How to Train Your Dragon


How to Train Your Dragon

Hiccup and Toothless take flight.

(DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrara, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kirsten Wiig, T.J. Miller, Robin Atkin Downes, Phillip McGrade, Kieron Elliott, Ashley Jansen. Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean deBlois

Most of us have a preconceived notion of things. We live our lives in a kind of ordered routine, never questioning whether our ideas of how the world works are actually correct.

The village of Berk sits on a mountainous island in the North. It is, we are told, a very old village – but the houses are all new. That is because the village has a pest problem. Not spiders, termites or mosquitoes but dragons. Lots and lots of dragons of every shape and size. Dragons that breathe fire and swoop from the sky. Some have many eyes, others have many heads. Some are long and slender, others short and fat. They come in every color of the rainbow, and some are as black as night.

Those are the dreaded Night Furies, nearly invisible and lightning-fast. Rather than breathing fire, they emit a kind of pulse wave that flattens everything in its path. They are the most feared of all dragons and no Viking has ever seen one, much less killed one.

You see, the village of Berk has another pest, but those are the ones who actually live there. They’re Vikings and not just any Vikings, they’re Scottish Vikings. I know, I’m confused too; I had understood most Vikings to be Scandinavian but apparently I was mistaken. They’re Scots. All they’re missing are kilts. They do have, however, odd names meant to show how fearsome they are.

The most fearsome of the Scots…err, Vikings…is Stoick (Butler), a massive bull of a man with massive red hair and an equally massive red beard who is the most brave, most fearless and most ferocious of the Vikings. His son however, is not what you’d call a chip off the old block. His name is Hiccup (Baruchel) and he is as scrawny as his dad is beefy. He dreams of being a true Viking, a noble slayer of dragons but he doesn’t have the brawn and when the village is attacked, is banished to the armory to sharpen swords and spears with the one-armed, one-legged Cobber (Ferguson), who was once a fearsome warrior himself but now must content himself with training them and arming them.

One thing Hiccup is good at is engineering machines, and he creates a cannon that can launch a bolo a great distance. Despite the misgivings of Cobber and Stoick, he pulls out the cannon to a hillside but it is so dark he can’t see the dragons flying around in the night sky. Aiming and firing at what he hopes is a dragon, he is surprised when he actually hits something. However, he has a hard time being able to tell what it was and where it fell to.

Stoick knows that the Vikings are losing the war against the dragons. Their only hope to end this war once and for all is to find the dragons’ nest and destroy it. He intends to lead an expedition to do just that but before he goes Cobber advises him to put Hiccup into dragon fighter training, which Stoick knows will probably be another humiliation for his son, but he has really hit bottom.

Hiccup is in a class with the aggressive and pretty Astrid (Ferrara) as well as the cocky Snotlout (Hill), the overly intellectual Fishlegs (Mintz-Plasse) and the warring twins Ruffnut (Wiig) and Tuffnut (Miller). Cobber leads the class and as expected, Hiccup is an absolute failure. Cobber gives the class a book that contains all the information about the different types of dragons that the Vikings know about with orders to read it which the others almost disdainfully turn down. Hiccup takes the book to study it. Know thy enemy, after all.

In the meantime, he goes searching for the dragon he might have taken down and comes upon it in a quarry-like valley. It is all-black and nothing like what Hiccup expected. Here, at last, is his chance to kill a dragon, his chance to be a Viking, respected and admired.

Except the dragon is just as frightened as he is and Hiccup can’t bring himself to kill it. He resolves instead to get to know it, especially when he discovers that the dragon was wounded in the attack and is unable to fly out of the quarry or hunt. Hiccup helps to feed the dragon whom he names Toothless for its retractable teeth. Eventually Hiccup learns how to disable dragons with a single touch, and how to frighten them with eels and so becomes an unlikely success in his class. For his part, he designs a mechanical solution to help Toothless fly again and becomes Toothless’ pilot. The two become reliant on one another.

In the meantime, Stoick returns from an unsuccessful venture but is pleased and proud to hear that his son is finally doing well at something. Hiccup’s success in class has reaped the reward of the honor of being the first in his class to be allowed to kill a dragon. However, Hiccup has discovered that dragons are not the evil creatures the Vikings believe them to be and has learned the secret of their lair, the key to destroying the dragons altogether but within the lair is another secret that changes the dynamic altogether. Can he convince his father, who has never listened to a word he’s said his entire life, that he must change his viewpoint or will both dragon and men perish together at the hands of something far worse?

The latest from DreamWorks Animation may very well be among their best. It certainly ranks up there with Kung Fu Panda and Shrek. Directors Sanders and deBlois, who collaborated on Lilo and Stitch for Disney (deBlois also directed the excellent Sigur Ros concert film Heima), have made a film that soars, literally. The scenes in which Toothless and Hiccup fly together are some of the best animated sequences you’re likely to see this year. We saw the movie in IMAX 3D, and that lent a great deal of immersion to the proceedings. It comes as no surprise that the directors previously were responsible for Stitch; Toothless has a great deal of visual similarity to the alien creature of that movie.

The story, based on the book by Cressida Cowell, is very much Animated Feature 101 and doesn’t hold very many surprises. Still, the dialogue is witty in places and Baruchel is superb as the acerbic Hiccup. This is a movie that is certainly intended for much younger audiences (think single digits) and while adults might get a kick out of certain sequences (particularly the flying ones), for the most part it might bore older children and teens and some of the dragons might terrify the easily frightened.

Still, I found the movie has a certain lopsided charm that I can’t ignore. It’s one of those cases where the sum of the parts doesn’t equal to the whole, and the whole is greater than the sum of those parts. That’s a good thing, incidentally; even if I can’t necessarily explain that charm, I can nonetheless report that it’s there and worth experiencing for yourself.

REASONS TO GO: One of the best-looking non-Pixar animated features yet. Awesome dragon flight sequences will take your breath away. Seriously funny in places.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is somewhat formulaic as far as family films go.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some cartoon violence but nothing you don’t see on the Cartoon Network day after day. Perfectly fine for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A Night Fury dragon can be seen occluding the stars during the DreamWorks opening banner if you look carefully.

HOME OR THEATER: The flying sequences alone are worth seeing in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Go-Getter

Up


Up

All in all, there are worse sights than an eager Wilderness Ranger when you open your front door.

(Disney) Starring the voices of Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, Delroy Lindo, John Ratzenberger, Bob Peterson, Jerome Ranft, David Kaye, Elie Docter, Jeremy Leary, Mickie McGowan, Danny Mann. Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson.

Some people wait their entire lives for the adventure of a lifetime, only to see it pass us by. The truth is, the only reason not to go out and grab our dreams by the throat is our fear of leaving our familiar existence.

Young Carl Fredricksen (Leary) is a little shy but not about his favorite subject – adventurer Charles Muntz (Plummer). With a dirigible luxuriously outfitted for his family of dogs, Muntz goes to locations all over the globe to find strange and exotic creatures for study, and the newsreels of the time eat it all up. After a trip to South America and a particularly remote location called Paradise Falls – a land lost to time – Muntz returns with a skeleton of a large bird. Experts, however, decry the skeleton as fake. Disgraced and stripped of his membership in professional societies and stung by the assaults on his character, he takes off in his airship for Venezuela, vowing not to return until he has a live specimen to vindicate his name. He is not seen again.

Despite his hero’s fall from grace, Carl is not deterred in his worship. He meets young Ellie (Docter) who shares his obsession. She has even commandeered an abandoned house to serve as her personal airship. As talkative and outgoing as Carl is shy and timid, Ellie and Carl take to each other like cats to milk.

They grow up and marry. Now a man, Carl (Asner) becomes a balloon vendor at a zoological park where Ellie works as a docent. He buys her the old abandoned house where they played as children and work hard to make it their dream home. They go on picnics and watch the clouds drift by, but their dream is the same; one day to build a home on remote Paradise Falls.

They save their pennies for the trip, but life gets in the way. They continually have to borrow from their trip fund for everyday crises; auto repairs, home repairs, medical repairs. They have a good life, but not without its share of heartache. At last, there comes a day when Ellie isn’t able to make the climb up the hill to their favorite picnic spot. Faithful Carl stays with her in the hospital, but she knows where this is leading. She hands Carl her adventure scrapbook, meaning for him to read it. Not long after that, he must face life alone without her.

He opens her scrapbook regularly, but is unable to get past the section that reads “Stuff I’m Going to Do” believing that he failed to give her the adventures she dreamed of, knowing those pages would be blank. He is lost, cantankerous and alone, walking with one of those canes with four tennis balls on them. When Russell (Nagai), an overweight Asian-American Wilderness Explorer comes to his door asking him if he can aid Carl in any way (so he can get the final merit badge to become a Senior Explorer), Carl literally sends him on a snipe hunt. The good-natured Russell is only too happy to help.

Around their home developers are putting together one of those godawful mixed use apartment buildings with shopping and casual dining on the first floor. His home stands in their way, and they are constantly pressuring him to sell which he adamantly refuses to do, despite the best efforts of their construction foreman (Ratzenberger). When a construction worker backs into his mailbox which is marked by Ellie’s handprint, Carl loses it.

This gives the faceless developers the opening they need. Carl is taken to court where he is judged a menace to society. He is ordered sent to a retirement facility, which would allow the developers to raze his home to the ground.

Carl is faced with a decision. He can accept his fate and give up on life, or he can take the opportunity to finally become the explorer he and Ellie always wanted to be. With the ingenuity of a born balloonist, he ties thousands upon thousands of balloons to his home, fashions an ingenious steering system through his weather vane and heads up.

Flying over the city, he feels liberated for the first time since Ellie left. He settles into his favorite easy chair to enjoy his flight when there is, oddly, a knock at the door. When he opens it, he is startled to discover Russell, who had been chasing the Snipe (which he admits looked oddly like a field mouse) under the porch at the time of lift off. Russell had scrambled onto the porch and now was a reluctant stowaway. Carl, knowing that it is too dangerous to leave him exposed on the porch, invites him in.

After a storm tosses them about, they at last arrive on the plateau of Paradise Falls, but on the wrong side. They don’t have a great deal of flight capability because the helium is slowly leaking from the balloons. Carl means to drag the house to the opposite side of the plateau to at last retire to the place he and Ellie meant to be.

Before he can do that, he must contend with talking dogs, a rather persistent chocolate-eating bird and an embittered and obsessive Charles Muntz. He must also weigh doing the right thing against completing his dream, but what if doing the right thing would mean betraying the person who has meant everything to him his entire life?

This is being hailed as Pixar’s finest creation to date, and not without justification. First of all, there’s the look of the film. It is brightly colorful, virtually eye-popping in every detail. The animation is stylized, yes but with an amazing and rich detail that will make repeated viewings a pleasure.

Then there’s the tone. Director Pete Docter – who previously helmed Monsters, Inc and co-wrote WALL-E – has crafted Carl Fredricksen’s life with loving care. The opening sequence which essentially sets the table is a stunning bit of filmmaking. Poignant and heartbreaking in spots, it also has some laugh-out-loud funny moments. In many ways, Carl Fredricksen is the most complete character in terms of personality that Pixar has ever created. Fredricksen has a great big heart, but that heart has been broken. He is cantankerous, short-tempered and a bit selfish. He is far from perfect, but when the chips are down he comes through.

It is to Docter and Pixar’s credit that they create an action hero who is old and not in the best of shape. In fact, only Muntz is the kind of fit hero we are used to seeing in adventure movies. Russell is certainly out of shape and Dug (Ranft), the likable talking dog that befriends Carl and Russell, is more of a mutt than the sleek, menacing dogs that Muntz uses as his army.

This was the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival, an honor normally reserved for French live-action films, and an honor richly deserved. There is no doubt in my mind that this film is deserving of an Oscar nomination for Best Picture; whether or not that happens is anybody’s guess, but it certainly is a better movie than Finding Nemo and to my mind, Beauty and the Beast which did get the nomination in that category, the only animated feature thus honored to date.

Poignant without being sentimental and never talking down to its audience (which may blow some of the more heart-rending scenes right by younger viewers), this is another triumph for Pixar. Yes, the kids will love the bright colors, the action and the strange creatures of Paradise Falls, but their parents will appreciate the well-rounded characters, the thoughtful story and the uplifting message that we are never too old to begin an adventure. Up is one of the best movies you will see this year.

WHY RENT THIS: Simply put one of the best movies of the year. Poignant in places and funny in others, it presents a well-rounded and believable character in Carl Fredricksen. The colors are eye-popping; it’s a gorgeous movie to look at.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the more heart-wrenching moments may go over the head of younger children, who may get restless in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all but the very youngest of children.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Pizza Planet truck from Toy Story can be seen in the streets while Carl’s house is rising, and also in the final scene in the parking lot.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The Blu-Ray contains a new Dug animated feature, as well as footage from the filmmakers trip to Venezuela, which would inspire the Paradise Falls location in the movie.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: The Ugly Truth

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs


Dino line dancing - the next big Hollywood trend.

Dino line dancing - the next big Hollywood trend.

(20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Queen Latifah, Simon Pegg, Seann William Scott, Kirsten Wiig, Chris Wedge, Jane Lynch, Josh Peck, Bill Hader, Karen Disher. Directed by Carlos Saldanha and Mike Thurmeier.

For most of us, family isn’t the only thing – it’s everything. There are also all sorts of families, some not so readily apparent as others.

The Ice Age is in full swing and Ellie the Mammoth (Latifah) is expecting a child any day now. Her mate Manny (Romano) is of course as bumbling, moronic and well-intentioned as most cinematic expectant fathers. He builds a playground on which he has stuck snowballs to blunt the sharp branches on trees and beaks on birds. He goes into paroxysms of panic whenever Ellie has indigestion. Still, it’s a great time to be a mammoth. Everything is as it should be, with friends all around and Scrat (Wedge) chasing the ever-elusive acorns.

Still, not all is well in paradise. Diego the saber-toothed tiger (Leary) and Sid the sloth (Leguizamo) are feeling a bit left out. Diego, who is losing some of his predatory edge, having been outrun by a gazelle (Hader), decides to leave for greener pastures. Sid, being Sid, finds some strange eggs in an underground cavern and decides to adopt them as his own children. Scrat has discovered a rival, the seductive flying squirrel Scratte (Disher) who is maddeningly attractive.

Then the eggs hatch and instead of furry little mammals there are carnivorous reptiles – big ones. Think Tyrannosaurus Rex-sized. What’s worse, Mama Rex has come looking for her missing babies and is none-too-pleased to find them with warm-blooded types. She picks them up – and Sid too – and carries them back underground.

As annoying as Sid is, his friends decide to band up once again and go search for him in the cavern. Although Manny and Diego are skeptical as to Sid’s survival chances, Ellie and her entourage – Crash (Scott) and Eddie (Peck) the possums – are insistent, so down below they go.

They find a whole new world there, one of lush tropical vegetation, lava falls and lots and lots of dinosaurs. Some are friendly, some not so much. No time to wonder how this world got here or how it can sustain itself, they’ve got to find Sid. However, they need a guide to this world that is unfamiliar and dangerous. One is provided in Buck (Pegg), a one-eyed weasel (make of that what you will) who has spent years tracking down the gigantic white dinosaur who took his eye. Ahab, meet Moby Dick.

I will say this about Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs – the animation is superb, keeping the cartoon-like qualities that satisfy the kids but keeping it real to satisfy their parents. Strangely, though, the performances are a bit flat. There’s no sense of fun and wonder that made the first two Ice Age movies so entertaining. Instead, you get the feeling that this was rushed through for the sole purpose of filling a spot on the Fox release schedule and making the big bucks that the first two did.

There is also a lot more of Scrat and his new partner here. Scrat has become more popular in many ways than the main characters of the story are. They use him for the trailers as well as the advertisements. Scrat, as in the first two movies, almost never interacts with the main characters. While his sequences are among the best and funniest in the movie, they seem almost like commercial interruptions and I suppose in a way they are. Gotta sell that Scrat merch, after all. Still, I’ve always loved the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons and the Scrat sequences are a lot like that.

This is very kid-friendly in every way with all that implies. When stacked up against the Pixar and DreamWorks movies, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaur doesn’t compare very favorably. Still in all, it’s a pleasant if unchallenging 90 minutes of summertime fun, and the kids are going to want to see it regardless of whether you do or not. Accordingly, make plans to buy this for the tykes if you intend to have any peace in your household over the next few months. Don’t forget the toys, action figures and video games that are sure to be demanded in the wake of the movie.

REASONS TO GO: Extremely well-animated. Nothing here is all that offensive, and the Scrat sequences are hysterical at times.

REASONS TO STAY: Kind of boring, kind of bland.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfect summertime entertainment for bored kids – not so much for their parents.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Buck character was based not on Crocodile Dundee so much, but on Frank Buck, a legendary hunter and adventurer whose exploits inspired the TV series “Bring ‘em Back Alive.”

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The Expanded 2-Disc DVD and Blu-Ray editions include the Scrat Pack, a collection of every Scrat short ever made, some of which are included on DVD editions of the first two films. There are also a couple of Ice Age games. Surprisingly, the DVD is presented in 2D whereas it was released theatrically in 3D. That’s a shame, because the 3D presentation was one of the best of recent years.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Amelia