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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.

I remember seeing this movie way back when it came out, three years ago this month, in the gloriously huge IMAX screen in King of Prussia.  I was stoked to be seeing it, and the $15 bucks was worth it.  I remembered leaving the film going “This movie was awesome!”

Three years.  Some of that awesome has indeed worn off.

It’s not to say that some of the movie is still in fact awesome.  The action sequences that begin roughly 40-50 minutes into the film are quite fun indeed, filled with overwhelming amounts of CGI bloodiness and Spartan kickassing their way through a Persian army thousands of times its size.  And the kick in the bloody hole in the ground, and every time Leonidas kicks the Persian messenger into the pit I scream “PUNT!”

This is an adolescent’s wet dream come to life in film.

Oh, but if I were an adolescent again, I would ignore everything that made this movie not awesome.

Well, before I get into that, I’m sure everyone knows the graphic novel that inspired the movie.  Written and drawn by Frank Miller (who had Sin City brought to the big screen by Robert Rodriguez, and who directed (quite badly) Will Eisner’s The Spirit), the story is a fictional retelling (fictional because I’m sure not everyone looked the way they did on the Persian side of things) of the Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans (plus a few thousand more Greeks who sadly didn’t get to fight at all) held off a Persian army numbered anywhere between 70,000 and a million (history can’t make up its mind on the exact number) for two full days before being defeated on the third day.  This inspired the Greeks to take on the Persians and helped win the resulting war.

That aside, the graphic novel captures the feel, in often exaggerated form, of that battle.  There are a few events that lead up to it, the battle itself, the betrayal of Ephialtes, and the last stand of the Spartans.  It was nicely drawn by Miller in a panoramic, wide-screen style that worked quite well for telling the story.  It read quickly too (around ninety pages can be read in roughly twenty-five miuntes).  It was short, sweet, and awesome, with very little in the way of waste (except, for maybe, that illogical hole in the ground).

The movie, faced with the problem of having a movie being far too short, added a subplot involving Queen Gorgo trying to influence the Spartan Senate into sending reinforcements for her husband (and had half the movie filmed in slow motion, but who’s keeping track of that?).  It really doesn’t work at all.  For starters, Leonidas started the war by punting the messenger into that giant hole of his (at least, in this depiction of events).  He climbs a mountain with no road or path to where various ugly looking and corrupt people interpret the Oracle’s message as “Don’t go to war or you’ll offend the gods” (done in English in the graphic novel, of course).  This scene itself, by and large, doesn’t work: how the hell does that evil Senate dude with his evil Persian friend (an especially fat one at that) make it to the top of the pathless mountain?  A secret elevator?  Stereotypical magic carpet (he is Persian after all)?

Speaking of evil Senate dude, he’s right.  He’s completely right in not sending troops to help Leonidas, since, you know, the king provoked a war without the Senate’s backing (see how democracy works kids?).  But, since he’s evil Senate dude, he’s corrupt.  He couldn’t care less about Leonidas, or Sparta for that matter.  He likes his Xerxes-faced gold pieces thank you very much.  This, of course, prevents us from seeing that he in fact is right.  But, oh well, he’s evil Senate dude, who cares?  He’s a bastard!

That really does take away from the movie, because by and large it still is quite impressive at times, mainly in the battle sequences.  Well, the first “single” shot sequence is mind boggling awful, but the second one (with the “I’M WITH YOU!  FOR SPARTA!  TILL THE DEATH!” guy and the Captain’s son) is much better.  And the decision to fight one on one with the Immortals once they collapse the Persian wall doesn’t make sense (especially when they form the phalanx at the end of the scene: couldn’t they have done that to begin with?  Would have saved you a lot more Spartans that way Leonidas (and it would have saved you from that slash in your eye too)).  And the gold encrusted rhino, and those gunpowder mystics… well, they were kinda cool, if they actually worked (um…).

Okay… maybe it’s not as awesome as it really once was.  But, hey, it looks pretty cool (really, it does), and the fight scenes, even if they don’t work in the narrative scheme of things, were still filmed pretty well.  Zak Snyder knows how to shoot a movie.  The decision to replicate the graphic novels visuals was a bold and worthwhile decision (shooting on the green screens before painting in the backgrounds).  Everyone looked to be having fun with the film too, before and after they were slaughtered in new and various ways.

But, well, is the film still any good?  Maybe if I were fifteen again, and had less of a mature brain (well, I was twenty-four, with a somewhat mature but still trying-to-figure-things-out brain).  Now, at twenty-seven, I’ve become overly analytical.  The above is the result of that.

But, hey, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing with these DVDs right?  I own them for a reason, especially ones that, in retrospect, aren’t as good as they first appeared.

That said, I won’t have any problems watching 300 again in the future (after I get through this project).  Maybe then I’ll shut off my brain and excuse the fact that there’s a giant frakking hole in the middle of Sparta.