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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The 13th Warrior


No puss, no boots.

No puss, no boots.

(1999) Adventure (Touchstone) Antonio Banderas, Diane Venora, Omar Sharif, Vladimir Kulich, Clive Russell, Richard Bremmer, Dennis Storhoi, Daniel Southern, Neil Maffin, John Desantis, Mischa Hausserman, Asbjorn Riis, Tony Curran, Albie Woodington, Erick Avari, Sven Wolter, Anders T. Andersen, Bjorn Ole Pedersen, Sven-Ole Thorsen, Maria Bonnevie, Kaaren de Zilva, Layla Alizada. Directed by John McTiernan

The late Michael Crichton’s books have had an uneven history on the screen, ranging from the classic (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain) to the mediocre (Sphere, The Terminal Man) to the downright awful (Congo).

The 13th Warrior, directed by John McTiernan and based on Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, isn’t a classic. But the movie, which tanked at the box office when it was released in 1999, is a surprisingly good adventure flick and well worth some viewing time.

Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Banderas) is a poet living in 12th Century Baghdad who runs afoul of the local caliph when he has an eye-to-eye dalliance with another man’s wife. For his indiscretion, the impetuous Ahmed is sentenced to be ambassador to the barbarous Norsemen. Accompanied by his old friend Melchisidek (Sharif), he arrives in the encampment of the Norse king – just in time to witness the old king’s funeral.

The brooding new king Buliwyf (Kulich) accepts the new emissary into his camp albeit begrudgingly. However, all is upset by the arrival of a courier who brings a call for help from a neighboring king whose people are being slaughtered by mysterious, seemingly demonic killers. Buliwyf consults a seer, who tells him that only 13 warriors must go. Quickly, 13 strapping warriors, led by their king, volunteer for the quest; but the seer admonishes that the 13th warrior must not be from the Northlands.

So, Ahmed is volunteered. Along the way to the embattled kingdom, Ahmed goes from being the butt of the band’s jokes to being a respected member of the cadre; he even manages to learn their language by a means that is delivered to the screen in a particularly imaginative way.

Once they arrive at the beset city, they are confronted by seemingly bear-like creatures who turn out to be a tribe of men – bear cultists. The heroic band of fighters bond amongst themselves, fight their implacable foes and the political intrigue of the kingdom they have traveled to, and sow courage, sacrifice and honor – qualities rarely seen in the movies these days.

The scenery here is gorgeous; the mists and shadows of the North make for compelling cinematography. The acting is solid; the Vikings are hearty and likable much in the way they are stereotyped in our culture. Banderas’ Ahmed is cultured and debonair, but is also brave and lethal. He is referred to by his mates as “little brother” and he is indeed brother to the honest and open Norse. His strength isn’t just in his muscles but in his heart, which his commander recognizes is the place where strength counts the most.

Banderas, post-Zorro, was looking to settle into an action hero role but the movie’s box office failure scuttled that career for him essentially – while he has continued to do action roles off and on since then, he’s tended to do more dramas and romantic comedies than anything else which was a bit of a shame – I thought he had great potential to help revitalize the moribund action hero role. Sharif made a rare but welcome appearance in the film – it’s a crime that Hollywood never really utilized this marvelous and charismatic actor more often after the 60s.

The 13th Warrior is a throwback film in many ways. It honors virtues that moviegoers since the antihero days of the 1970s have tended to disdain. We look for our heroes to be flawed so we can relate to them, rather than role models who inspire us to be something better. Ahmed is the kind of hero worth aspiring to – not to mention a rare portrayal of an Arabic character that is positive and strong. Now that’s something I’m all for.

WHY RENT THIS: Throwback adventure film. Nice sets and costumes. Omar Sharif.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat muddled in places. Sluggish and slow-paced.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of battle scene carnage, and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: During test screenings of the film, the scores were so low that the film was deemed unwatchable; Crichton took over directing reshoots which nearly doubled the budget and delayed the movie by more than a year.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $61.7M on a $160M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Planes

Outlander


Outlander

Where's the spam? Bloody Vikings!

(2008) Science Fiction (Third Rail) Jim Caviezel, John Hurt, Ron Perlman, Sophia Myles, Jack Huston, Cliff Saunders, Patrick Stevenson, Aidan Devine, Bailey Maughan, John E. Nelles, James Rogers, Scott Owen, Petra Prazak. Directed by Howard McCain

Here, there be dragons and they often show up in the most unlikely of places. Dragons can be creatures of great power but they can also be the demons that gnaw at us from the inside, piece by piece.

Kainan (Caviezel) is a humanoid who has crash-landed his space vehicle on Earth – eighth century Norway to be exact. He is escaping a massacre at his space colony by a species called Moorwen. One of them stowed away aboard his spacecraft, causing it to crash on what is called by the ship computer “an abandoned seed colony.”  This implies that our planet was originally colonized by out-of-towners. Darwin might be amused.

Anyway, the Moorwen has crashed the ship and killed Kainan’s co-pilot.  The Moorwen is loose on a planet woefully unequipped to deal with him. Kainan goes on the hunt but gets captured by Vikings. This particular group is ruled by King Hrothgar (Hurt), an aging but wise king whose feisty daughter Freya (Myles) is promised to Wulfric (Huston), a hot-headed warrior who’s poised to take over leadership of the clan once Hrothgar makes his inevitably unscheduled trip to Valhalla.

Hrothgar has other fish to fry other than this Outlander. His men are disappearing in the woods, which at first is blamed on the Outlander but then on a rival clan led by King Gunnar (Perlman). Soon, Kainan convinces them that what is after them is a monster unlike any they’ve ever encountered and killing it will be no easy feat. But kill it they must, or it will kill them all and eventually, wiping out the human race.

This is a bit of an amalgam of the Viking epic and sci-fi horror. It is one of those movies that suffers from having a budget smaller than its ambitions. Filmed in Canada, the cinematography is gorgeous. Where the movie lets us down a bit is in the special effects. While the spaceship is at least satisfactory, the creature – the Moorwen – is poorly lit, despite its bioluminescence. It has a Giger-esque quality to it, but it remains frustratingly elusive. I just wish we could have seen it better.

Caviezel, whose career stalled after his appearance as the Messiah in The Passion of the Christ, does little to revive it here. He’s humorless and his face shows little emotion. With a little more animation and emotion, this could have been a memorable role. Unfortunately by the time the film ends, Kainan is largely forgotten.

Perlman has some fun with a sadly brief appearance and Hurt lends the movie some much-needed gravitas. Myles shines here as the daughter who serves as the love interest, creating a triangle between Wulfric and Kainan. She’s both feisty and capable, the femme fatale and the damsel in distress. She can hold her own with the boys but is still easy on the eyes. Good work. Huston, from one of the movies’ most revered families, has the thankless role as the suspicious warrior who ends up being Kainan’s friend. It’s a cliche part but at least Huston performs it well.

Movies like this can be massively entertaining. While this falls short of the massive adjective, it certainly is entertaining enough. Unfortunately, it got almost no distribution in the US at all, another case of a studio picking up a property they didn’t really know what to do with and then giving it a nominal release with almost zero publicity support. While this was never going to be a blockbuster, it deserved a little more push than it got. Still, it’s worth looking out for on the action-adventure shelf if you’re looking for something a little new and a little different.

WHY RENT THIS: Caviezel is a capable action hero. Movie is beautifully photographed for the most part. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: CGI Moorwen isn’t up to snuff.

FAMILY VALUES: There is considerable violence and some disturbing creature images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film in history in which Old Norse, an ancestor language of Icelandic and several other Scandinavian languages, is spoken onscreen.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While there is nothing unusual here in terms of features, the deleted scenes add up to nearly 40 minutes of additional footage, unusually high for a movie like this.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7M on a $50M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Double Hour (La doppia ora)

The Secret of Kells


The Secret of Kells

When you look into the woods, you never know what might be looking back at you.

(Gkids.com) Starring the voices of Brendan Gleeson, Evan Maguire, Chisten Mooney, Paul Young, Liam Hourican, Mick Lally, Michael McGrath, Paul Tyack. Directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey

Sometimes we get wrapped up in the mundane so much so that we lose track of things that are less tangible but more important. That can happen more easily in times of stress.

At the Abbey of Kells in Ireland, times are certainly troubled. The Emerald Isle is under frequent attack from the vicious and cruel Vikings of the North, who come seeking gold and leave destruction and misery in their wake. The Abbott (Gleeson), a stern man, is constructing titanic walls around the Abbey to protect it and the village surrounding it. At the center is a tall tower, the top of which is the residence of the Abbott. From his window he can see anything – and anyone – coming to attack.

His nephew Brendan (Maguire) is a bit of a dreamer, longing to be one of the illuminators who draw the beautiful manuscripts the order is known for. However, the Abbott is more concerned with getting the wall built and often uses the illuminators – particularly Brendan, who has a tendency towards daydreaming – to help with the heavy labor.

That all changes when Brother Aidan (Lally) arrives, his cat in tow. Aidan is the greatest illuminator of the age and he brings with him the legendary Book of Iona, a tome that he has been illuminating most of his life, one which was started by a Saint no less. Brendan is struck by hero-worship, particularly when he sees the first few pages of the Book.

Aidan sends him into the woods surrounding the fortress for a particular berry that makes a delightfully green ink (and tends to explode in a noxious cloud of smoke for some reason) and meets Aisling (Mooney), a wild girl of the forest with flowing white hair who may not be exactly what she appears to be. Although at first suspicious of one another, she agrees to help Brendan on the condition that he never return to “her” forest. Brendan agrees and they strike up a fast friendship.

The rest of the plot is concerned about the conflict between Brendan’s idealism and the Abbot’s pragmatism, between Brendan’s independence and the Abbot’s authority. Yes, the inevitable invasion of the Vikings occurs and there are ramifications of it. There is also a heaping dosage of Irish mysticism. And then there is the Book, which will eventually become better known as the Book of Kells.

One of the things that disturb me about animated features is the need to talk down to juvenile audiences. If there’s something that Up teaches us is that you can respect the intelligence and wisdom of kids when it comes to an animated movies just as much as you can the adults. There’s simply no need to dumb it down, and yet this feature, made by some of the animators who worked on The Triplets of Belleville (a very adult animated feature) utilizes a gaggle of international monks (one Italian, one Caribbean, one Russian I think and so on) who serve no other purpose than for kids to laugh at ‘em.

Personally I could have done without the comic relief. What works here is the beautiful hand-drawn animation. The filmmakers wisely decided to create the look of an illuminated manuscript, so the scenes are awash in intricate detail. This is certainly two dimensional and a bit of a throwback, but it’s obvious a great deal of love and care went into the animation. It makes for a very stylized look, but it is so detailed that it bears multiple viewings nicely. You will be transported, as I was, by the intricately drawn geometric shapes with the delicate scrollwork and bright colors.

The Secret of Kells received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature this past February, which was a bit of a surprise to many moviegoers who hadn’t heard of this movie. It beat out better-known releases such as Monsters vs. Aliens for the nomination. Those who are fortunate enough to find this playing in their town and give it a shot will see precisely why it was so honored; this is one of the most unique and beautiful-looking animated features I’ve ever seen.

REASONS TO GO: The beautifully drawn backgrounds resemble an illuminated manuscript come to life. The animation is inventive.

REASONS TO STAY: Like too many animated features, it dumbs itself down for younger audiences needlessly. Voice actors for Brendan and Aisling fall in and out of Irish accent.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A co-production of Belgium, France and Ireland.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely, this deserves to be seen in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW:  Mid August Lunch

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