School’s out for the summer, which means that movie studios will soon be trotting out their biggest selection of family-friendly offerings since last Christmas. Time to scan the horizon for what’s new in the ever-evolving world of animation.
With the exceptions of the truly innovative Lego Movie and the American release of last year’s gorgeous The Wind Rises from Hayao Miyazaki, this hasn’t been the most impressive year for animated films so far. Mr. Peabody and Sherman was pretty good. I let The Nut Job and Rio 2 slide by and will probably do the same with The Penguins of Madagascar, even though the squabbling penguins were definitely the best part of the first Madagascar movie.
Though it came out at Thanksgiving of 2013, Disney’s Frozen dominated the cinemas through the early months of this year and can still be seen around; there are now even singalong versions for people who can’t get enough of boffo power ballads. Regular readers of Almanac’s movie reviews may recall that I wasn’t quite as taken with Frozen as the younger set all seem to be. It was a handsome-looking piece of animated art, I grant you; but the snowman who everybody else seems to think is so cute made me grind my teeth. If I had the drawing chops to be a New Yorker cartoonist, I’d create a panel showing a travel agency client asking, “Do you have any packages to someplace where there’s nobody singing ‘Let It Go’?”
Winter is gone at last, and it’s time to move on in search of less frosty prospects. The Boxtrolls – due this September from Laika, the Oregon-based stop-motion production house that gave us both Coraline and ParaNorman – looks really intriguing. And that’s about it.
Sadly, nothing more is expected from Aardman Animations until Shaun the Sheep (from the Wallace and Gromit stable) makes his feature debut next spring. The redoubtable Pixar is busy with three projects at last report, but the first of them, Inside Out, isn’t due for another full year. Studio Ghibli’s ghost story When Marnie Was There is slated for Japanese release in July, which means that American audiences probably won’t see it until early 2015. The status of Henry Selick’s latest project, The Shadow King, remains vague since Disney pulled the plug in 2012. Nor has there been any recent news about the Jim Henson Company’s dark, surreal reimagining of Pinocchio with Guillermo del Toro at the helm.
So with the exception of The Boxtrolls, the only bright spot remaining on the 2014 animation horizon is the one that’s in theaters right now – and it comes as a considerable surprise that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is so darn good. For some reason, my fantasy-fan teenage moviegoing companion and I both passed on the first movie in the franchise, released in 2010. His lack of enthusiasm at the time may have been due to having read about half of Cressida Cowell’s books, on which the movies are loosely based. The books, according to my informant, are geared to an 8-to-12-year-old audience and thus heavily dependent on the sort of bodily-function humor that appeals to that demographic, as evidenced in character names like Gobber the Belch, Snotlout and Phlegma.
As we discovered to our delight last weekend, How to Train Your Dragon 2 dispenses with a lot of the gross-out gags, while preserving the familiar-to-readers names and the general competitive banter among the dragon-riding teens. The plot also parts ways radically with the adventures of awkward teenage dragon-wrangler Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III as depicted in the books – which unsettled my reader companion until it occurred to him that he actually liked the movie’s story better. The narrative is nothing immensely original, but it has a lot of heart, engaging us emotionally much more than the average cartoon flick (though not on a scale of Up’s iconic weeper of an opening sequence).
The characterizations are also not particularly deep. Compared to his book version – a puny kid in a belligerent culture who remains somewhat of a social outcast throughout the series, even after he figures out how to train his dragon Toothless instead of killing it like the rest of his Viking clan want him to do – movie Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is a bit more of a Mary Sue. In sci-fi/fantasy parlance, that means a character who’s too talented to be true: the (usually fanfic) author’s wish-fulfillment version of him- or herself. He’s depicted as a natural leader from the get-go. But we like him because he’s a peacemaker by instinct in a world where he’s constantly goaded to fight. To this reviewer’s hippie soul at least, it’s a refreshing message amongst the onslaught of action movies that idolize the confrontational hero.
The rather slight plot of How to Train Your Dragon 2 involves a villain named Drago (Djimon Hounsou) who employs a dragoncatcher named Eret (Game of Thrones’s Kit Harington) to round up unwilling recruits for his dragon army of world domination. Hiccup and his young pals Astrid (America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and the twins Tuffnut (T. J. Miller) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) set out to recapture the ensnared Toothless, get captured themselves and so on.
In the process Hiccup discovers a spectacular secret haven for thousands of dragons of every imaginable variety, liberated by a mysterious figure who turns out to be his long-lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) – spoilery, I know, but it happens fairly early in the film and is hard not to mention. Thus Hiccup is supplied with the genetic explanation for why his personality differs so much from that of his gruff father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), who is finally learning to appreciate him properly. Rendered in a touching dance sequence (to music that sounds a lot more Scots than Norse), the reunion of Valka and Stoick shows us the Viking chieftain’s sentimental side.
But mostly it’s about the dragons, who look wildly different and are drawn with expressive-enough features to endow each one with a distinct personality. The dragons are just cool. Well, dragons are always cool; but these take dragonmaking animated art to a whole new level. And there’s an epic battle between two enormous alpha dragons that puts the recent Godzilla remake to shame. From the very first scene – a dragonback race that looks like a mashup of Quidditch and Buzkashi, with live sheep substituted for dead goats – the movie is jam-packed with giddy flying sequences that are superbly exciting in 3-D; you’ll feel like you’re on the world’s most state-of-the-art rollercoaster.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 tugs at the heartstrings just enough, is beautiful to look at and mildly comedic, but mostly just plain action-packed fun. It’s conceivable that it might even snap up the Best Animated Feature Oscar. Don’t pass this one up if you enjoy animation at all; the next crop of winners looks to be a long way away.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at www.HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.