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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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A guide to recognising your Oscar nominees

The BAFTAs are now over so it is officially time to go into Oscar-mania overdrive. A fortnight from this moment fever pitch will have been reached, and four hours of so-so entertainment will begin. As someone switching on Around the World in 80 Days for the first time will think: with this many stars it has to be amazing, right?! Eh, it’s fine. The Oscars will be too.

As many have noted the problem with the Academy these days is that, coming in rapid succession after the Golden Globes, BAFTAs and VAGs (Various Assorted Guilds), the word Oscar is now synonymous with predictable. But somehow I am holding out hope for a few surprises this year. I’m also holding out hope that hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway don’t suck – a boy can dream, right?

And the nominees for Best Picture are…

The King’s Speech

Leading the pack with an impressive, perhaps surprising twelve nominations, The King’s Speech is certainly a forerunner, though hardly anointed. It has the Hurt Locker edge, having won the BAFTA while the curiously unprescient Globes* gave their top nod to The Social Network (the Globes embarrassingly whored themselves out to Avatar in 2010). It also has a slew of top talent at next-to the height of their game – Colin Firth is a very difficult one to challenge for Best Actor, while Geoffrey Rush has lost none of his Shine (not apologising, you can’t make me) and would be a shoe-in for Best Supporting in other years. But the film has everything an Academy favourite needs: costumes and colour, wit and drama, happily-ever-after love, a WWII setting and of course a triumph-over-adversity tale that would make it this year’s Rocky if Rocky weren’t already nominated this year (see The Fighter, below).

Don’t expect a clean sweep, but if it starts one, it’ll nail Best Picture.

True Grit

The Coen brothers have been Academy favourites for some time now, and in the rare position that the film-going public at large love them also. True Grit is a spectacle alright, put together with all the flair the Coens can manage, but is it enough? Jeff Bridges could dethrone Firth (pun noticed, but unintended) for Best Actor, but despite their shared alcoholism the role is more The Dude than Bad Blake – his Oscar-winning role from last year’s Crazy Heart, and unlikely to steal the Academy voters’ hearts in quite the same manipulative way. The film’s breakthrough star, Hailee Steinfeld, has a much greater chance of taking home the Best Supporting Actress gong, although the Academy has been destructively patronising in not granting the youth a nomination in the leading category.

With ten nominations, most positively Art Direction, Costume Design and Cinematography, it may not win big, but it’d be a shock if it walked away empty-handed.

Inception

So The Dark Knight is held solely responsible for there being ten nominees in the Best Picture category now. Christopher Nolan is one of the most talented filmmakers alive today, but damn his fans are more terrifyingly devout than a Jihadi horde! So with an extra five spaces there would be further outrage/terror campaigns if his first film since The Dark Knight did not make the cut. And rightly so, Inception was one of the best films of 2010, but it is still the token audience-panderer, and has no chance of taking the big prize. The big coup would be for it to win Best Original Screenplay, but against The King’s Speech, Another Year and The Kids are All Right it seems to hold only a small chance. But technical awards should abound, and its music stands a fighting chance as the bombastic epic score against The King’s Speech‘s more traditional and The Social Network‘s more experimental nominees.

The Nolanistas will be disappointed.

The Social Network

Until recently this appeared unchallengeable to take Best Picture, but that seems uncertain now. Fincher’s drama has a lot to say for itself; it’s modern, character-driven, dripping in style. Outside of the director’s traditional thriller zone, he’s produced a mighty impressive movie. But it’s one that is greater than the sum of its parts (unlike The King’s Speech, which is simply a collection of great parts), so it will likely not clean up on the awards, which may affect its Best Picture chances. Jesse Eisenberg stands almost no chance at Best Actor, but if it loses out on Best Picture a win for David Fincher would be a great runner-up prize. Aaron Sorkin, a master of dialogue, seems destined to win a writing Oscar some day. Taking Best Original Screenplay this year is a strong possibility.

If it doesn’t win Best Picture, it could easily cut into The King’s Speech‘s spoils. It’s not out of the race yet.

The Fighter

Ah bless, how we struggle against adversity. And not just one adversity, but two! Two characters, struggling against two adversities! Why the fighter of the title could refer as easily to the struggles of the main characters as it could to the fact that the film is about boxing! OK, I’m being far meaner than this strong film deserves. The Fighter would be a superb film if it weren’t so darn familiar. With no chance at the big awards and unlikely to receive many technicals, The Fighter‘s strongest suit is in its supporting stars. Christian Bale will have little competition for Best Supporting Actor, given a superb turn as a crack-addicted former “star” boxer, unless the Academy decides to effectively dry hump The King’s Speech and throw this to Geoffrey Rush. Amy Adams, always the supporting bridesmaid, never the supporting bride, has already lost this to her co-star Melissa Leo, who is Hailee Steinfeld’s big competition. That will be a fun one to watch…

In another year it’d have had a crack at the title. All it can hope for now is a supporting sweep.

127 Hours

Danny Boyle is clearly still riding high on Slumdog Millionaire, as the same film made by any other director (not that it could have been, this well) would never have gotten a nod here. Still, it’s good to see this terrific film getting a chance at the big award – no ‘arm in that now, is there? (sorry) It’s biggest chance at an award is in the editing category, which it is undoubtedly deserving, but may be a touch too experimental for the Academy’s liking. James Franco deserves his Best Actor nomination in a role that showed the performer reveal a more mature side to himself, although the show’s host will no doubt be left a little red-faced when his name is not announced on the night. This is a problem the Academy should have foreseen and never allowed to happen.

Maybe editing, maybe nothing.

Black Swan

Quite the nail-biter (OK, I’ll stop), Black Swan looked like a major contender when its trailer first hit the internet last year, but I suspect it will be too much of a horror for the voters to make it Best Picture. A Best Director trophy for Aronofsky seems similarly unlikely, but the film will likely escape with an enviable Best Actress award in a very competitive year – Natalie Portman’s mesmerising physical presence in the film is worth a nomination before she even opens her mouth. Cinematography could go Black Swan‘s way, but competing with True Grit, Inception, The King’s Speech and The Social Network, I wouldn’t hold out hope for it.

Too gruesome to take anything more than a well-deserved Best Actress award.

Toy Story 3

Last year, Up‘s nomination in the Best Picture category made a bold statement about what a remarkable animated achievement that film was. While Toy Story 3 is also a triumph for Pixar, it is not one on the same level as Up, and its nomination in the Best Picture category only serves to give it an unfair advantage in the Best Animated Feature category, where it is up against superb (and arguably superior) competition in the form of The Illusionist and How to Drain Your Dragon. A shame really.

Pixar win another gong, but it should not have been the anointed animated victor the Academy has made it.

The Kids Are All Right

The token indie drama, this pleasant but confused little film never stood a chance at Best Picture. Mark Ruffalo, nominated Best Supporting Actor for his hardly outstanding role, needn’t bother turning up on the night, while Annette Bening is standing in for Meryl Streep this year. Its only hope is Best Original Screenplay, but even that seems far out of reach.

The Awards Are All Lost

Winter’s Bone

A curious addition, more comfortable triumphing at Sundance than in Hollywood, Winter’s Bone has few hopes of victory, though the nominations will boost its profile (and particularly that of its star). Despite its bleak setting and social commentary, it’s a surprisingly straightforward tale – perhaps why it sat well with the Academy voters – so it hasn’t really got the narrative punch to get it much of a look-in for Best Picture. Jennifer Lawrence would be a deserving Best Actress winner, but to steal it would be almost impossible; this is Natalie’s year. John Hawkes, star of several films previously but practically unknown to most, can expect a surge of interest after his turn here, but with Rush almost guaranteed the Supporting Actor gong if Bale somehow fails to take it home, he doesn’t stand much of a chance.

A miracle, albeit a happy one, is needed to get this a single gong.

As for the rest of the awards, nothing is too certain. Certainly a win for Banksy with Exit Through the Gift Shop would be a turn-up for the books, and perhaps lead to the most memorable acceptance… speech?… in Academy Award history. Biutiful has Javier Bardem behind it for Best Foreign Language Film, but after last year’s frankly insane spurning of The White Ribbon and A Prophet (as well as the noticeable absence this year of the heart-wrenching Of Gods and Men) anything could happen. Dogtooth could win the damn thing!

The real winners or losers on the night will be the show’s producers, however. They’ve taken a huge gamble on their hosts that could backfire enormously. We’ll have to wait and see.

See you in two weeks.

* Since 2004 the Golden Globes have only awarded their Best Motion Picture – Drama award to the eventual Oscar winner once; Slumdog Millionaire in 2009.

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