How to Train Your Dragon 2


Hiccup and Toothless are flaming mad.

Hiccup and Toothless are flaming mad.

(2014) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrara, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kit Harrington, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Djimon Hounsou, Kieron Elliott, Philip McGrade, Andrew Ableson, Gideon Emery, Simon Kassianides, Randy Thom. Directed by Dean DeBlois

Becoming who we are is no easy proposition. It’s a search of discovery and the answers can be elusive, particularly when we’re not especially sure who we want to be.

The movie takes place five years after the first one. Hiccup (Baruchel) has been successful in integrating dragons into the daily life of Berk which has become a much happier place as Vikings and Dragons are living in harmony. Dragon riders show their stuff in highly contested dragon races (a kind of combination between Quidditch and Rollerball). While his father Stoick (Butler) is eager for his son to take over the family business and become chief, Hiccup spends much of his time making maps of the surrounding islands, expanding the world the Vikings have lived in into a much larger place. He is also continuing to invent things, in this case a flying suit so that he can soar with his best friend Toothless (Thom) as they explore.

Unfortunately, finding out what else is out there in that wider world can be a good and bad thing. For Hiccup, the good is in finding a Dragon Rider whose ice-riddled island hides many secrets including more dragons than anyone has ever seen in one place – and their human protector, Valka (Blanchett) who turns out to be Hiccup’s mother. This is something of a surprise since Hiccup had heard all his life that Valka had died protecting him from dragons when he was a baby but it turns out that Valka, who had always defended dragons to a Stoick who was deaf to her pleas had left in order to protect her family from the dragons – and vice versa.

On the bad side, Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid (Ferrara) as well as their buddies Snotlout (Hill), Fishlegs (Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnut (Miller) and Ruffnut (Wiig) have also discovered a tracker named Erit (Harrington) who captures dragons for the villainous Drago (Hounsou) who wishes to create a powerful dragon army under the control of his gigantic Leviathan dragon who can control the dragons – and whom Drago controls through torture and violence. This is a challenge the likes of which Hiccup has never had to face and when a tragedy strikes Hiccup closer than he could have possibly imagined, he will have to find the strength to lead his people to overcome this threat – or else lose their dragons and their freedom forever.

In many ways, this isn’t a typical summer animated feature, although it appears to be the most likely to be the kidflick hit of the summer at first glance. The tone here is much darker with a main character being killed and the abuse of animals being a central theme. That may have made some parents wary to bring their kids to the multiplex for this one, which has underperformed at the box office although it seems likely to be profitable enough to warrant further sequels. I’m sure DreamWorks Animation executives were expecting windfall profits considering that there would be no animation competition this summer essentially other than from the sequel to Disney’s Planes which although a surprise hit didn’t look especially promising as a blockbuster.

Baruchel’s nasal, deadpan delivery is perfect for the character of Hiccup and while he isn’t nearly as awkward as he was in the first movie, continues to have a kind of gawky, outsider quality that is endearing. Butler endows Stoick with plenty of proud papa and – when he discovers that Valka is alive after all – tender love and caring. Craig Ferguson also returns as Gobber, mainly as comic relief.

While I thought the first film was really meant for smaller kids, this one isn’t so much. I get the sense that they wanted to grow up along with their core audience and while younger kids will still be delighted with the variety of dragons and their often goofy behavior as well as the cartoonish depiction of humans (this isn’t photorealistic CGI animation by any stretch), the kids who fell in love with the original will have matured some and the movie gives them credit for that and treats them accordingly. That’s a pretty refreshing point of view for a genre which often reads as a giant advertisement for toys and merchandise geared at kids.

I’m giving this a rating just a smidge under the first film because I think that parents may want to be wary about letting the more sensitive and immature young ‘uns in their brood see this – at least one little tyke at the screening we went to had a very adverse reaction to one of the darker scenes in the movie. I also thought the plot could have used a little more originality but essentially those who really like the first one will really like this one and those who didn’t care for the original will feel the same about the sequel. They’re essentially interchangeable in many ways but I will admit that I am much more intrigued to see How to Train Your Dragon 3 than I was to see this one.

REASONS TO GO: Some really beautiful moments.  Treats kids with respect.

REASONS TO STAY: The dragons are often too cartoonish. May be too dark for the impressionable.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of animated cartoon action and some rude (but not offensively so) humor. There is a moment in which a young man deals with an event that might be upsetting for really young kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DeBlois, who co-directed the original, accepted the sequel on the condition that he be allowed to direct a third film to make up a trilogy. The third film is already scheduled for June 17, 2016.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle for Terra

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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A Million Ways to Die in the West


Only Charlize Theron knows what to do with the hordes of film critics who have turned their venom loose on this movie.

Only Charlize Theron knows what to do with the hordes of film critics who have turned their venom loose on this movie.

(2014) Western Comedy (Universal) Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson, Christopher Hagen, Wes Studi, Matt Clark, Evan Jones, Aaron McPherson, Rex Linn, Brett Rickaby, Alex Borstein, Ralph Garman, John Aylward, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Lloyd, Ryan Reynolds. Directed by Seth MacFarlane

During the 1950s, Americans tended to idealize the Old West. Rugged cowboys rode the range, rescued pretty school marms from bandits and varmints, and generally saved the day with an “aw, shucks” modesty. Cowboys were real men, Indians were the enemy and things were pretty simple. Of course, it wasn’t really like that.

The Old West was in reality a brutal place where arguments were solved with guns, violence was rampant, sanitation was next to impossible and the only thing worse than contracting a disease was going to the doctor to get it cured. Albert (MacFarlane), a sheep farmer in hole-in-the-wall Old Stump, Arizona, knows it better than most. He is the sort of guy who would rather negotiate than fight, which makes him yellow in the Old West. That’s fine and dandy with Albert. He’d much rather be a live coward than a dead hero.

His girlfriend Louise (Seyfried) doesn’t necessarily agree with that philosophy. After a humiliation after being challenged to a gunfight, Louise decides she’s had enough and dumps Albert in favor of Foy (Harris), a successful shop owner who caters to moustache owners. Albert is devastated. Louise was one of the only things worth staying in the West for. San Francisco would be a much better place for him, much to the disdain of his father (Hagen). His close friends Edward (Ribisi) and Ruth (Silverman) commiserate but they have problems of their own. For one, they’ve been together and they want to have sex, but also want to wait until they get married and keep their purity. Until then, Ruth will continue working as a prostitute to help save up enough to get married. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.

Into his life waltzes Anna (Theron), a gorgeous blonde who is new in town. She also happens to be a crack shot and when Albert loses his temper and challenges Foy to a gunfight, she offers to help Albert work on his marksmanship. Of course, they soon develop into something more than friends even though Albert still wants to win Louise back. However, Anna might have forgot to mention that she’s married – to Clinch Leatherwood (Neeson), one of the most vicious and deadliest gunfighters in the West.

The title is apt. MacFarlane’s character constantly grouses throughout about how dangerous it is out in the West and throughout the film people get killed by wild animals, shot by ornery bandits, crushed by blocks of ice and in a memorable sequence, fart themselves to death.

Fans of MacFarlane’s TV show Family Guy will no doubt feel right at home here. However, it should be said that the humor is pushes the envelope HARD and there are some things that you’re going to find offensive, like the shooting gallery gag that also serves as the fodder for an after-the-credits scene with a surprise cameo appearance. In fact, there are a ton of cameos to keep an eye out for.

Otherwise, this is one of those movies that throws as many jokes as it can into the mix and sees which ones you find funny and which ones you don’t. When the comedy works here, it’s sidesplitting. When it doesn’t, it’s groan-inducing. Fortunately, it works more than not.

MacFarlane is an appealing lead, although his character is a kind of neurotic nebbish, sort of like Woody Allen in chaps. MacFarlane, who co-wrote as well as directed and starred in this, has the characters act in fairly modern idioms, which allows 2014 audiences to relate better to the action in some ways while others might find this anachronistic and off-putting. It is part of the humor to hear someone from 1882 say “Oh, snap!” although again, there was some sniffing from critical quarters.

The supporting cast isn’t a bunch of straight men (and women) to MacFarlane as a lot of modern comedies tend to do; they all have their funny moments which you would want from a cast of talented actors like this. Only Neeson seems to be playing it straight, although he does give Clinch an outrageous Lucky Charms Irish accent which apparently he insisted upon before taking the part. I don’t know if a gunslinger with an Irish brogue rates laughs but okay.

MacFarlane references other Western comedies, notably Blazing Saddles and Django Unchained (which isn’t, strictly speaking, pure comedy) directly and otherwise. He makes use of Utah’s Monument Valley (subbing for Arizona) with some nifty cinematography, graphics and score right out of a 1950s epic screen Western. Visually speaking, he’s got the Western part down. However, the story doesn’t really support the length of the film and I got a little bit fidgety there towards the end.

This hasn’t been getting good reviews and I’ve also read some comments from non-reviewers that expressed how offended they were at this movie. There are those who tolerate offensive humor more than others and if you’re one of the others it wouldn’t be a good idea for you to check this out. I don’t think this is as good as MacFarlane’s previous movie Ted but that movie had its share of squirm-inducing moments. Use that as your guide as to whether you should see it or not. This isn’t for everybody, but the people that it is are going to love it.

REASONS TO GO: When it’s funny, it’s hysterical. Fun concept.

REASONS TO STAY: Overkill. Runs about 20 minutes too long. Those who don’t tolerate profanity and sex very well should stay the fuck away.

FAMILY VALUES: A cornucopia of profanity and sexual innuendo, some violence and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Theron wore a wig throughout the shooting because she had shaved her head for the filming of Mad Max: Fury Road.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blazing Saddles

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Maleficent

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