in such a way that both characters are equally sympathetic and equally central. Mr. Peabody’s dilemma with Sherman is born out of genuine affection, even if he can’t always fully articulate it, and Sherman’s actions are framed in that same affection being reciprocated, even if the boy doesn’t think his plans all the way through. This relationship feels organic and natural, a feeling backed up by excellent voice work and animation that preserves the general tone of the original material but is most definitely modern and geared towards making use of the overabundance of 3-D.

It’s hard to come away from Mr. Peabody & Sherman and not feel a sense of satisfaction. While it lacks the seemingly boundless energy of The LEGO Movie, and the true emotional punch and poignancy of WALL-E or Up, the film is an utter and unquestionable success in how it modernizes the cartoon shorts on which it’s based. It can be difficult to simultaneously educate and entertain, and while the education merit of the film is somewhat pushed aside by the time the third act begins, the hope seems to be that kids will at least ask questions and hit up Wikipedia after they see the movie. The writing’s smart, the characters are very well presented, the action is slick and inventive and doesn’t feel repetitious, and there are a few gags and jokes clearly aimed at older audience members that don’t feel pandering or out of place. Its tone is consistent and light, it honors and exalts its heritage, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Overall, I’d recommend Mr. Peabody & Sherman, especially if you were a fan of the cartoon growing up. It’s nice to know that not all reworked concepts in family entertainment are going to the dogs.

Courtesy DreamWorks Animation

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