Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How To Train Your Dragon 2

2014, d. Dean DeBlois (he's Canadian)
I used to be a Pixar snob.  Years back.  I just thought every other studio producing cgi-animated movies was just churning out pap for the masses.  Oh sure, Dreamworks`first effort, Antz, was decent enough, perhaps in some respects a more daring film than A Bug`s Life, but it doesn`t quite have the same allure as the Disney branch.  I mean, those tedious monsters Shrek and Ice Age that kept getting churned out every other year were such a grotesque, average bore, and ever other studio`s offering seemed like they were written for the brain dead.  

It`s only since my daughter`s been around, so the past 5 years or so, that I`ve truly given the other studios a shot.  Oh, sure, I dosed her heavily on Pixar in the first two years, but there`s only so many times one can watch Monsters Inc. before he needs a change of pace.  And let`s face it, Pixar hasn`t really been holding up their end, either, these past few years.  Brave, Cars 2, Monsters University, all not without their charms, but decidedly second-rate when compared to Up, WALL-E, or Toy Story 3.

I warmed to Dreamworks` a bit because of Kung-Fu Panda, but How To Train Your Dragon was the true softening blow, coming to that film only in the past 2 years.  It`s a beautiful boy-and-his-dog story mixed with a "nobody understands me, least of all my father" sub plot that is utterly affecting.  In ramping up for the second motion picture, Dreamworks produced a series, Dragonriders of Berk, which further expanded the world and its characters, maintaining much of the film's voice cast (which is rare for TV spinoffs), which has become my mother's favourite show.  So I was prepped, as were my kids, to see the sequel in theatre, but the experience was sullied when my daughter freaked out before the film started.  So I sent her packing back home with her grandmother (thus denying my mother a viewing of her favourite show on the big screen), and tried to not brood about it while the film was playing.

But I brooded nonetheless.  I enjoyed the movie, but it had obvious flaws, particularly around its villain, the role of Hiccup's mother, and the necessity of the demise of another character.  The death in particular is an affecting an emotional sweep, on the one hand, but it also feels very story/plot driven and not true to the situation or the characters.  The film's upbeat finale feels grotesquely hollow and unearned in the wake of the character's death, and really has me question whether it was truly necessary.  Disney films have long had death in them, exposing children to the mortality of their elders seems to be a mandate of film, but this was less than necessary for this movie.

The introduction of Hiccup's mother, which is a bit of a spoiler, provides a great moment for Hiccup, and Valka (voiced by the always awesome Cate Blanchett) is a great character.  Living in hiding, wrangling dragons, providing sanctuary, she's kind of a nutbar having lived in seclusion from any other humans so long.  Her humanity has kind of escaped her, and she's fiercely against the society that she's left, but given the changes that Hiccup introduced she should be welcome back home.  Naturally she's wary, and her reincorporation into society and reintroduction to her family should provide great drama, but the film unfortunately scuttles her and her story to the side to have the BIG FIGHT SEQUENCE which all summer movies must have.  Her story would be much better served on Dragonriders of Berk.

Drago (Djimon Hounsou) is the first non-white (human) character introduced into the HTTYD cinematic world, and it would be great if we could just look past it and not think anything of it, but that he's also the bad guy, stubborn, violent, and ultimately evil, it does seem an unfortunate choice from the filmmakers (as David also points out in his review).  True, vikings and Scandanavians are depicted as Caucasians traditionally, but there's no reason fiction, and fantasy more specifically, can't be more inclusive.  Beyond that, Drago is a painfully thin character.  He's basically on the scene to be menacing, filled with hate, rage, and puffed up with power... his deep, croaking voice meant to inspire fear in children.  The other new addition, Eret (Kit Harrington), gets more to do, and, despite being a poacher and working for Drago, gets his redemption.

The other Dragonriders besides Hiccup get the short shrift here, which I'm unsure whether it matters or not.  I found the same true of the Kung-Fu Panda sequel, where the focus is on the main character and perhaps a secondary character and all the great supporting cast gets scuttled further into the background.  They get reduced to quip machines or exposition talkers, and don't really feel like the ensemble they do on Berk or in the first film.

Story aside, the animation is stunning.  The flying sequence are breathtaking on the big screen, while the introduction of Valka's sanctuary finds the screen chock-a-block with dragons.  Hiccup's affection for Valka's main dragon yields some charming physical comedy, while the epic scope of the Alpha dragon fight which often eats up the entire background, was worth the price of admission alone.  We were treated to Pacific Rim last year, and Godzilla at around the same time as this... it's been a good 12 months-ish for giant monster fighting.

Though the story isn't quite as thoroughly solid as it could have been (rumours say that originally Valka was to be the villain of the piece, which would have made for an even more enticing film, and surely a tighter story) it's still vastly entertaining.