Saturday, September 6, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2 Assessment

From left to right: Scylla, an endangered blue macaw, Totoro + Catbus, Smaug and Jim Henson's Creature Workshop Disaster.

Let me just say this before I start the review: this is not a negative review. I appreciate How to Train Your Dragon 2 for not playing it safe and being a watchable sequel overall. But it’s only “good” and doesn’t quite reach “great” and here’s my argument for why.

I believe that when critiquing a movie you should note how you were feeling while watching it and reviewing it. When I watched this movie yesterday I was a little travel-weary, having just come back from a five day vacation, which may have affected my viewing experience. I also watched it in an empty theater, and I’m sure it would’ve been more enjoyable if I’d seen it with an appreciative audience. When watching the movie, sometimes my focus would snap and I would start thinking about whether I was enjoying the movie, which usually happens on my first viewing.
As for how I’m feeling as I type this, I’m a bit hot temperature wise, because summer time is here. I also am simultaneously eating my first meal of the day, which is chickpeas fried in oil with tamari sauce, garnished with sesame seeds and hot pepper flakes. Taking this into account, my review may be slightly negative at the start due to hunger and then get more positive when I’m full; who knows.

By the way, spoiler alert.

Speaking of spoilers, let me address something that I feel like I need to get out of the way. Before I saw this movie, I’d read a review that spoiled an important part of the movie for me, (they don’t make those spoiler warnings big enough nowadays). The review said that in the movie, Toothless kills someone. I was intrigued, surprised, and excited. I went into the theater expecting something other than what I got, which was Toothless killing Hiccup’s father Stoic while under mind control. This certainly helped move the plot along - in fact, it felt almost like a mechanical decision given how Hiccup needed to become the chief of the Viking tribe - but I felt like an opportunity was lost.
When I’d first read that spoiler, it made it sound like Toothless had accidentally killed a random bystander - maybe someone from the village. Just think about the moral themes that that could’ve implicated. The Vikings are living with these creatures that are just as dangerous as a pet tiger, hyena or rattlesnake. Considering how much of the plot is about the Viking/dragon harmony, the dark twist would’ve really hit home about how these things are powerful, dangerous animals.
I’m going to let this one go, though, because dark stuff like this wouldn’t have fit with the demographic they were aiming for, and the twist worked as far as addressing some of the moral issues without being outright adult. My only other problem with Stoic’s death is that we had to sit through the same fire-arrow-lights-up-boat scene from last year’s Thor: The Dark World.

Now that that’s out of the way, characters.

Hiccup is as white-male-protagonist-y as ever, except now he has anime hair, which is awesome but occasionally distracting. For some reason I didn’t feel like he had much of an arc. I guess he accepted his role as chief, but that choice was made for him by Stoic’s death and there wasn’t much else he could’ve done. Wouldn’t it have been cool if he disowned himself from the royal line, handed off the role of chief to Astrid and rode off into the sunset with his mother to live among the dragons? Maybe not that, but just something that would’ve told me he was making decisions that came from his character and not as a way to serve the plot.

Astrid has a bit more to do this time around than she did in the first movie, mostly involving the interrogation of the big bad’s main bad henchman. There’s a scene where she follows Hiccup through the door as he’s making his “I follow my own path” hero exit, which I was surprised by and appreciated. I think she still needed more character development to elevate her from the role of “Hiccup’s tomboy girlfriend” and become more like a person instead of an archetype. Astrid was also the character I was getting the most uncanny valley from. It’s especially noticeable in the scene where she’s talking to Hiccup on a cliff at the beginning.

Snotlout and Fishlegs are mostly here for comic relief and as continuity from the first movie, and they weren’t given arcs or subplots. I’m a bit disappointed in Fishleg’s portrayal in these movies. In the books he was skinny and weak, like Hiccup, and was Hiccup’s only friend. The comedy from his end was more about how when he got angry, he went berserk in a sort of pathetic but effective way. Here, I’m not sure where the humor’s coming from and overall he’s not very well-rounded, (irony).

Ruffnut is oddly, given an arc, which is good. There were points where I wished that they were taking her subplot more seriously. I get that the movie needed more humor, but they turned her into a a joke instead of a character, which, at least for me, made the joke more uncomfortable than funny, and the resolution to the subplot - where she’s ignored by Snotlout and Fishlegs just as she realizes that they really care about her and aren’t just being stupid - is cruel, looking back on it.

Valka, Hiccup’s mother, is a welcome addition to the cast - but she feels wasted here because the movie doesn’t use her to her full potential. During the battle scenes, she’s mostly ineffective and not only fails to have a proper fight with Drago, but also somehow doesn’t stop the two Alphas from fighting. She then mostly appears to tell Hiccup she’s proud of him. When your movie’s theme is “family”, I guess that means that you kill off the father, reduce the mother to the side character, and make the son and his dragon do all the work.

Drago is, sadly, disappointing. Why did they need an original character? Would it have killed them to bring in Alvin the Treacherous or Madguts the Murderous from the books? Drago needed more screen time and he needed to be more of a threat. He’s missing from most of the movie, and he never fully establishes himself as a legitimate source of conflict, which is pretty much his only function as a character in the movie. Yes, he technically kills Stoic the Vast, but it’s a remote killing, and his control of the Alpha never felt justified. Why is this huge monster taking orders from him? Because he yells at it a lot? There’s a story left untold there. Why isn’t his army more effective? At least his character design is cool.

I feel like if your movie’s main plot is as simple as this one’s is, the depth should lie in the characters, but the characters with the most “depth” are the dragons and not the humans. I should mention that I found the Stoic/Valka scenes to be unmoving, as they felt slightly forced and awkward, but that may just be me.

The music, by John Powell, isn’t quite as refreshing as the first movie but it introduces many new elements. There was a particular sequence that I felt was scored oddly, when Hiccup and Toothless see the broken remains of Drago’s fort. I think a slower, more “wonderment” type of music would’ve worked better, because the exciting drums felt at odds with the pace and nature of the scene. But that’s my only nitpick, really. I’m glad he didn’t rely on the great melody from the first movie too often, and while the new tunes aren’t as memorable, they aren’t cheesy either.

The animation is okay. Sometimes I felt like the characters were ragdolls being puppeted around by the animators, and Hiccup's hair defied gravity unrealistically. There are occasionally moments of uncanny valley, which is weird because the characters aren't realistic. As far as looks go, it's not as pretty as WALL•E, nor as stylish and sleek as The Incredibles, but the Alphas are cool and Drago's dreadlocks are rendered really well.

Before I wrap up, I have a bit of a rant to get through. When are movies going to learn that having their characters shout tired one-liners like “Oh, yeah!” and “Woohoo!” and “This is amazing!” during action scenes doesn’t make them any more exciting? I’ve never felt like that kind of dialogue added anything to a scene, and it’s embarrassing to have a script with a lines of dialogue like:

Take that!

That’ll teach you! Make way for the dragon riders!

(interrupted by a rock)
Let’s kick some - !

Am I the only one annoyed by this? I feel like I’ve heard these lines over and over and they don’t make me more invested in the action or the characters. I guess the only way we’ll get rid of them is by having a cast of mute action heroes, (which would be really awesome, please get on that, Hollywood). Speaking of "Let's kick some -", this movie was filled with environmental expletive censoring. If you're going to censor it, why imply it? There were so many lines like this that it felt like the writers had tried to make it PG-13 at a certain point during production.

So in summary, this movie is more intelligent and mature then anything from Blue Sky, but it doesn’t have quite the emotional oomph that it wants you to think it has and the payoff isn’t as good as it could’ve been. If I may make a ridiculously early Oscar prediction now:

Will be nominated for its animation, but won’t win because it’s too “underground”.

The Lego Movie
Will be nominated because it’s way better then it could’ve been, but won’t win because the Oscars don’t want to seem like a toy advertisement.

How to Train Your Dragon 2
Will be nominated because it’s hard to hate, but won’t win because it’s made by Dreamworks and not Pixar.

Big Hero 6
Will be nominated and deserves to win just because they messed up last year by accidentally giving the Oscar to Brave instead of Wreck-It-Ralph, but it won’t win because all the main characters are foreign.

Book of Life
Will be nominated because it will be better than people expected, but it won’t win because it’s about a holiday, ala Arthur Christmas.

Rio 2
Won’t be nominated. There are just too many good animated films this year for a mediocre one to make it in.

Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return
Will be nominated and will win because the Oscars suck.

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