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How to Train Your Dragon 2 – How I trained your mother

Wingin' it: Toothless and his pet human Hiccup

Wingin’ it: Toothless and his pet human Hiccup

Back in 2011 How to Train Your Dragon was cruelly robbed at the Academy Awards of the animation Oscar by the wonderfully sweet but gimmick-laden Toy Story 3, and Hollywood animation has yet to recover from it. (Actually Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist was better than the both of them, but that’s an argument for another time.) With sublime character design, rich humour and a character-driven plot most “grown-up” films should be envious of, Dragon become one of 2010’s biggest runaway hits following a rocky opening that generated sensational word-of-mouth.

Jump forward a few years, two seasons of the spin-off TV series and a number of stocking-filler direct-to-DVD shorts and the dragons of Berk return to the big screen for another adventure. Five years after uniting his Viking kindred with their reptilian enemy, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), now a young man, is eager to evade the responsibilities of assuming the title of chieftain from his now doting father Stoic the Vast (Gerard Butler), preferring to explore an expanding world on the back of his jet-black familiar Toothless.

When he and his lady friend Astrid (America Ferrera) encounter a gang of pirates who capture and sell dragons, Hiccup becomes aware of a villain named Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who is amassing an army of enslaved dragons. Rallying his friends to confront this new threat, Hiccup finds an unlikely ally in his long-lost mother, who was thought dead but is found to be a dragon-rider herself. Part Jane Goodall, part Shaka Zulu, Valka is the source of much of How to Train Your Dragon 2’s problems. Awkwardly forced into the story and failing utterly to excuse her absence (living on an island that in movie time appears to be barely an hour’s flight from Berk), Valka is a frustrating character whose story is ripped straight from The Simpsons episode ‘Mother Simpson’. Star-power helps naught, as Cate Blanchett voices the character with a garbled accent that sounds like Veronica Guerin with a mouth full of Australian haggis.

Glide of the Valkyrie: Hiccup's mother Valka is introduced in the sequel

Glide of the Valkyrie: Hiccup’s mother Valka is introduced in the sequel

The rest of the voicecast fare better. Jay Baruchel remains an iconic performer as Hiccup, capturing a wide range of emotions with his stalling nearly-a-man voice. Butler excels also, and continues to find brilliant support in Craig Fergusson as Stoic’s no2 Gobber. Ferrera is sidelined, disappointing after such a strong role in the first film, but the comic love triangle between Vikings Snotlout, Fishlegs and Ruffnut (Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Kristen Wiig respectively) makes up for this. Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington joins the cast as a macho pirate, but no one ever claimed the most exciting thing about Jon Snow’s storylines was his voice. Hounsou does his best with an underwritten, underdeveloped and frankly racist villain – the only black man in all of Scandinavia is also the only tyrant.

Dealing with this new threat, the script shows itself to be politically schizophrenic, commending Hiccup’s quest for peace while ultimately championing military dominance. The film concludes with a call to arms that sounds straight out of a post-9/11 docudrama directed by Leni Riefenstahl.

Danger in a strange land: The villain Drago (actually his name) is confronted by stout Viking lass Astrid

Danger in a strange land: The villain Drago (actually his name) is confronted by stout Viking lass Astrid

The action, however, is even more thrilling than the first time around, with some brilliantly planned-out aerial stunts. The dragon and human designs are far richer in texture, with the polar leviathan the Bewilderbeast a mighty achievement of the creators’ imaginations. Much of the comedy lands, while Toothless, a veritable reptilian catdog of personality and energy, remains just about the cutest animated character since Fievel.

The greatest highlight of Dragon 1, John Powell’s heart-quickening, triumphant score, is repeated here, although the addition of a dance-pop version of the main theme with echoes of Owl City is frankly sinful; like a punk rock rendition of the Schindler’s List soundtrack. Indeed the film is trying to appeal to a cool audience a little too hard – Hiccup’s latest inventions include a winged glide-suit and a fiery lightsaber, while Toothless develops new powers borrowed heavily from another popular movie lizard. The first film achieved coolness without a pinch of effort.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 shares a lot in common with last year’s disappointing Despicable Me 2; both are sequels to surprisingly affecting movies, both feature slapdash-scripted and ultimately racist villains, and both reinforce conservative family norms that their predecessors had soared high without.

Gorgeous to behold but thematically frustrating and confused, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a worthy entertainment, but little more. The first film was a borderline masterpiece, this one is only just good.

3/5

(originally published at http://www.scannain.com)

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Despicable Me 2 – When in doubt, get the Minions out!

A Love Song of Ice and Fire: Gru meets Agent Wilde

A Love Song of Ice and Fire: Gru meets Agent Wilde

What is going on with Al Pacino? Apparently doing a dance to sell Dunkin’ Donuts in Jack & Jill isn’t beneath him, but he’s above a little ethnic stereotyping in a children’s cartoon? Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself here…

The original Despicable Me was the first feature from Illumination Entertainment, and taking in more than $500 million dollars worldwide in 2010 threw down a gauntlet to the likes of Pixar and especially DreamWorks, whose similarly themed Megamind, also out in 2010, took in little more than half that sum. The surprise success of Despicable Me was only surprising to those who didn’t see it. While the animation was nothing spectacular, the film’s extraordinary wit and heart made it a favourite for kids young and old.

Despicable Me 2 follows on in the fashion of its predecessor, as hapless supervillain Gru continues to balance his hi-tech exploits with raising three adorable but troublesome girls. Now retired from evil, Gru and his army of yellow Tic Tac Minions dedicate themselves to raising the children. But when a mysterious supervillain steals a dangerous mutagen, Gru is taken on by the Anti-Villain League to weed out the culprit. It’s the old hire a supervillain to catch a supervillain trick.

The story, what there is of one, is terribly light, with Gru and AVL agent Lucy Wilde having to pose as pastry chefs at a local mall to work out which shop owner is behind the plot. It is played like a whodunit, except we are only ever given two candidates to choose from: Mexican restaurant owner Eduardo and Asian wigmaker Floyd Eagle-san. Elsewhere oldest daughter Margo discovers boys, youngest daughter Agnes tries to encourage a romance between Gru and Lucy and middle child Edith gets utterly sidelined. When the story slackens, the Minions are wheeled out for more of their delightful gibberish-filled antics. The word “gelato” has never brought so many smiles.

There was something so “modern family” about the first film, with a (camp? gay?) single dad raising three girls and discovering he could manage, that really made it stand out. This time around it’s all about finding Gru a girlfriend, and thus finding the girls a mother. It’s an unfortunate step towards a heteronormative family unit that kids’ movies just don’t need right now. Gru is better off a single dad! It also doesn’t help that for much of the film Lucy Wilde is excruciatingly annoying – voiced by Kristen Wiig, she plays it like her role in Bridesmaids but without any of the tragicomic charm.

Swing and a miss: The Minions are always an easy laugh

Swing and a miss: The Minions are always an easy laugh

It also doesn’t help that the racial stereotyping is even worse this time around. Steve Carell gets away with playing Gru as a mad Slav by filling the role with enough soul to excuse it. But having Ken Jeong voice yet another flamboyant Asian man while Steve Coogan plays a British toff with a silly name is all too easy. The character of Eduardo, all flamenco dancing and body hair, was originally to be voiced by Al Pacino, who left the project among some whispered controversy – it’s not hard to see why, Pacino has never been very convincing with his Latino accents.

Despite these problems and the various abandoned subplots (Margo’s love life goes nowhere), there is a good bit to like here, and plenty of proper laughs. The Minions get most of them with their ridiculous singing, inappropriate costumes and general over-eagerness at performing tasks, but Gru and Agnes don’t disappoint.  A fun reference to Alien may be a little obvious, but a later allusion to the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is deliciously obscure for a family movie.

Fans of the original will be disappointed if they expect film two to be of the same standard, but they should be able to enjoy it as just an extra adventure for characters they loved. In the meantime, we can all look forward to next year’s Minions spin-off movie, because let’s face it, they’re all we really want to see.

2/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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