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Do you know how impossible it is to find an all-rated trailer (at least an embeddable one?), and not a R-rated one?  Damn… anyway, I think this may be the international trailer, but I’m not certain.

Without sounding horribly cliched with the name (which is impossible to, but what do you expect with America today?), Kick Ass was certainly, well, kick ass, in a way.  You do certainly get what you paid for: manic amounts of action and bloody violence, barrels full of cursing, and the enjoyable pleasure of wishing (or not) that your parents trained you in the martial arts at a young age so you could go around slaughtering people at 11 years of age.

If that’s what you’re expecting (and all that you’re expecting), then congrats, you have an easy ‘A’.

But…

First off, this movie is surprisingly dark.  It really doesn’t move that way until maybe halfway through the film, when other subplots start kicking in, but things do get dark.  They mainly involve the back story of Big Daddy, but the violence also g0t relentless, not in that over-the-top sense, but the “I’m killing you and you stay dead” sense that you’re killing people just to kill them.  I did a quick scan of review blurbs and found someone who suggested comparisons to Shoot ‘Em Up, and I certainly see the connection.  Kick Ass has more plot though (Shoot ‘Em Up was a bloodbath every five minutes, and quickly grew boring about half way through).

The movie drags at times too, mainly through the middle section.  I started not liking the film at that time, and I can’t really place my finger on it: too slow, or too much action, or just the fact that I didn’t find it entirely funny that an 11 year old has the mouth of a cracked out Pop-Eye the sailor (maybe I’m getting old…?).  The final act was good, but I didn’t entirely like the concluding action piece.  The music didn’t seem right to me, and there was too much CGI special effects occurring.  That said, the choreography was sound, and the movements of a highly trained eleven year old seemed quite believable.

Actually, the better action sequences came before that one.  Two of them in fact, and I think the music attributed to that.  Thinking back on it, the music draws the film into that dark territory I mentioned earlier.  The first sequence involving Big Daddy played off of his character’s subplot (which is a common plot, but I won’t reveal it here), but watching it and feeling it makes you almost sympathize with the character, even as he efficiently kills a dozen people.  The second sequence with Hit Girl is well shot as well, the music again adding to the dark overtones (the scenes before that lend themselves to this sequence).  There’s a video game feel to it, but by the end, you can see what Hit Girl would do for Big Daddy.

There’s one other nagging thought that keeps recurring when I think about this film: the use of media and the internet and America’s response to it.  You can see in the trailer that Kick Ass becomes a media firestorm when he defends one defenseless guy against three attackers.  The point of Kick Ass the superhero is to become a hero and fight crime, or die trying.  He’s being a hero while people stand by and watch (and, being 21st century America, taking out their iPhones and Blackberry’s and the like and recording everything) and don’t act, almost being the good Samaritan and the vigilante at the same time.  I know this film isn’t the first one to use such an underlying theme of media and good citizenship, but this one does it effectively, mainly because it falls within the conventions of the comic book genre.

But you’re really not seeing this movie for those reasons, right?  I mean, come on, you’re there to see action and violence and a potty mouth 11 year old.  What other reason is there to see it?

B

Note: there was a similar film that came out recently in limited release – Defendor, starring Woody Harrelson as a vigilante crime fighter – with some of the same themes.  It came out on DVD a week or two ago, so at some point, I may consider renting it and writing about that as well.

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Pesky dragons.  All they wanted was…

Well, I can’t spoil that point, can I?  Actually, I can, since you see it in the trailer.

Anyway, How to Train Your Dragon is the latest creation from Dreamworks, and coupled with Kung Fu Panda (I haven’t seen 2009’s Monsters vs Aliens, but given the lukewarm critical response to it (which, even at 72% on Rotten Tomatoes, it isn’t bad, but animated films generally tend to rate higher), I’m not missing too much), they have definitely stepped up their game.  They haven’t reached Pixar level yet in terms of overall animation and storytelling, but they’re getting there.

Then again, I imagine Dreamworks is the antithesis to Pixar: they aim for a target audience (primarily children) and they have a pop culture catalog that’s only good for six months (you see how quickly Shrek lost relevance?).  Disney is also like that, at least with their own computer animated features (though, unlike Dreamworks (and Pixar), Disney hasn’t had a solid self-produced hit yet).  Pixar, meanwhile, aim for the children, but storytelling trumps everything: see just about everything they did, from the mature romance in Wall-E to the opening fifteen minutes of Up to practically all of Ratatouille to… you got it, right?

Anyway, I digress.  Dreamworks is stepping up their game, and Dragon is clearly evident of that.  It’s not perfect (perfection obviously being Pixar), but it’s quite good, almost spectacular at times.

The animation is great, if I can begin with that (as in probably all animated movies, the first thing you have to consider (like I do now and what I did earlier this week with Secret of Kells) is the animation).  Everything moves fluidly, from the human and dragon interactions to the detailed hair animation on several of the characters (namely Hiccup and Astrid).  The dragon flying sequences are amazing, from the opening sequence in a clash between them and the Vikings to the final climactic battle (though… no, I won’t get into that, avoiding spoilers with this one).  The best one though comes around halfway through the film, when Hiccup and his dragon Toothless (a Night Fury, I think) are finally able to take to the skies.  Everything in this sequence is breathtaking: the diving through the clouds in the sky and the skimming of the ocean water, and the peril inherent at times when some things do go wrong.  A second one with Astrid doesn’t come as close, though that sequence also does advance the plot, so it has a purpose.

The dragons themselves come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and special tricks.  Though, while there are hints that there exists a broad variety of dragons, we only get to see six or seven unique types of them.  It’s enough, since anymore would overwhelm the screen.  The animators do quite a good job differentiating between the dragons, even if some of them don’t make much sense (like the small bug-like one or the two headed one, even if that does have a neat trick).

The story itself works: your typical growing up story with plenty of depth in it.  That’s probably what Dreamworks needed to do, was to add more to the story than just what was on the surface.  Hiccup is the skinny Viking who is a bumbling fool and doesn’t want to kill dragons.  He stumbles upon Toothless, injured in that opening clash, and they eventually gain a trust in each other which allows Hiccup to heal him and to successfully ride him.  Meanwhile, the big and burly Vikings, led by Hiccup’s dad Stoick, like to go off and kill dragons whenever they can.  Stoick doesn’t believe that Hiccup will amount to anything as a Viking, but allows him to train with Gobber and a batch of young Vikings in order to eventually join the village in hunting and killing dragons.  Hiccup, in all of this, as a crush on Astrid, who is more committed to being a true Viking than anything else.  She gets quite angry when Hiccup starts excelling in the dragon training: instead of killing the dragons (which is what the kids are supposed to do), he tames them with tricks he learns along the way.

There’s more, but I’ll stop there.  As you can tell, there’s a lot more than normal, and it’s greatly appreciated.  Some of the characters are sufficiently developed well enough to care about (Hiccup, Astrid, Gobber among others), though some are too flat that their overall plots don’t really work out too well (mainly Stoick: he’s almost completely one-dimensional).

The voice acting, I would say, is one area that Dreamworks can probably improve on.  Save for America Ferrera, I wasn’t completely convinced by anyone.  Jay Baruchel as Hiccup worked decently enough (he was pretty good at times), but Gerald Butler channeled too much King Leonidas, and other actors were only serviceable.  I’m wondering if it’s me: I’m so used to Pixar (hell, Disney as well, even when they do Ghibli films) getting the truly good character actors that it makes Dreamworks pale in comparison.  None of the primary actors used here are bad, mind you, but they just don’t work well for voice acting.

Oh, and the 3D worked for the most part.  I wasn’t irritated by it, and it wasn’t really gimmick-y either.  I imagine some background colors were flat, and some of the images didn’t pop out like they should, but I’m not complaining.  It worked.  Better than it did for Alice in Wonderland.

Now, I realize that I spent a lot of time comparing Dreamworks to Pixar.  It’s not my full intent, though I’m sure you can understand why: Pixar is the pinnacle in terms of computer animated movies, and Dreamworks still has a ways to go to reach that benchmark.  Or maybe they don’t.  Who knows.  If they keep pumping out Shreks like they do (which I will not see, by the way) or other films that really don’t appeal to me, then I won’t bother with them.

Continue giving me something like How to Train Your Dragon though, and you got me hooked.

B+

Note: the Vikings were amusingly Scottish and not Scandinavian.  Don’t ask me why.  Maybe the accent was too thick or not funny enough?  I don’t know.