Tag: animation

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

Movie Review: Hellboy – Blood & Iron

I’m not sure what it is about tales of the occult and the supernatural that fascinate me so deeply. It could be the notion that the things that go bump in the night are more than just settling houses and gusts of wind; that right in front of us, just out of sight and barely beyond our reach, is a world full of wonders, horrors, secrets, and history both enlightening and terrifying to behold. What’s especially interesting are those who choose to, as some would say, “bump back”. Characters like Abraham Van Helsing, the Ghostbusters, Sam & Dean Winchester, and a demon child raised by American soldiers and scientists in the 40s who goes by the name Hellboy. Mike Mignoal’s creation has been in two feature films after many graphic novel appearances, and he’s also been animated. Available on Netflix, Hellboy: Blood and Iron is one of those animated adventures.

Courtesy New Line Cinema

Hellboy was summoned by the Nazis to win World War 2. Instead, he was found by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm and raised normally, or as normal as a boy can be when he’s red-skinned, bears a tail, and has a right hand that’s made of stone. Bruttenholm and others gathered around the boy, and formed the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, or BPRD. Today, the BPRD is a subsidiary of the government, and one of its government friends wants the BPRD to check out a supposedly haunted house. Despite the assignment apparently being a publicity stunt, Professor Bruttenholm convinces Hellboy and his friends Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman to accompany him to the house, saying nothing of his memories of a vampire hunt from his youth.

The style of the characters and their surroundings are most definitely inspired by Mignola’s dark graphic novels. Shadows are long, darkness is deep, and moments of horror are surprisingly chilling at times. That said, some of the animation feels a little choppy, even in comparison to some television series. The occasional dip in quality can strain the immersion of the audience, but it’s never enough to fully break it. Some of this can be chalked up to stylistic choices, and the overall quality of the presentation doesn’t suffer, but it’s enough to warrant a mention. Those more interested in the art composition than the story or characters may find it hard to ignore.

Courtesy New Line Cinema
Even vampires need a spa day.

However, I think most people interested in Hellboy: Blood & Iron would not be checking it out for its artwork. The appeal of Hellboy tales, regardless of their venue, lies in the characters. Hellboy himself has a down-to-earth attitude and general sense of snarky self-awareness that makes him very endearing and defies his demonic appearance. Abe works as an intellectual foil to “Big Red”‘s more straightforward “punch it until it behaves” mentality, Liz Sherman has a good relationship with the big guy, and for all of his strength and devil-may-care attitude, Hellboy pretty much dotes on Professor Broom. The fact that their film cast counterparts appear as voices is a huge help, as well: It’s hard to imagine Hellboy at this point being portrayed by anybody but Ron Perlman.

The other major pillar holding up this and many other tales of Hellboy is the storytelling. The tale is well-paced, operates several facets at once, and does not short-change any of its characters. Even minor roles are shaded to provide depth and nuance, the myths have a good feeling of authenticity, and the nature of the threat feels appropriate given the protagonists involved. I do want to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say that whole the characters are the focus of the story, the story itself is still interesting enough to justify the film’s running time.

Courtesy New Line Cinema
They’re here to help. Believe it or else.

Stuff I Liked: I’m a sucker for myths of the old world, incarnations of old gods, and protagonists willing to punch both of them in the face. The diversity of the BPRD crew is appealing in and of itself. The multi-faceted nature of the threat is interesting, as wel.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: The artist kept adding what felt like an extra line to the noses of some characters. It was more an odd annoyance than anything else. Some of the animation felt a bit choppy.
Stuff I Loved: A fantastic cast of interesting characters voiced by talented people with good chemistry. That should sell it in and of itself, if you ask me.

Bottom Line: Hellboy: Blood & Iron is a story worthy of its predecessors. Its run time may be short, at just over an hour, but its packed with good character moments, a balanced mix of action and terror, and more than its share of humor. I would definitely recommend it.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! The Last Airbender

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.


I may have to turn in my nerd card. See, I’ve never watched the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Never. Not one episode. And it’s something that’s right up my alley. I mean, people who can manipulate the elements of earth, air, fire and water through will alone set against one another in a cosmic balance rooted in a unique mythology heavily influenced by Buddhist-flavored mysticism? Hand me my chopsticks, I’d dig the hell out of that. I mean, I just got done reading the entire Dresden Files series and I use ‘alchemy’ in just about all of my branding. I should be a huge fan of Airbender.

But while I’ve never seen the series, I can understand why the M Night Shyamalan film from 2010 based on the franchise would both thrill fans of the series and whip them into a frothing rage-filled frenzy.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

As I said in the intro, there are people in the world of The Last Airbender who through concentration and focused movements reminiscent of the martial arts can manipulate the basic elements of creation. Each of them belongs to their own nation, and the Fire Nation has gotten the idea that they should run the whole show. They’ve started a war and according to legend, the only force capable of maintaining the balance of the world and deciding the conclusion of the conflict is the Avatar, a ‘bender’ who has power over all four elements. The Avatar, however, has been reincarnated as a little kid, and it’s going to take some time for him to get a grip on water, earth and fire; his mastery of air, however, is damn near instinctive. This is good, as the Fire Nation kinda sorta wiped out the rest of his kin.

The movie concerns itself with the first season of the show, called “Book 1: Water” which spanned 20 episodes clocking in at around 30 minutes each. That’s 600 minutes. The film The Last Airbender plays out at just over 90. And yet we need to cover who the nations are, what the Fire Nation is after, who Aang the boy Avatar is, who his friends are, what motivates his enemies and how the various powers of the benders of each nation work. That’s a lot of narrative ground to cross, and if you want to both please the fans and introduce non-fans to the world, you can’t leave a shred of it out.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
The fight scenes really are impressive.

The absolute wrong way to do this is layer the dialog of the characters with exposition. Instead of showing us who these people are, The Last Airbender tells us, through narration and conversation, everything that’s essential for us to know. It doesn’t trust us to pick things up through observation or draw our own conclusions. Even kids can pick up the Fire Nation being bad or Aang’s past being tragic without it needing to be spoon-fed to them. And this is the bulk of the movie. I understand that it was a daunting task to put this all together in a single film that had to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, not to mention being what amounts to a saving throw for M Night Shyamalan’s career. But when you need to slog through this stuff for over an hour it really starts to wear on you.

However, the news is not all bad. The visual effects in The Last Airbender are pretty seamless in their mixing of the motions of the actors and the CG used for the elements they control. The music is fantastic and the costumes are great. When the script lets up on the exposition and lets the characters at least attempt some growth, you can see the potential peeking out from around the plot explanation. And as the film ramps up towards its climax the expository elements start falling away to let some stunning moments take place which come very, very close to redeeming the entire project.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
One of the few characters actually given room to grow.

For what it’s worth, the film of The Last Airbender has underscored my need to get into this series and explore it more fully. Based on what I’ve been told by reliable sources like my little sister, the film is a success in that regard. The film looks great and it’s good to see fresh faces from all over the world on the big screen, even if I had trouble buying Aasif Mandvi as a bad guy at first. I’m torn on this one. There’s a part of me that wants to recommend it based on the visuals, the potential and the clear loyalty it has to its source material and the good intentions it has of staying as true as possible without mucking anything up.

But in the end, the plodding pace of the first hour and the way it tries to cram in every bit of exposition into the mouths of its characters it can undercuts all the goodwill and craftsmanship put into the film. I’m going to watch the series, and I recommend anybody interested in this story do the same. To quote many a disapproving parent: I’m not mad, Last Airbender. I’m just disappointed.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

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