Friday, August 28, 2015

How to Train Your Dragon Review

On a very long flight overseas during the summer of 2010, I got to watch a couple of movies that were no longer in theaters, but not yet on home video. Among these was How to Train Your Dragon (2010). It was such a delightfully fun movie that it made me forget that I was tightly crammed into a flying metal tube with a hundred other people being flung across an ocean. It is easily my favorite Dreamworks movie to date.
Long ago up North on the Island of Berk, the young Viking, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), wants to join his town's fight against the dragons that continually raid their town. However, his stubborn father and village leader, Stoik the Vast (Gerard Butler), will not allow his small, clumsy, but inventive son to do so. Regardless, Hiccup ventures out into battle and downs a mysterious Night Fury dragon with his invention, but can't bring himself to kill it. Instead, Hiccup and the dragon, whom he dubs Toothless, begin a friendship that would open up both their worlds as the observant boy learns that his people have misjudged the species. But even as the two each take flight in their own way, they find that they must fight the destructive ignorance plaguing their world.
After a number of mediocre Dreamworks movies released over the previous couple of years, How to Train Your Dragon was an unexpectedly delightful change of pace. The characters were fantastic, the story was interesting, the theme was wonderful, the animation was stellar. That's quite a step up from titles like Bee Movie and Shrek the Third.
Hiccup is a fish out of water. He's not the big, burly, aggressive type that virtually everyone in village is. He's small, skinny, has a deadpan, sarcastic sense of humor, and tends to be resourceful instead of forceful. He resorts to constructing gizmos to help him achieve the same physical feats his fellow villagers do, but his intuition isn't appreciated. Stoick is a fierce, immensely strong and utterly fearless warrior. He's also very stubborn and seems to think the world should work according to the way he perceives it. He's a character with which we can identify, but not one that is easy to love initially. Needless to say, Hiccup and Stoick don't see eye-to-eye.
Then there is Toothless. Toothless may be a dragon, but he's possibly the most endearing character in the movie. The way he moves is a lot like a playful cat. He has highly expressive yellow eyes that contrast his black color beautifully and help illustrate the many facial expressions Toothless has. The sounds he makes are adorable, but ferocious when they need to be. The sounds used to voice Toothless are a combination of Supervising Sound Designer Randy Thom, elephant Seals, elephants, horses, tigers, and domestic cats. There is a very important quality to the Toothless character that is missing from so many of Hollywood's contemporary animated characters; an air of mystery. This isn't just a funny animal sidekick, he's a major character in the movie who plays a significant part in the plot's development.
The story and theme were delightful. It's a bit fast paced as it is primarily aimed at children with short attention spans. Nevertheless, it features an invigorating coming-of-age story of surprising depth paired with a sweetly poignant tale of friendship between man and animal. It delves into the ideas of empathy and taking the initiative to learn about what you don't understand so as to peacefully coexist. If we take our initial impressions of others as objective fact, it causes us to be shortsighted, intolerant, and even hostile against those we don't understand. Thematically, this is similar to both Frozen and ParaNorman, though How to Train Your Dragon has its own take on interpersonal conflict that should not be overlooked.
The animation is top notch. The texture of skin, clothing, dragon scales, water, and everything else looked amazing. I've already mentioned the charming way Toothless moved, but every character moved in a way that was cartoonish enough to be funny, but not so wacky as to be unrealistic. The camera work was phenomenal as well. How to Train Your Dragon has some of the best action sequences I've seen in a CGI animated film. Everything from the angle of the shot to the speed of the editing projects an end visual that feels like you're either riding on Toothless' back or you get an outsider perspective on just how fast he's flying. It's positively brilliant.
How to Train Your Dragon is easily the best Dreamworks animated feature to date, and possibly one of the best dragon movies ever made. It boasts dazzling animation and a script with a surprising dramatic depth which mixes comedic and touching moments. Instead of relying on dizzying gimmicks, this movie revels in sheer heart-pumping pleasure of watching action unfold and lets us genuinely enjoy some charming characters. It's take on the message about tolerance and realizing your enemy may not be as different as you think puts it in a higher quality bracket than other CGI animated films. I love this movie. I've been telling myself for years to get my own copy; this is absolutely worth having in your own home collection.

What is the best dragon movie you've ever seen? Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Rise of the Guardians Review

I’m told that Dreamworks isn’t doing so well financially. Several of their more recent movies (apart from Home) did poorly in the box office. I’m not sure why. The recent ones I’ve seen were pretty good. Adding to that list is Rise of the Guardians (2012). Featuring a mash-up of modern children’s folk tale heroes, it’s been compared to The Avengers for kids. I think that’s selling Rise of the Guardians a bit short; it is truly a fun movie!
Generation after generation, immortal Guardians like Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Sandman, and the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) protect the world's children from darkness and despair. However, an evil boogeyman named Pitch Black (Jude Law) schemes to overthrow the Guardians by obliterating children's belief in them. It falls to a winter sprite named Jack Frost (Chris Pine) to thwart Pitch's plans and save the Guardians from destruction.
I can see why people would think to compare Rise of the Guardians with The Avengers. Both have completely mismatched sets of heroes uniting and gathering together to fight a mutual powerful enemy. Both have lots of fun action and high stakes for their respective world settings. But saying that Guardians is for kids is selling it short. Guardians has a delightful whimsy and charm to it that I’m sure would delight anyone of any age.
I loved the characters in this movie. As a general rule, any movie that features Santa Claus will inevitably be awful. That wasn’t the case in Guardians. The Santa here is not your traditional Santa; he’s got a Russian accent and has a prominent Russian cultural personality. He has tattooed arms that say “Naughty” on one and “Nice” on the other, and he fights with two swords. But he’s still a fanciful and lovable character; he’s just fun! The Easter Bunny is voiced by Hugh Jackman who apparently loved the role because he could use his natural Australian accent. The Easter Bunny is another fun tough guy who wields boomerangs. Everyone in the movie is likable and interesting in his or her own right.
The story moves logically and practically. The setting is a little bit on the complex side, but everything is explained gradually and shown to viewers as the story evolves, sometimes even during action scenes. There are rules specific to the settings that need to be established so that they can be adhered to or even broken to make a suitably compelling story. Everything is well written and shown to us so that we understand enough to get us to the next scene where the stakes are even higher. Yet the story is simple enough that even young audiences can keep up with it.
The animation is stellar here. The characters are unique and have very interesting designs. Their powers are really neat to behold as they conjure up portals around the world and paint windows and leaves with icy frost. One of the more visually interesting characters is the Sandman; he’s basically mute, but has small images made of glowing golden sand appear above his head to illustrate what he’s trying to communicate. Coupled with his expressive facial features you can still tell what this silent character is thinking, which is a marker of superior animation.
Guardians, as stated above, was a box office bomb. It was released on November 21, 2012 and received mixed to positive reviews, but was a financial disappointment, contributing to a studio writedown of $83 million for the quarter and the layoffs of 350 employees. Rise of the Guardians was the last DreamWorks Animation film distributed by Paramount, as DreamWorks has signed a five-year distribution deal with 20th Century Fox, which started in 2013 with The Croods. With that kind of a financial failure, I’m not surprised Paramount didn’t want to renew a distribution contract with Dreamworks. Guardians may not have been the event that destroyed the deal with Paramount, but it probably contributed to it.
I have to admit that the idea of a group of holiday mascots and children’s urban legends teaming up to fight the Boogieman certainly sounds rather outlandish, childish, and probably not something that anyone over the age of eight would enjoy very much. But Rise of the Guardians is a good, solid animated feature. I genuinely liked it. It was complex and humorous enough to be compelling to adults while also being simple and whimsical enough for children. I don’t think it’s fair to say it is like The Avengers for kids since this is a creative and engaging fantasy story that is sheer fun to get lost in. It was a box office bomb, but I really don’t understand why. I liked this movie enough to want to get a copy of on Blu-Ray eventually. Rise of the Guardians makes a fun family movie night, and it’s still fun even if you don’t have kids to watch it with.

Did you have a particular holiday mascot or urban legend that you were fond of as a kid? Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Shaun the Sheep Movie Review

I keep saying that Stop-motion animation is a dying art. Yet I keep finding and reviewing stop-motion animated movies, even new releases. Is it making a comeback? Aardman Animations is the British animation studio known for using stop-motion animation and bringing us films like Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Chicken Run, and The Pirates! Band of Misfits. Their latest film, Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015) is based off of the television series of the same name, whose titular character was introduced in the Wallace and Gromit short A Close Shave (my favorite). Shaun the Sheep Movie is every bit as delightful and charming as anything we've come to expect from Aardman Animations.
Shaun the sheep is tired of doing the same work at the farm every day. He decides to take a day off. In order to do that, he needs to make sure the farmer doesn't know.  A mix up with the Farmer, a caravan and a very steep hill lead them all to the Big City. Shaun and his flock explore the Big City hoping to find their farmer, who is suffering from amnesia. Along the way they buy disguises, dine at fine restaurants and rub elbows with celebrities, all the while attempting to elude an arrogant animal-control officer. It's up to Shaun and the flock to return everyone safely to the green grass of home.
When the Shaun the Sheep television series was started up, Aardman Animations needed to keep the budget down. Manipulating the characters' mouths for stop-motion animation is very time-consuming and gets to be expensive, so the program became dialogue-free and was a huge success. Similarly, Shaun the Sheep Movie doesn't have a single spoken word. It's effectively a silent film the same way The Triplets of Belleville and WALL-E is. There are still sound effects, and characters still make vocal sounds; they just don't say anything. But even without dialogue the meaningful animation is so well done that you can still tell what the characters are thinking or communicating without needing the dialogue. Like most Aardman's films, this one feels both decidedly British and universal. The farmer's Wellington boots and Fair Isle sweater place him squarely in the UK, but the film's dialouge-free format has helped it to appeal to a broad range of counties and ages; there's nothing to dub over or subtitle, so international appeal is inherent.
The humor is largely slapstick and totally silly. I love cartoon physics and slapstick, and this movie is loaded with it! You can easily get a lot of mileage out of a nearsighted farmer and his loyal dog being rescued by a flock of dim-witted sheep. There's also many spoofs inserted here and there that only adults will catch including Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Taxi Driver, The Silence of the Lambs, The Shawshank Redemption, and Breaking Bad. The cone-wearing cat who bears a more than striking resemblance to Hannibal Lecter was one of my favorites. I laughed a lot during this movie and got a big kick out of it. The humor is witty and simple enough to appeal to a broad range of audiences of any age.
Stop-motion animation is different from the much more popular computer animation. It has a sense of realism to it. Sure, I've seen some computer animation that looked remarkably realistic, but it was still digital graphics and lacked something that made it actually real. With stop-motion animation, it is actual photographs of actual objects. Even when it is stylized and cartoonish, it still has a realistic quality that computer animation hasn't quite achieved yet. I like stop-motion animation, especially when it is left in its pure state, without stylistic additions of computer animation as was done in ParaNorman. Shaun the Sheep Movie sticks to its guns and holds true to this century-old style of animation and it is animation perfection.
Shaun the Sheep Movie is cute, warm, fuzzy, funny, and remarkably well animated. I loved it! It's good, clean fun that will appeal to a broad range of audiences of all ages. The slapstick is hysterical, the movie references are a hoot, and the characters are highly lovable. There is not a single negative thing I can say about this movie. I want to see Aardman Animations make more movies like this, which is why I have no misgivings over spending money on a movie ticket to see this Shaun the Sheep Movie. Please go see this in theaters; it's the kind of film we want to encourage studios to make.

Do you have a favorite Aardman Animations movie or short? Comment below and tell me all about it!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Fantastic Four Review (2015)

In order to remind us that Fox owns the film rights to a couple of Marvel series, a reboot of the Fantastic Four (2015) was made. Fox still has movie rights to X-Men, as well. If not for the last two amazing X-Men movies, I'd say Disney is the only one that does Marvel movies right anymore. This is the fourth attempt at a Fantastic Four movie, including 1994 movie that never got released. Sooner or later Fox will have to accept they can't do a Fantastic Four movie that's worth seeing, and  it would probably be better in the hands of another studio. Perhaps this cinema atrocity will put them on the right path.
Transported to another dimension, four young outsiders gain superhuman powers which alter their physical form in shocking ways. Reed Richards (Miles Teller) becomes able to stretch and twist his body, while Reed's friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) gains immense strength and a rock-like body. Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) is able to control and project fire, while his sister Sue (Kate Mara) can become the invisible and generate force-fields. Together, the team must harness their new abilities to battle former colleague, Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) who poses a threat to Earth.
Really, that simple synopsis is everything that happens in this one hour and forty-six minute movie. They spend a lot of time showing us montages of the group creating an interdimensional transport, broken up with token bits of poorly done, awkward character development. Then they go to another dimension for a little while and acquire some powers. Then Doctor Doom shows up when the group attempts a second expedition and then they have to fight him. That's literally everything that happens. The first fight scene in this action movie is at the climax at the end! This might be the most boring and uneventful super hero movie to date.
I appreciate the fact that they were trying to get this new version of the Fantastic Four to be more character driven and more realistic on some level, but the result was so sloppy and poorly written. Compounding that with the fact that it takes itself very seriously makes it hard to enjoy. I understand that in the world of comic book based movies you have to allow for a certain level of whimsy, but so many plot devices and character abilities were left unexplained. As an example of these infractions, just because you can fly, your body can be engulfed in flame, and you can throw fire balls, doesn't really mean you have the strength or physical structure to smash through colossal stone pillars like Superman might. Why is this weird radiation energy from another dimension able to alter people's physiology, and why does it grant someone powers who had never gone to that other dimension? Why do they need space suits to traverse the other dimension early in the movie, but not later? Most of that could be explained with one or two lines of dialogue, but that wasn't bothered with.
One of the fun things about superhero movies is seeing our protagonists discover their newfound abilities. I love watching Tobey Maguire learn about his new powers in the first Spider-Man movie, or Tony Stark try to perfect his Iron Man suit. It's even funny watching Thor having to acclimate to a lack of powers he's always had. That scene was completely lacking in Fantastic Four. Our heroes make it back to our dimension unconscious, but exhibiting signs of their powers. Then we get a slow fade to black and a caption that says "One year later" and we catch up with everyone who has basically mastered their abilities by this point. It felt like we were being cheated of crucial character development and potential for humor. We didn't even get to see much of their reactions to new powers, let alone them trying to figure them out. It's stunts like this that made the movie much worse than it should have been.
There were several annoying changes made to the characters, some of which are really going to upset Marvel fans. Reed Richards is the most intelligent person in the Marvel Universe, and a couple of times, Victor erases and corrects Reed's calculations during a montage. An often critical device when fighting Doctor Doom in the comic books is that Reed is one of the few people that can outsmart him, but we're just going to ignore that, apparently. Doctor Doom was really bad, though. Doctor Doom's powers include technological manipulation and some mystical abilities like energy projectiles and creating protective shields. In this movie, he's psychic, telekinetic, can open gateways to other dimensions, can convert matter into energy, and can control rocks and apparently some weather. He just walks down the hall, and people die without him lifting a finger or even looking in their direction. Not only does he look too far off from what he is in the comic books, his powers and personality are so off the mark that he's basically not Doctor Doom at all. They don't even call him Doctor Doom in this movie, just "Doom" maybe once or twice. Doctor Doom is as far from his source material in Fantastic Four as Deadpool was in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and that disgraceful depiction of Deadpool made everyone furious!
I'd like to say that the graphics are at least good, and occasionally they were. There's a scene where Reed is trying to squeeze out of some constraints, and you see the muscles in his arm working even though his arm is stretched out. When you see him try to pull out of the constraints, still with his arm stretched, you can see his skin bunch up around the bands as he tries to free himself. Some things like that were pretty impressive. But there were other bits that were so lacking in refinement they may as well have come from a Sy-Fi Channel television movie, like Sharknado.
This latest Fantastic Four movie fails everything essential to make a good superhero movie. Good superhero movies need exciting action, colorful thrills, enticing visual effects, a few laughs, and characters we can relate to, root for, and watch grow and develop. Fantastic Four literally has none of that available. The story is extremely boring and slow. The first fight scene is at the end of the movie, for crying out loud! The characters aren't even likeable and are changed for the sake of the movie in all the wrong ways. The camera work was sloppy, transitions between scenes were often awkward and confusing, and the script is just terrible. The previous Fantastic Four movies were better than this, and that's saying something. This is the worst superhero movie I've seen since Daredevil or Elektra. I implore you not to see this in theaters; if this ends up as anything more than a box office bomb, Fox will just try to make a sequel. If for some reason you truly want to see this movie, wait for it on Redbox or something. It's certainly not worth the price of a movie ticket, and barely worth what you might spend to rent it.

Okay, what is the worst superhero movie you've ever seen? Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, any comic book series that has had a movie based on it. Comment below and let me know!