Kung Fu Panda 3


Pandas and rabbits and pigs, oh my!!!

Pandas and rabbits and pigs, oh my!!!

(2016) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, David Cross, J.K. Simmons, Lucy Liu, Kate Hudson, Randall Duk Kim, Steele Gagnon, Liam Knight, Wayne Knight, Al Roker, Barbara Dirickson, Willie Geist, Fred Tatasciore, Ming Tsai, April Hong. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Allesandro Carloni

Know thyself is a long-standing axiom, but it is hard to know who you are when you don’t know where you come from, or from who. It can leave us with a sense of feeling lost, floundering in a dark sea without any reference points.

You would think Po (Black) has at least some sense of who he is. After all, he is the Dragon Warrior. But he’s also an orphan, raised by Mr. Ping (Hong), the noodle vendor – who happens to be a duck to Po’s panda. Po has just figured that he was the only one.

But there is trouble brewing. In the spirit world, renegade General Kai (Simmons) has been stealing the chi (lifeforce) of all the great masters in the afterlife, which seems problematic at best considering they’re all dead. He’s even managed to grab the chi of Master Oogway (Kim). However, Oogway has a trick up his sleeve, one that is not revealed until later.

The addition of Master Oogway’s chi has given Kai enough power to return to the mortal world where he plans on gathering up all the chi of all the kung fu masters on the planet, culminating with the Dragon Warrior’s. The Dragon Warrior however is very much distracted. Master Shifu (Hoffman) is retiring and he wants Po to take over training the Furious Five, which is disastrous. The appearance of Li (Cranston), who turns out to be Po’s long-lost dad, leads Po and his adopted father Ping to the farthest reaches of China to the secret village of the pandas, where he meets all his long lost relatives.

Po is ecstatic and happy having found not just his people but himself but still has been unable to master chi, something that the pandas were reputed to be masters of. When the news arrives that Kai has beaten the Furious Five save for Tigress (Jolie) and he is on his way to the hidden panda village, Po realizes that there is no way he can beat Kai by himself. He is going to need an army – of pandas. But how to make these lazy, dumpling-eating, hill rolling creatures, as gentle as can be, an army?

The third installment in the KFP franchise has done pretty well at the box office despite its January release date and competition from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, of the three films in the trilogy (and this is supposedly the last one as the studio has revealed no further plans to continue the franchise at present, although the success of this movie leads me to think that DreamWorks might be reconsidering that decision) this is the weakest to my eye.

Many of the characters who made the series a success are limited to essentially cameo roles. Hoffman as Master Shifu is limited to maybe a couple of dozen lines after being essentially a main character for the first two films and the Furious Five are mainly an afterthought, appearing together in just one scene. While there are plenty of new characters to make an impression here (including Hudson as a seductive ribbon dancing panda), Kai as a villain seems no different than either of the first two villains, supernatural origin or no.

Black is earnest enough as Po and continues to center the franchise as a character who is slowly learning to believe in himself, which also is getting a bit tired but I suppose if you’re going to be child-oriented as an animated feature, a simple lesson in self-belief or being who you want to be needs to be front and center. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, only that there is nothing here that really stands out from any other animated feature out there.

Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for a kidflick, particularly in an auditorium full of noxious little brats who were plainly too young or too undisciplined to be in a movie theater but this one left me pretty flat. In many ways this is not quite as good as the second film which got a similar rating, but I didn’t see enough wrong with this one to go down a notch. I got the sense the kids enjoyed the movie (particularly the little boys) and that the parents were more or less happy that their tykes weren’t at home driving them crazy. And that’s not really what I’d consider reason enough to see a film with the kids, animated or not.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of fun new characters.
REASONS TO STAY: Left me feeling pretty “meh.”
FAMILY VALUES: Some animated martial arts action and slightly rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Has the longest time between sequels for any DreamWorks Animation film with five years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tigger Movie
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Witch

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When the Game Stands Tall


Success breeds cool sunglasses.

Success breeds cool sunglasses.

(2014) True Sports Drama (Tri-Star) Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Laura Dern, Alexander Ludwig, Clancy Brown, Ser’Darius Blain, Stephan James, Matthew Daddario, Joe Massingill, Jessie Usher, Matthew Frias, LaJessie Smith, Richard Kohnke, Chase Boltin, Gavin Cassalegno, Adella Gautier, Terence Rosemore, Deneen Tyler, Anna Margaret.. Directed by Thomas Carter

Football is truly a metaphor for America, or at least America’s ideal image of itself. Individual achievement is admired and encouraged, but it is teamwork that eventually wins games.

De La Salle High School in Concord, California, is the most dominant high school football program in the nation in 2003. They have won 151 straight games – a decade without a loss – the longest streak in any sport at any level in history.  Coach Bob Ladouceur (Caviezel) has just won yet another state title. Offers to coach for NCAA Division 1 college teams are coming in by the bucket load but he has no interest in moving up to the next level. He tells his wife Bev (Dern) that he can do more good for the young men at this age than he can for college-age kids.

The stress though is getting to Ladouceur although only his wife and his best friend and assistant coach Terry Eidson (Chiklis) seem to notice. Pretty soon though Coach Ladouceur notices big time – a major heart attack lands him in the hospital where his no-nonsense cardiologist tells him in no uncertain terms that he has to take it easy for awhile – no spring football.

The senior class is already looking ahead, with star running back Terrance “T.K.” Kelly (James) urging his best friend Cam Colvin (Blain) to come up with him to the University of Oregon like they always had planned, although Colvin is devastated by his mom’s illness and death. The junior class is getting ready to take the reins of the next De La Salle team, with tailback Chris Ryan (Ludwig) gunning for a state scoring record and the coach’s son Danny (Daddario) finally getting a chance to shine as a starter at wide receiver, although the talented and arrogant Tayshon Lanear (Usher) derides him as getting an opportunity only because of who his father is.

A body blow is dealt to the team when Kelly is senseless murdered the day before he is to drive up to Oregon to start summer practice. Ladouceur, speaking at the young man’s funeral, admits to being lost.

He’s not the only one. The team isn’t practicing with the same purpose that they did, and that had been going on even before Kelly’s murder. The program is being accused of cherry-picking players (an accusation that has dogged De La Salle even before the film takes place) and some schools refuse to play De La Salle, so for their first game of the 2004 season they travel to Bellevue, Washington to take on Bellevue High School, the Washington State champions the previous seasons. The team loses and the streak, a big part of De La Salle’s identity, is over.

The devastation of their coach’s illness, the death of a teammate and the loss of the streak threatens to overwhelm the team. Ryan, who is playing well, is driven by his overbearing dad (Brown) to achieve the scoring record no matter how it affects the team. There is bickering and doubt. Suddenly, Ladouceur understands that this isn’t about a game anymore.

One of the most cliche-ridden genres in the movies, perhaps second only to romantic comedies, is the true sports drama. When the Game Stands Tall is not immune to those cliches and that hurts the movie overall. Certainly it has led to critics to savage the movie (see the Rotten Tomatoes rating below) and the criticism hasn’t been entirely undeserved.

Caviezel is a soft-spoken actor who rarely seems to raise his voice in any film or TV show he’s ever done. He plays Ladouceur as an even-keel sort who rather than chew out his players a la Herb Brooks in Miracle and Tony D’Amato in Any Given Sunday instead gives them disappointed looks which seem to affect them more deeply than physical blows. Chiklis is delightful as Eidson, more of a rah-rah sort and a great yang to Caviezel’s yin.

One of the things I object to most in this movie is the addition of the Chris Ryan character who is a complete fabrication. He is there essentially to add a subplot with a sideline dad who is borderline abusive, pushing his son to break a state record not for his son’s benefit but so he can play out his own vicarious fantasies through his son. The real Ladouceur would have never tolerated that sort of behavior and the characters are overbearing cliches that add a jarring note to the film, which could have done better without them, even though Brown and Ludwig do fine jobs in their respective roles.

The football sequences are pretty nicely done, although there are a couple of individual moves that look patently phony. There is also a really good sequence set at the Veterans Hospital where the athletes are introduced to wounded warriors back from the Middle East who are trying to overcome lost limbs and other devastating injuries. That sequence is maybe the most inspiring in the film.

I do applaud the filmmakers for taking a decidedly not underdog team and making them sympathetic. It’s hard to feel a lot of sympathy for a team that had known that much success, but sometimes it’s how adversity is dealt with rather than success that is the true measure of a person – or a team. I liked the concept, but perhaps I’ve just seen too many true sports stories in the last several years. In any case, it’s a likable enough film but certainly one that doesn’t need to be on the top of your must-see list.

REASONS TO GO: Restrained work from Caviezel and Chiklis.
REASONS TO STAY: Ryan invented from whole cloth and exists only to add false dramatic tension. A few too many sports film cliches.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a scene of violence plus the violence that is inherent in football, a little bit of mild swearing and – horrors! – smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: De La Salle is a private high school and costs as of this year $16,000 per year to attend although it was considerably less when this film took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Are Marshall
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: As Above, So Below

Planes


The rain in Planes falls mainly o the...well, er, planes.

The rain in Planes falls mainly o the…well, er, planes.

(2013) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Dane Cook, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Cedric the Entertainer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Cleese, Carlos Alazraqui, Priyanka Chopra, Gabriel Iglesias, Stacy Keach, Brent Musburger, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Roger Craig Smith, Sinbad, Colin Cowherd, John Ratzenberger, Emerson Tenney, Kari Wahgren. Directed by Klay Hall

The latest Disney animated feature is a spin-off from the animated world of anthropomorphic Cars although it takes place above that world. Welcome to the shiny aerial world of Planes.

Dusty Crophopper (Cook) is a crop-duster, a single-engine plane who was built for the specific purpose of spreading pesticides and manure on crops (mostly corn, which is apparently the source of fuel in the world of Planes). Dusty want more out of life – “I’ve flown thousands of miles and never gone anywhere” he complains.

What he really wants is to be a racer, and the Wings Across the Globe race is the perfect outlet for him. With the support of his friends Chug (Garrett) and Dottie (Hatcher), Dusty trains relentlessly and even though he gets a lot of skepticism and negativity thrown his way, he perseveres. He gets into the race where he is befriended by Bulldog (Cleese), a obsequious Spitfire, Ishani (Chopra) a lovely Indian and the would-be ladies man El Chupicabra (Alazraqui).

Not everyone wants to succeed. Ripslinger (Smith) is gunning for his historic fourth consecutive win i the race and nothing and nobody will get in his way, particularly a crop-duster with delusions of grandeur. As it turns out, Ripslinger will go to any and all lengths to nail down that win and if it means that some planes must crash and burn, well….

Although this is based on a Pixar movie, this actually isn’t a Pixar film, even though John Lasseter co-wrote and produced it. No, it was animated by the wizards at DisneyToons, their direct-to-video arm and that was the intention for this as well. However, the stars aligned nicely for Planes – a planned King of the Elves feature shut down and somebody noticed the merchandising potential of the new characters, thus it was added to the theatrical release schedule a bit late in the game.

Quite frankly, I expected direct-to-video quality and I was somewhat surprised when I found this comparable to Pixar’s work in Cars and its sequel. There are a lot of clever little asides (such as the plane-looking rock formations near Propwash Junction where Dusty, Chug and Dottie reside. There are also air traffic controllers at Kennedy Airport who talk with JFK-esque accents, and German planes drinking fuel from beer steins.

There also isn’t much in the way of story and characterization which cobble elements from …well nearly every animated feature of the last 20 years. Skipper (Keach), a crotchety old war hero, is a dead ringer for Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson, El Chupicabra makes a nice Puss in Boots (albeit not quite as cute) and Dusty could easily be the title character from Turbo. In fact, most of the characters are pretty bland, generic characters you’ve met before in other movies. As for the plot, well, this isn’t the first movie that tells us that it’s okay to dream big because if we want something bad enough and have the support of our friends, we can accomplish anything.

I did like the overall charm of the movie and I will venture to say that if you compare this to most direct-to-video fare this is miles and miles ahead of those. Frankly, this deserved the theatrical release it got – it certainly isn’t as bad as some of the other animated features out there that were always intended to hit the theaters (I’m looking at you, Planet 51. Hop and Astro Boy).

REASONS TO GO: Maintains the goofy charm of Cars. Clever in places.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs the gamut of animated feature clichés. No really memorable characters.

FAMILY VALUES:  Suitable for everyone – there’s a bit of semi-rude humor and a couple of action scenes that might scare the kids a little but nothing I wouldn’t feel comfortable sending an 3-year-old to.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bravo and Echo, two Air Force jets who Dusty runs into during his around the globe race, are voiced by Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards who played fighter pilots in Top Gun; their flight helmets are identical to those worn by the actors in their live action roles.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Race

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Riddick

Kung Fu Panda


Kung Fu Panda

Sometimes we all need a little kick in the behind.

(2008) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Randall Duk Kim, James Hong, Michael Clarke Duncan, Dan Fogler. Directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne

 

Dreams are generally not handed to you. In order to achieve them, hard work and sacrifice is almost always required. The question becomes how much are you willing to give in order to make your dream come true – and is it worth it.

Po (Black) is a big, goofy panda who lives in the Valley of Peace. The animals there live in peace and harmony, overseen by the benevolent temple on the highest peak guarding the town from those who would cause harm. Therein dwell the Furious Five, a group of five kung fu warriors of world renown. Po worships them and dreams of being one of them. However, he is the son of Ping (Hong) a humble noodle shop owner whose secret ingredient makes his noodles better than anyone else and Ping knows that Po’s dream is foolishness itself.

Within the temple is the Dragon Scroll, a parchment which explains how to become the Dragon Warrior, the ultimate kung fu practitioner. Snow leopard Tai Lung (McShane) wants this scroll not to become the valley’s ultimate protector but to dominate and become a cruel tyrant, wreaking revenge on the master who spurned his dreams.

Tai Lung has escaped from his prison and means to take what would not be given to him. The temple announces that their venerated abbot Oogway (Kim) is going to select the Dragon Warrior who will be given the scroll and the power to protect the Valley. The entire village ascends the mountain to see who will be accorded this great honor. Po is sent by his father to go sell noodles at the temple.

Everyone assumes that one of the members of the Furious Five will be chosen – Tigress (Jolie), Mantis (Rogen), Monkey (Chan), Viper (Liu) or Crane (Cross). Maybe it will be their venerated master, Shifu (Hoffman). However when Oogway chooses Po, the entire village goes into shock. Surely there must be a mistake.

Po has no training and it appears, no aptitude for Kung Fu. What he seems to be best at is eating, and he does that pretty much non-stop. Shifu figures that he can discourage the young panda out of becoming the Dragon Warrior and thus allow one of his more deserving students to achieve that honor. However, Tai Lung is approaching and time is running short. Will Po stay and find his inner hero? Or will he leave and watch from the sidelines as one or all of the Furious Five save the day?

Of all the  CGI animated features I’ve seen this is my favorite that doesn’t begin with the Pixar logo. Yes, I understand its faults and shortcomings but for whatever reason I connect with it. Maybe because I’m quite Po-like – I love to eat, I dream about being a superhero and I have a pretty laid-back nature most of the time (that sound you just heard was Da Queen snorting). The animation is also pretty impressive, from the faux Chinese landscapes to the rippling fur on Shifu, Tigress and Tai Lung.

The story is a bit rote and predictable and certainly is aimed at the Nickelodeon set. There is a good deal of physical humor, much of it revolving around Po’s weight and clumsiness (which some might argue reinforces stereotypes about overweight people, not necessarily a message we want to send to kids). Also, there is almost zero character development for everyone other than Po, Sifu and Tigress. Even Tai Lung really is given a kind of cursory character background as to why he is a villain. Most of the non-feline Furious Five all kind of blend together. Makes me wonder if they could have done a Terrific Trio instead.

There are some moments of real beauty – one involving Oogway and peach blossoms – as well as some imaginative fight scenes (especially the one between Po and Shifu involving a dumpling and chopsticks). This is a pleasing film aesthetically, enough so that parents won’t get bored when watching it for the umpteenth time with their kids.

In fact, the movie is much like it’s protagonist – kind of dumb, kind of lovable and ultimately it just steals your heart. Even if you aren’t into the old chop sockey movies that are clearly the touchstone behind the genesis of Kung Fu Panda you’ll still get a kick out of this animated classic.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous animation. Nice work by Black, Hoffman and McShane.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable story aimed squarely at less discerning audiences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some action sequences which might overwhelm the littlest tykes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Hong, who voiced noodle shop owner Mr. Ping, is the son of an actual noodle shop owner.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: As with most hit kid films, there are plenty. The DVD came as a stand-alone or in a two-pack with the short animated feature Secrets of the Furious Five. The original DVD included featurettes on how to make noodles like Mr. Ping and a kid-centric instruction manual on how to use chopsticks. There’s also a Dragon Warrior Training Academy interactive game, a music video of the theme song, an animation video jukebox featuring songs from each of DreamWorks’ Animation Studio’s movies to that time, and a nice PSA  on saving wild pandas.  The two-pack also includes an instructional video on how to draw the characters from Kung Fu Panda, an interactive Dumpling Shuffle game, and fun featurettes on how to determine which Kung Fu fighting style is your own and how to figure out which sign of the Chinese zodiac you fall under. The Blu-Ray has all of these in addition to BD-Live downloadable content which includes a Day in the Life of an actual Shaolin monk and the opportunity to hear Po from various other language soundtracks. “Squidoosh” just sounds a whole lot of different in Swedish my friends.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $631.7M on a $130M production budget; the movie was a huge hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Tales From Earthsea

Dinosaur


Dinosaur

Aladar enjoys the easy life

(2000) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of D.B. Sweeney, Alfre Woodard, Ossie Davis, Max Casella, Hayden Panettiere, Julianna Margulies, Joan Plowright, Peter Siragusa, Della Reese, Samuel E. Wright, Zachary Bostrom. Directed by Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton

Dinosaur represented a technical advance in animation that raided the bar for future generations of animated movies. It looks so terrific that even big people were stunned at the scope of it when it came out a decade ago. That said, its groundbreaking technical advance is not matched by its storyline, which is typical Disney fare. For that reason, it remains somewhat forgotten among Disney animated films.

Set back in the age of dinosaurs (no duh), we follow the adventures of Aladar (Sweeney) who as an unhatched egg is transported from his nesting site to an island where the thunder lizards aren’t really kings of the jungle. It is where fledgling lemurs, led by the cautious Yar (Davis) and the maternal Plio (Woodward) rule the roost and where the evolutionary facts of life are ignored – primates and dinosaurs? I don’t think so.

Plio prevails upon Yar to help raise the young hatchling Tarzan-style (anyone see a tie-in here?) which they do, transforming the young dashing dino into a sort of big plaything for his much smaller and younger…ummmmm, primates.

Their frivolous games are interrupted by a rather inconvenient asteroid shower, which devastates the island something awful. Aladar swims the surviving lemurs over to the mainland where they find an equal amount of devastation, but join with a herd of dinos heading for the fabled Nesting Ground, led by the brutal Kron (Wright) and his right-hand reptile Bruton (Siragusa), with Kron’s comely sister Neera (Margulies) providing the love interest. Do these sound like Pokemon or what?

Aladar espouses a philosophy of teamwork in order to get the entire herd through the long and dangerous trek; Kron is more of a Darwinist, survival-of-the-fittest kind of guy (kind of ironic when you think about it). Inevitably, the two come into conflict, and with a couple of carnivorous Carnotaurs prowling about, well, let’s just say things look a bit shaky for the herd.

Visually, this is eye candy to the extreme. Everything looks completely real, from the rippling muscles of the dinos to the wind-blown fur of the lemurs. The backgrounds were filmed around the world (including Seminole County in Central Florida, where This Writer and Da Queen currently reside) in order to add realism to the feature, and man, does it work. The asteroid sequence is one of the most stunning visuals I’ve seen in an animated feature to this day, which is saying a lot. The CGI animals react to and interact with their real environment which was filmed with early High-Def cameras and still looks pretty sharp.

Although the storyline is strictly for the birds you’ll be completely entertained for the hour and a half you’re in the theater. Using a species which eventually died out to illustrate the value of staying together and never losing hope doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me – my sense of irony only extends so far.

For a more, shall we say, realistic look at dinos in a format just as visually impressive, may I recommend the Discovery Channel’s “Walking With Dinosaurs” which is available on DVD pretty readily and will be the subject of a feature film in 2013. It’s an expensive purchase, but it’s well worth it.

As for the Disney version, great for the kiddies, wonderful eye candy, but in the end, just The Land Before Time with a better budget and a more ambitious visual sense. It certainly does engender a sense of wonder that makes it worth the price of a rental, but in the end it would have been better served to go with a DisneyNature-style narration rather than with the storyline of the doomed species working as a team to survive. The message becomes “no matter what you do you’re still going to be extinct.” Not exactly what I want to pass on to children, y’know?

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing visuals. The asteroid sequence is one of the most breathtaking I’ve ever seen in an animated feature.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is dumbed down for children and creates too much irony in having an extinct species tell us the value of teamwork in order to survive.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images that might be a bit too intense for the way little ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Aladar’s name was originally supposed to be Noah but it was thought that would alienate Christian members of the audience so the filmmakers went with Aladar instead.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The Two-Disc DVD edition contains an amazing amount of features, including a trivia track, a couple of games and a herd of hidden features (that can be accessed by clicking on a dino logo that appears in several of the menus) including an old Disney short on the history of animation and another short cartoon featuring dinosaurs.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $349.8M on a $127.5M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sicko

Kung Fu Panda 2


Kung Fu Panda 2

There's nothing like a little musical accompaniment when dueling to the death.

(2011) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Gary Oldman, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, James Hong, David Cross, Michelle Yeoh, Danny McBride, Dennis Haysbert, Victor Garber, Jean Claude van Damme. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Most of us are pretty well aware of our pasts. We know where we came from and it’s true, it helps us understand where we’re going. What we fail to realize, however, is that who we were isn’t as important as who we are…and who we intend to become.

Po (Black) has settled into his role as Dragon Warrior, protector of the Valley and a member of the Furious Five…who now have a plus one. Things are going swell for the time being, although Master Shifu (Hoffman) warns Po that if he is to continue in his growth, he must find inner peace. For the moment, the only inner peace Po wants is the one that comes after a big meal.

During a fight with some bandits in a village of musicians, Po sees an emblem on the armor of the leader of the wolf pack (McBride) and has a flashback to when he was a very small child. He thinks he might be seeing his mother. Later, he questions his father Ping (Hong) about it, and Ping is only able to tell him that he found Po in a box of radishes without any idea of how he got there. Po becomes determined to find out where he came from.

He might have picked a better time to take a stroll down memory lane. Lord Shen (Oldman), an albino peacock, has developed a weapon of terrible power and threatens to conquer all of China with it. He has already taken on the combined masters of Kung Fu (Garber, Haysbert, van Damme) and beaten them. If the world knows that there is a weapon that can defeat even these masters, will Kung Fu be at last broken?

Nelson worked as a story editor on the first film and makes her directing debut here. It’s actually a pretty self-assured one; she tells much of Po’s back story, and utilizes flashbacks by telling them in anime-style hand-drawn animation. The computer generated stuff is quite amazing and beautiful – some of the best-rendered animation outside of Pixar. It’s really too bad that all of the care taken on that score is ruined by watching it in 3D through dark glasses, ruining the color palate of the animators. All for the sake of a few cutsie pie effects that are just as effective in 2D.

The story here is ambitious. While there’s still an element of fat buffoon to Po, that’s been considerably toned down here. He is after all, the Dragon Warrior. The dynamic has changed between him and the Furious Five as well; where Tigress (Jolie) was once his adversary, now she’s his best friend. Hong also has much more of an expanded role in Ping – a very welcome development, in my opinion.

There are some pretty dark elements here, particularly when it comes to Po’s early life. That’s all well and good but when your target audience is kids, I find that kind of disappointing. Not that everything has to be sunshine and lollipops in kid movies, but there are some things in the story that I thought was a bit inappropriate for the younger set in the sense that it might cause them to feel a bit insecure. You may, of course, disagree with me in this.

I also found the charm of the first movie to be largely missing. By making Po competent and even a superior fighter, much of what I found charming about the first movie is taken away. Also, the primary relationship in the movie is between Po and Tigress; Shifu has little more than an extended cameo here and his relationship to Po was at the center of the first movie, and it is sorely missed here.

Adding Michelle Yeoh to the mix as an ancient seer is a master stroke of casting; she also does some of the narration and she’s a welcome addition, adding a bit of gravitas and authenticity. She is far too absent from the movies; it’s a bit of a shame because she’s one of the best actresses in the world but she’s sadly hit that age where actresses tend to be cast aside as being not young enough to be a romantic lead but not old enough to get the Meryl Streep types of roles. Hollywood has tunnelvision in many ways; I would hope that someday they’ll understand that women like Yeoh are far sexier and alluring than some of the 20-something hardbodies that pass for leading ladies these days. End rant.

I do admire the movie for its willingness to take a risk and not be just another money-grubbing animated feature. That may have translated to the disappointing box office take its first weekend with almost no competition for the family movie dollar, something which will change in a couple of weeks when Cars 2 enters the fray. I don’t think it was successful in everything it attempted to do, but I’m glad that they at least gave an effort to do something other than the safe and boring that is often passed off as family entertainment these days.

REASONS TO GO: The gang’s all back and the story gives us a good deal of insight into Po’s background.

REASONS TO STAY: Not as charming as the first movie and quite a bit darker.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence which might upset the really little ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DreamWorks executives visited Chengdu in China, considered to be the “Panda hometown” to learn more about Pandas and Chinese culture; elements of their visit were later incorporated into the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh, the kids are going to want to see it in the theater so you may as well.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Black Snake Moan

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