Tag Archives: How To Train Your Dragon 2

Rise Of The Guardians

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Last year, DreamWorks Animation celebrated its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch has been going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.

Rise-of-the-Guardians-image25] Rise Of The Guardians (21st November 2012)

Budget: $145 million

Gross: $306,941,670

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 74%

Rise of the Guardians is a bomb.  It is a big bomb.  Oh, sure, it doesn’t seem like it is, its eventual worldwide gross is double that of its production budget – the typical measure by which you determine whether a film is successful at the box office or not – but it is.  Domestically, the film took 10 weeks to scrape and claw its way past the $100 million mark, and the longer a film stays in cinemas the less money the studio actually gets (you can get a full-on explanation of that here).  Overseas, the film performed somewhat better but still not great, especially in comparison to prior DreamWorks films, and once the breakdown of the foreign dollar came in (and you can find out how that works here) DreamWorks still didn’t make a profit.  In fact, they had to take an $87 million write-down on the film, the first time they’d lost money on a project since Sinbad nearly a decade ago.

So, why did it bomb?  It’s not the fault of the film being bad – which was critically praised and is a damn good if crippled film, but we will get onto that later – so why did it just face-plant right out of the gate?  That’s what most of this entry is going to focus on because that’s our through line for the last sixth of this series and it could provide us with explanations for the box office prospects of the remaining pair of films in this series.  So, apologies for those of you who were hoping for an in-depth look at the film.  We’ll look at it if there’s time, because it’s a damn good film with a killer final 20 minutes, but for this series we need to examine the box office performance of the film rather than the film itself, unfortunately.

Full disclosure, here: since Rise of the Guardians is a relatively recent film, and was the first notable major underperformer that DreamWorks had seen in a decade, much of the stuff that I’m about to say is being referenced and sort of lifted from websites who, at the time, were filing think-pieces on this very subject not even 48 hours after the first weekend totals came in.  Many of the things that I will say here were theories that I had prior to going off and doing research anyway, but other writers’ reasons and thought processes helped open my mind a bit as to specificity.  So, with that in mind, I’d like to give credit to HitFix’s Gregory Ellwood and Animation World Network’s Ed Hooks for helping, thanks to their respective articles, shape my thoughts and theories for this article.  With that said, let’s dive in.

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest reasons is that the budget for this thing is ridiculous.  Although it clearly makes usage of every last cent, $145 million for an animated movie in this decade is insane and unsustainable.  Yes, Pixar and Disney blow that amount on every film they make but, as we have previously touched on, they can get away with it.  Everybody else has realised that $150 million domestic isn’t guaranteed anymore, so they’ve purposefully started making films for less than/equal to $100 million to compensate.  That’s why Aardman’s The Pirates! In An Adventure! With Scientists! was able to recover from a dismal American showing, it only cost $55 million to make.

DreamWorks, however, continue to pump all of their movies with the same level of money, increasing the risk if one fails and regardless of whether said pumping is necessary.  If you’ve been following along, you’ll have been keeping track of the “Budget” segment of my article pre-amble and seen that no film post-Shrek 2 has come in at under $100 million.  Now, in certain cases, like with this film or the Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon series, that’s fine, as extra detail and money helps with the world and tone and such.  But for animated comedies?  Did Megamind really need a $130 million budget?  Despicable Me came in at $69 million and it looks way more distinctive and, arguably, better than that film did.  Or, in blunt terms, is there any reasonable explanation as to why the budgets for How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Penguins of Madagascar are separated by only $13 million?

That’s as good a link as any to my next point.  The budget thing is also systemic of a larger problem: DreamWorks still trying to play like it’s 2005, like they’re the only non-Disney/Pixar players on the Western feature-length animation block.  However, thanks to them blowing up the Disney dominance back in the early 2000s, more and more animation studios – and, specifically, distribution studios like Universal who are now more willing to get in the game – have now sprung up, creating further competition.  They started poking their heads above the water tentatively in the mid-to-late 00s, when Laika would release Coraline and Blue Sky Studios – obligatory pleading to PLEASE NOT F*CK UP Peanuts – would quietly become a consistent and reliable studio, but 2010 onwards has seen them burst on through en mass.

2012, in particular, saw new efforts from recent upstarts Illumination Entertainment (The Lorax), Laika (ParaNorman), and Sony Pictures Animation (Hotel Transylvania), as well as long-timers Aardman (The Pirates!), Studio Ghibli (The Secret World of Arrietty actually opened on nearly 2,000 screens in a rare display of genuine confidence in that brand from at-the-time distributors Buena Vista), and Blue Sky (Ice Age: Continental Drift), in addition to Pixar (Brave) and a resurgent Disney (Wreck-It Ralph).  When you also throw in DreamWorks’ other 2012 release (Madagascar 3), that is a crowded as hell schedule – one, relatedly, that has only gotten more crowded the further into the decade we get, which pleases me to no end – and one just cannot coast anymore.  The days of DreamWorks being able to guarantee butts in seats, regardless of the quality of their films, purely because there is nothing else available have long since departed.

Not to mention that each of these films carried with them their own unique, distinct, and marketable identity that didn’t just rely on brand recognition.  The primary trailers for The Lorax hit the “From the studio that brought you Despicable Me” and “Based on the story by Dr. Seuss” buttons, but also clearly outlined the premise and the film’s bright, candy-land colour scheme and art style.  Boom.  Sellable.  ParaNorman had that gothic horror meshed with broad comedy feel and identity front and centre, albeit with its darkest edges sanded down to make it more palatable to, for some reason, snobby stop-motion-averse mainstream audiences.  Boom.  Sellable.  Ice Age is Ice Age and came out when literally nothing else was in cinemas, Wreck-It Ralph slapped the videogame conceit over everything, Hotel Transylvania emphasised its loudness and physical comedy.

DreamWorks, however, still sell their films the same way they always have – some attitude, pop culture references, and licensed soundtrack for comedies; lots of flying, out-of-context gags, and emphasis of the 3D elements for more dramatic fare.  They don’t sell individual films so much as they sell the DreamWorks brand – Home is even suffering from this, even though I actually rather like its trailers.  This is fine for, say, a Madagascar sequel, because audiences already know what they’re getting and like what they’re getting and the trailer just needs to promise them more of the same, but becomes a problem when you’re trying to sell a new film, especially when you pump them out with the factory-like efficiency that DreamWorks do.

Here, for example, is the first trailer for Rise of the Guardians.

Now, that trailer does a lot of things right: it establishes a clear tone, introduces us to our main characters, has some mystery in there instead of simply showing everything off all at once, and it sets itself apart from most of the other animated features on the market.  Yet, simultaneously, it’s a major failure.  It relies too heavily on kids’ prior affection for seeing characters like Santa and the Easter Bunny teaming up to fight evil (more on that in a moment), it fails to properly establish Pitch Black and his motivations, our true lead character, Jack Frost, is nowhere in sight, and it doesn’t explain much at all.  It’s a tough line to walk when it comes to trailers, show too much and you negate the audience’s desire to see it but show too little and you do just as much damage, and Guardians’ first one, although it does a lot for me, shows too little to engage general audience interest who like to have more than the sketchiest sketch of an idea of what they’re getting into.

In fact, to link into the film itself, that belief that audiences would be enamoured enough by the idea of Santa, the Easter Bunny, Sandman, Jack Frost, and the Tooth Fairy teaming up to fight evil feels sadly outdated.  In the 21st Century, this worthless irritating and pathetic century, heart-on-sleeve sincerity and wonder is something that society very much seems to frown upon.  That desire to be a little cheesy, to have fun, to be sweet and nice is something that we, as a culture for some utterly confounding reason, have decided is beneath us and that we must laugh out of the room at every opportunity.

Instead, the only way we can accept enjoying these things now is with a sort of ironic detachment – hence why 80% of movie musicals spend their entire runtimes apologising for being musicals, why romance films are so po-facedly serious about everything, and why sci-fi almost never kicks back and has any fun anymore.  When something like that does come along, like this past weekend’s Jupiter Ascending because never let it be said that I don’t try and keep this column topical, everybody laughs it out of the room because we apparently can’t accept that sincerity anymore.  Maker, animation has quite literally only just gotten over this image problem, and we can blame that tangible attitude of Shrek for sending us down that path whilst thanking this Second Disney Renaissance for finally pulling the public back out of it.

Therefore, you present the general public with a film like Rise of the Guardians – a film whose marketing relies on kids’ prior attachment and desire to believe, and whose finale literally involves the villain being defeated by a scrappy group of kids believing in wonder with all of their heart with no cynicism or sass from the film (and it’s f*cking amazing, for the record) – then of course it’s going to open poorly at the box office and never truly recover!  Our society doesn’t foster that kind of genuinely sincere wonder and heart anymore, so most will just dismiss it out of hand and move on with their lives.

And then there’s also the tangible thing.  A common complaint that keeps cropping up in people’s excuses as to why the film did poorly or just in general conversation about the film: Santa’s Russian accent.  This is very much a creative choice that has baffled people, with some even thinking that that’s why the film failed.  Because kids are familiar with Santa, err, not being Russian and that would therefore turn them off the film totally.  I sort of get where they’re coming from, it’s the tangible element of a larger problem that not many people can totally figure out – in that the beefy, warrior-ised, badass designs of the Guardians fit their personalities and the more action-heavy moments but clashes with the sincere childlike hope of the rest of the film – but I highly doubt that it’s a reason all by itself for turning people away.

Finally, there was the release date: Thanksgiving weekend.  I get the idea, it’s the holidays and a big family movie is just the kind of thing that audiences are in demand for.  But, as we have previously talked about, thanks to the way they do business, DreamWorks movies aren’t Events like a Disney film or a Pixar film are.  They’re films that come out on a semi-regular basis and you either watch them or you don’t.  Even when the films are Must See viewing – and we’ve covered several of those in this series – their releases don’t carry that air, despite the millions of dollars that the company throws into marketing these things.  So whilst Disney can get away with releasing Tangled or Frozen over that weekend, DreamWorks can’t because, unlike Disney, Rise of the Guardians is not an Event Movie.

Hence why the thing basically died in fourth place opening weekend behind Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 (second week), Skyfall (third week), and Lincoln (third week), and just barely fending off Life of Pi by virtue of that opening on less screens.  All of those prior factors, with really sub-par marketing likely being the inarguable main reason and let us not forget general DreamWorks over-saturation, conspired to send Rise of the Guardians to an early grave.  Many of these are actually rather recurrent in the reasons behind DreamWorks’ other recent failures, which means that we might get more time each week to actually talk about those goddamn films properly, but that’s also a really worrying sign that the company doesn’t seem to be learning from its mistakes.  Rise of the Guardians is rather much Patient Zero for this recent commercial trajectory that DreamWorks have gone down and, for some reason, it’s been allowed to fester instead of being quarantined and dealt with.

So… with all of that said and sorted… how is the film?  I realise that I have pushed it to the background here, much like I did with Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron way back when, but I needed to since, as we all know, this is the start of the spiral that DreamWorks are currently stuck in and to not talk about it is to do a disservice to this series I’ve been working on.  It is, however, a shame because Rise of the Guardians is very much worth talking about.  If I were writing for a website where 8 straight A4 pages of text could be presented in a way that wouldn’t cause one’s eyeballs to rip themselves out of one’s skulls and hightail it to the heavens to get away from the torture, I’d happily spend the next 4 pages talking about it.  Unfortunately, I’m about 1 full A4 page away from my word limit, so I’m going to have to be very brief.

Rise is a very good film that could have been an outstanding film had it not been forced to bow to the unspoken decree that ALL ANIMATED FILMS MUST BE LESS THAN 100 MINUTES, OR SO HELP ME!  The problem with it, and why it doesn’t work as well as it should for the first 70 minutes, is that it needs to be at least 2 hours and 10 minutes long instead of 89 (97 with credits).  Rise of the Guardians is a film that is stuffed to the brim with content and plot and story.  Not backstory, it’s smart enough to realise that you don’t need to waste time explaining the backstories of these characters, but story.  This is a film that needs to chronicle Jack Frost’s life, his emotional insecurities, to parallel that with Pitch Black’s insecurities, provide arcs for the pair of them, fill in the cast enough that the disruption of their daily schedules carries actual emotional weight, build a world, kill someone to raise stakes, cause the viewer to actually care about the kids who will factor into the finale, provide several suitably exciting action beats, and provide enough scenes of the guardians just hanging out together so that one gets the sense of how they are outside of the film, among many other things.

Surprisingly, it pulls off more of this than I was expecting – the Jack Frost stuff is brilliant, the parallels between him and Pitch are called out in dialogue more than action but it still works gangbusters and is far better done than it is in How To Train Your Dragon 2, and it nails the kid stuff spectacularly which is why the ending works so insanely well (more on that in a paragraph or two).  Unsurprisingly, though, it’s not totally successful, mainly because it never ever slows down.  How can it?  It’s got way too much content to have to get through, but it’s all necessary, so it has to pace itself like a drag race, never once letting up on the gas.  This does mean, though, that much of the first two-thirds of the film don’t click as they should – in particular, Sandman’s initial death should be a majorly heartbreaking “we are not f*cking around here” moment, but we barely ruminate on it enough for it to have any real impact.

There are chunks of film missing, basically.  The slower moments, the connective moments, where we ease up and relax with our characters.  They do exist, but they’re brief and hint at the film it could have been if there was more of that breathing time.  The best sequence not related to the ending involves the rest of the guardians helping Tooth Fairy with her job of collecting children’s teeth, because it allows the characters to just relax and be themselves.  Admittedly by turning this exercise into a silly competitive mini-setpiece, but it still feels genuine.  It deepens the cast, establishes their bonds, helps the viewer invest more, and the film needed more of that.  There just quite literally isn’t the time to.

Fortunately, though, the film f*cking nails its ending.  Seriously, the entire final 20 minute stretch, from Jack trying to help Jamie re-ignite his belief in Santa and the other Guardians, to the duo’s final goodbye, is damn near perfect.  It accurately captures that sincere, heartfelt spirit of being young and wanting to believe.  To believe that there are mysterious unknowable forces of absolute good in the world, that fear and nightmares really are just concepts that can’t actually hurt you, that you can effect real genuine change on the world through innocence and kindness.  It’s one of the best examples that I can find in recent memory of a film just getting that feeling of being a child, since most films instead either overly patronise or barely mask the fact that these are just adults attempting to remember how kids are and act.

Its emotional beats pay off excellently, even with the truncated runtime that the film has had to set them all off, the animation reaches extra special levels of gorgeous, seeing the guardians finally let loose is thrilling, the return of Sandman is one of those “oh, HELL YES!” moments that great fiction can pull from even the stoniest of human beings, and it’s all so sincerely joyous and heartfelt.  Again, the main narrative crux of the finale is whether a kid will believe hard enough that some kind of possibly unreal force of absolute good will rescue him from a nebulous force of absolute bad, and he and his friends are instrumental in saving the day purely because they believe hard enough.  And this is all played dead-straight for pure, heart-warming emotion, because this sequence, and consequently the film itself, absolutely would not work if it did so any other way.

And that is almost literally all of the time that I have this week.  There is so much more to talk about with regards to Rise of the Guardians – its sublime animation, the true extent of its pacing issues, its tone, how Chris Pine’s voice fits Jack Frost and unnecessarily distracts in equal measure, the marginalisation of Tooth Fairy, its themes of loneliness and how one can be shaped by that – but, much like with the film itself, I’ve tried to do too much in too little available time.  If I ever stupidly decide to retrofit this ridiculous series into a book format, then you’d better believe that I will be expanding this section majorly.  For now, though, Rise of the Guardians was a bomb, but it didn’t deserve to be, and it’s getting worrying that I can apply the first two parts of this sentence to more and more DreamWorks films as time goes on.

Rise of the Guardians was a major, notable financial dud for DreamWorks Animation, their first in nearly a decade.  It cost the company substantial money and likely put the studio on edge as to its future – not unfounded considering how 2013 would wrap up.  Rise also marked the end of the studio’s 8 year relationship with distributor Paramount Pictures as the success of Rango inspired the latter to make more home-grown animation, and DreamWorks’ desire for a deal with better terms for themselves.  In August of 2012, they signed a five-year deal with 20th Century Fox, owners of Blue Sky, and began this new relationship the following year.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the first film to come from this new partnership, The Croods, speculate on why this one was a success, and try to explore the further ramifications of this move.  Also, we’ll actually talk about the film this time.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch has got gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

How To Train Your Dragon

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.

how to train your dragon19] How To Train Your Dragon (26th March 2010)

Budget: $165 million

Gross: $494,878,759

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%

Let’s talk about Astrid.

Astrid, at the outset of How To Train Your Dragon, is a tough, no-nonsense dragon warrior in training.  She takes extreme pride in her chosen life path, wanting to become a great dragon slayer more than anything else.  She has no time for f*ck-ups, no time for the boys that are constantly hitting on her even though she keeps repeatedly making it clear that she is not interested, and to not take training seriously is to deeply insult her – the mere insinuation that her path in life is anything less than noble and desirable sending her into an understandable rage.

Therefore, Hiccup infuriates Astrid, openly so.  She has been training her entire life to kill dragons and takes every little bit of it seriously.  And in comes Hiccup, bumbling his way through training half-heartedly, making a joke out of her profession.  Then Hiccup inexplicably starts getting good; he starts getting really good.  Astrid’s pride can’t take it, there is simply no way that Hiccup, a clumsy fool who has openly stated that he cannot and does not want to kill a dragon, can suddenly become a master of dragons overnight.  Not when she has dedicated her whole life to being the best at this stuff, not now that she is suddenly number two to what appears to be a halfwit.

When she is passed over for the opportunity to kill a dragon, she decides to tail Hiccup and find out his secret.  There she discovers Toothless, the incredibly dangerous Nightfury dragon that Hiccup has seemingly tamed and has been getting his dragon info from.  Terrified, she runs off to warn the village, but Hiccup and Toothless kidnap her before she can in order to get assurances that she won’t spill the beans.  To help convince her, Hiccup has her fly with him on Toothless to discover just how peaceful dragons can be and how amazing riding them is.  It does the trick, Astrid is very much convinced.

In fact, she’s so convinced that she kisses Hiccup practically the second they get back down to the ground and becomes his girlfriend for the rest of the movie, despite having held him in pure contempt for the previous hour.

Does this sound familiar?  It should; this kind of character trajectory – from a strong young woman trying to earn respect in a man’s world and with absolutely no time for the awkward flirting of the lead protagonist, to someone who is suddenly stuck in the gravitational pull of the lead male’s penis (metaphorically) and is reduced to simply being The Girlfriend who needs rescuing in the finale – has been utilised by DreamWorks Animation before.  Remember Marina from Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas?  And just like in that film, How To Train Your Dragon ends up taking a torch to its incredibly interesting female co-lead, with a whole bunch of potential distinctly female-focussed themes and narrative threads attached to her existence and character (although it’s annoyingly just left as subtext), for quite literally no good reason.

In an article posted on The Dissolve this past Summer, Tasha Robinson termed this kind of character trajectory as “Trinity Syndrome”, after the closest thing to a ur text in the shape of Trinity from The Matrix, and few things in movies annoy me more than it.  It gives off the impression that women are not important enough to have their own stories and narrative arcs unless they are inextricably tied to the whims of a man.  That ends up becoming even more infuriating when their plotlines are deep and detailed, yet are dropped like week old garbage the second the film decides that its time for them to suddenly be irresistibly attracted to the man’s genitalia (metaphorically).

Astrid is a character who has an incredibly interesting character and thematic arc, as previously detailed, and it very much seems to be building up to her swallowing her pride, recognising Hiccup’s way of doing things and growing to respect him as a fellow Viking.  Then, at the hour mark and quite literally out of nowhere, she falls hopelessly in love with Hiccup and, around that time, loses her competency in combat – her main character trait by that point – so that Hiccup can rescue her in the finale.  Much like with Sinbad, the film gains nothing from making Astrid The Girlfriend of Hiccup.  The film could have taken the romance part of the relationship out of it and lost nothing except a whole surplus load of problems.  It’s character derailment of the highest order and the only thing that even slightly redeems it is the early scene between the two in the sequel where proceedings are suitably adorable and cute.  That’s the sequel, however, so it’s still a problem in this film.

Specifically, in addition to ruining the character of Astrid, her sudden and inexplicable falling for Hiccup contributes to the film’s broken attempt at its message.  From the start of the film, How To Train Your Dragon loudly sets up a message of alternate masculinity.  Hiccup wants to be accepted in a very manly culture of walking badasses who practically reek of testosterone – including the women – but is physically incapable of being so because he’s physically weak and an altogether more peaceful guy stuck in a society that prides strength and violence above everything else.  From the very start of the film, the pieces are put in place for Hiccup to earn the respect and admiration of his father and the community in other ways, through inner strength and the ability to make peace with the dragons.  He will never be the guy who walks away from the explosion in slow motion, girlfriend in one arm, without looking back, but he can be masculine in other ways.

Yet his arc pays off by having him achieve acceptance in the way that the film’s society deems is the only way to be a true man: fighting and killing a dragon.  He even loses a leg in the process; truest sign of a man and a badass is when you have a war wound – direct quote from Astrid prior to training, “It’s only fun if you get a scar out of it.”  Sure, he’s riding a dragon and is only doing this in order to set the other dragons free and keep his dad from being killed, but it’s still very much a traditional way to wrap up his arc and makes the messages of the film – being true to one’s-self, what society deems to be masculine is not the only way to be a man, and that pacifism does not make you a coward or wuss – contradict events on screen.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 has this same problem, but works it into its overall narrative – the message of that film blatantly being that some people cannot be reasoned with and that, in those extreme situations, drastic steps have to be taken to keep things from spiralling further out of control.  The problem with How To Train Your Dragon is that the Alpha Dragon – the unreasonable thing that requires drastic steps to combat – is not worked into the message, so his existence and eventual combat feels like a sacrifice to big-budget filmmaking rather than a natural part of the film.  Yet, frustratingly, his existence is still inextricably linked to the film’s DNA – even though he contradicts the messages and feels superfluous, the film is still building up to a final showdown with Hiccup and Toothless against something big and nasty, so he can’t be ejected from the film.

So, Hiccup fits and slays a dragon; the biggest and baddest alive that also happens to be the reason why dragons keep raiding Berk and attacking and killing people.  He also demonstrates natural leadership, gets the girl of his dreams, rescues the girl of his dreams as The Strong Female Character cannot be allowed to be self-reliant in the finale, becomes accepted by the Viking society for actually totally being one of them deep down inside when the chips are down, and wins the respect of his father for basically doing what needed to be done.  There’s nothing particularly alternative or Hiccup about it, despite having Stoick state otherwise.  It’s like the film is at war with itself, between what it wants to be and what it needs to be – kinda fitting, in all honesty.

Yes, as you may have gathered, I don’t love How To Train Your Dragon.  I also don’t hate it, but I have many problems with it and I feel that, although it has many outstanding individual scenes, the whole doesn’t quite work.  Let it be said, however, that, despite how I may sometimes come off when talking about films, I was really trying to like it.  As a dog owner, the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is the kind of pure, beautiful relationship between owner and pet that sends my heart all a-swelling; the film’s opening reel, where it sets up the intent of subverting typically accepted masculinity, had me all set to feel super “yay!” at the finale due to my personal relationships with masculinity; and, on the filmmaking side, the directors and co-writers are Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, previous of one of my favourite animated films of all-time in the shape of Lilo & Stitch.

Yet, both times that I’ve seen the film now – once prior to How To Train Your Dragon 2 because I learnt my lesson from February thank you kindly, once again for this series – it has left me cold overall, and I’m honestly not sure why.  I mean, those two issues I just spent extensive time going into are not exactly deal-breakers – broken Aesops are not major problems for me, and I’m a hardcore Disney fan so, although I am a feminist, I’m not going to write a film off totally for messing up its female characters (unless things switch over into an openly sexist, hateful misogynistic vibe, anyway) – and, as I think we’ve discovered throughout this series, I don’t have a bias against DreamWorks Animation and have loved and really like a good majority of their films.

But, try as I might, I can’t figure out why I feel no particular affinity to the whole of How To Train Your Dragon.  There’s just this thing, I don’t know what it is and I can’t describe it but I know it’s not in HTTYD, for me at least.  I mean, I’m rather alone on this.  It has the highest score on Rotten Tomatoes of any DreamWorks Animation film to date and that includes Aardman co-productions, it swept the 2010 Annie Awardsalbeit not without controversy – many people feel the film was snubbed when Toy Story 3 took the Best Animated Feature Oscar over it at that year’s Academy Awards, and, without fail, every single time I mention to somebody that this series and this film does pretty much nothing for me, they gasp in shock, assume I outright hate the film and demand an immediate explanation.  But I can’t.  I can tell them about Astrid and I can tell them about the walking contradiction known as the alpha dragon, but those are still not the reason why the overall film does nothing for me.  So, therefore, I can’t tell people why I’m rather indifferent on a lot of this film except for just knowing that I am.

It’s a real shame, too, because How To Train Your Dragon does a lot of things right.  Visually, the film is a delight, even if its ability to blow minds thanks to raw quality has been lessened somewhat by the sequel outdoing it in every regard.  DreamWorks, especially the Shrek series, have so far had a problem when it comes to animating and representing humans on screen – with them pretty much always falling into the Uncanny Valley and clashing badly with the rest of the film’s world.  HTTYD is the first to really break through that with strong distinctive character designs that are clearly more focussed on resembling ideas in artists’ heads than the famous celebrity voicing them.  Boarding and layout, meanwhile, take the arty heavily thought-out nature of Kung Fu Panda and runs with it, constructing gorgeous shots that make great usage of space and size.  (It likely doesn’t surprise you, incidentally, to find out that Roger Deakins was a visual consultant on the film.)

how to train your dragon

You could hang this shot in an art gallery and only arseholes would object to its conclusion.

Writing is mostly strong, excluding the prior mentioned issues and most things out of Snoutlout’s obnoxiously awful mouth.  It’s a film that maintains a serious tone for a large percentage of its runtime without being joyless.  It doesn’t force its humour, the dragon training kids are teenagers so it makes sense that they’d be obnoxious and silly, and many of the jokes work on a dramatic level too.  Stoick telling Hiccup that to become a true Viking he needs to stop being him, represented by gesturing to all of Hiccup, is funny because of how blunt he is and how incredulous Hiccup is about the whole thing, but it also works dramatically as Hiccup’s own father all but openly announces his contempt for his son to his face.

(Side Bar, whilst we’re on the subject: holy hell, do I find Stoick to be an incredibly irritating and unlikeable little sh*tbag in this film.  Despite the film’s best efforts, I don’t find him sympathetic at all in this film and it’s because the film pushes down so hard on the “contempt for his son” button.  His sympathetic side, including why he is especially vindictive towards dragons, is saved for the sequel so all we get here is miserable, angry, really unlikeable Stoick, with only very occasional hints of genuine love bursting through, so that part of the heart side of the film falls flat for me.  I also realise I’ve just undermined my “writing is mostly strong” point with this little digression, but I thought I’d talk about it briefly whilst it was still relevant.)

And then there is the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless.  When the film is firing on all cylinders, and it fires on all cylinders a fair bit despite the constant negativity I’ve been indulging in in this here article, it’s because of those two.  There’s a huge, giant beating heart powering all of their interactions and an incredibly sweet and natural development to their relationship.  The design of Toothless especially helps matters, balancing cute and cuddly and adorable with dangerous and wild for the appropriate situations; making him consistent whether he’s this dangerous mythical beast who is three seconds away from biting Hiccup’s face off, or this adorable cutie curling up next to his master after a successful test flight.

Their bond feels real and genuine as the film perfectly paces their relationship from predator and prey, to cautious friends, to life partners.  How To Train Your Dragon’s standout scene, the one that genuinely moved me to tears on first viewing because of its beauty, is the bit where Hiccup manages to tame Toothless and Toothless genuinely warms to Hiccup.  A sequence told almost entirely without words yet saying more than 75% of vastly inferior animated movies manage to say in their entire runtime.  It’s here where everything comes together – the strong writing, the brilliant character designs, the outstanding character animation, John Powell’s utterly sensational score, that giant beating heart – to create art.  It’s just so impeccably done and… you know what?  Just watch.

A close second is the test flight sequence, for pretty much all of the reasons listed about the prior scene and with the added pro of it being one of the best non-Miyazaki flight scenes I have ever seen in an animated movie.  Closely behind that there’s the sequence where Hiccup wakes up after the battle with the alpha dragon (officially known as Red Death, although I never once heard the film call it that), is re-united with Toothless and discovers his new prosthetic leg – Second Side Bar, real quick: although the path taken to get there and its overall thematic ramifications in this film is shoddy and rather unearned, I cannot deny that everything else this series has done, and hasn’t done, with the prosthetic leg is brilliant.

Yes, there is a point behind my devolving into referring to scenes without any real critical analysis to accompany them.  Again, I find How To Train Your Dragon to be a whole bunch of excellent scenes in a whole that never quite works, and those scenes are most emblematic of that fact.  They have that intangible something that, for me at least, the rest of the film doesn’t.  After all, pretty much every single one of those elements that I mentioned a second ago are working at that level for the whole film, and How To Train Your Dragon is never really bad – those negative marks I’ve mentioned are more things I find disagreeable than outright negative deal-breakers.  It just doesn’t work as a whole, for some reason, and that intangible thing that powers those three particular scenes to transcendental excellency doesn’t really show up outside of those scenes.

The problem of course being that, no matter how hard I try, I can’t figure out what that thing is.  And that fact is killing me!

So, as you may have gathered by now, it’s very easy to see why How To Train Your Dragon blew off many doors at the box office.  It had a really rather modest opening, $43 million which is way below par for DreamWorks films especially since it now had the bonus of 3D tickets, but it held.  It held extremely well over the following 10 weeks, even as DreamWorks’ own Shrek Forever After came along two months in to cannibalise long-term play.  Considering the fact that action-focussed animated films supposedly don’t hold well – a view more than likely enforced due to that turn-of-the-century animation problem we talked about many weeks back – the fact that it finished as the 9th highest grossing film domestically of 2010 is a damn near miracle.

Overseas gross ended up about equal with domestic gross, which is what kept the film from being a runaway hit and is decidedly underwhelming considering how DreamWorks normally do overseas, but I’m pretty sure that DreamWorks executives weren’t exactly crying over failures or what have you when the home media sales numbers started coming in.  Besides, the company made a tonne of money from the domestic dollar, which is mostly better for the studios than foreign dollars (once again, this article will explain everything).  How To Train Your Dragon today consists of two critically acclaimed and financially successful (sorta for the second one, depends how much you subscribe to Hollywood Accounting) feature films with a third on the way, a very successful TV series, four short films, multiple videogames, and an arena show adaptation that lasted about 10 minutes in America and Canada before it was uprooted to China instead.

And I get why this series is incredibly popular.  I really do, they are damn good films.  How To Train Your Dragon is a really damn good film!  I want to love it unconditionally like I do so many other animated films, like I do Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois’ Lilo & Stitch, like I do with so many of DreamWorks’ other films that we’ve covered in this series.  But the film as a whole does nothing for me.  I don’t know why, but it just doesn’t, much like how I cannot get into Adventure Time to save my life.  And if you find that fact bewildering and maddening, know that I am right there with you.  I’m really glad that so many people love and get something out of the How To Train Your Dragon series, but they just do nothing for me and I just don’t know why.

Even though the company had been on a significant upswing in terms of quality in the two years prior to its release, pretty much nobody saw the sheer quality of How To Train Your Dragon coming.  DreamWorks would be rewarded for that pleasant surprise with an unparalleled amount of critical praise and a very healthy return at the box office.  The hot streak that the company was on, however, had to come to an end sooner or later and, two months later, the company unleashed the final Shrek film to date upon the world to (relatively, considering how much a juggernaut Shrek was supposed to be) middling box office success and critical shrugs of indifference.  Next week, we’ll tackle Shrek Forever After and see whether it was unfairly dismissed by critics based on the brand name or is yet another low-quality squirt for cash.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch is caught up in love and he’s in ecstasy.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks

It lacks the surprise “this actually works!” factor of the original, but My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks is otherwise a better film in every respect.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

mlp1I really like the first Equestria Girls.  I liked it enough to actually put it on my Top 10 Films of 2013 list in the #10 slot with 47 Ronin (which is always reserved for the nicest surprise I’ve had all film-going year).  I will, however, admit a fair bit of that liking came from the sheer surprise that it actually worked at all.  As a big fan of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, I entered very much worried that the film was just going to be a cash-in, as Hasbro threw the well-respected Friendship Is Magic licence under the bus in search of that sweet sweet Monster High money.  To find the film worked at all, let alone as well as it did, was very much a nice surprise.  It’s not brilliant, it’s too fast-paced and lacks material for much of its cast, but it is very fun and very good.

Rainbow Rocks, which arrives just over a year after the original film, is therefore at the disadvantage of not having the “holy crap, this actually works” card to fall back on for any of its flaws.  Like it or not, the film now has to stand on its own merits.  That’s pretty much the only disadvantage that the film has, though, as Rainbow Rocks is a better film than Equestria Girls in almost every single possible way.  In fact, it’s way more than that.  It’s one of the best animated films of the whole year.  Admittedly, that doesn’t sound like much, what with 2014 being a rather miserable year for animation, but it’s still worthy of the level of respect that such a statement usually holds.

We’re a while removed from the first Equestria Girls, and Canterlot High is getting ready for its first ever musical showcase, which the remaining human members of the Mane Six – Rainbow Dash (Ashleigh Ball), Applejack (also Ashleigh Ball), Pinkie Pie (Andrea Libman), Fluttershy (also Andrea Libman) and Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain) – have started a band to perform in.  Filling in the Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) shaped hole in the group is the recently reformed Sunset Shimmer (Rebecca Shoichet) who is finding it hard to integrate into the group and find acceptance at school after the whole “being evil” thing.  But all is not well, for the school has been infiltrated by three Sirens that were banished from Equestria – now taking the human forms of their leader Adagio Dazzle (Kazumi Evans), the airheaded Sonata Dusk (Marÿke Hendrikse), and the permanently irritated Aria Blaze (Diana Kaarina) – who gain power by planting discord and anger in others through their singing.  Realising that the Sirens are up to something, our heroes send a message to Equestria to try and get Twilight to come and help.

One may notice that that summary contained a hefty lack of Twilight Sparkle, a key segment of the character dynamics and the main protagonist of the first film.  That’s actually one of Rainbow Rocks’ many strokes of genius.  Twilight is not the main character, this time.  In fact, she doesn’t even enter the film until about the halfway mark, and even then she’s pushed a bit more to the back than before.  The film instead focuses more on the rest of the main ensemble, the point being to show how these human versions of the pony cast interact with each other as friends without Twilight.  It gives them more of a spotlight, lets the viewer see them as full-on characters, and allows one to relate and love them on levels that aren’t tied to residual love for their pony incarnations, which is why the emotional stakes of the film end up carrying genuine weight this time around.

The other reason for the film’s sliding of Twilight into the “co-lead” position is the film’s best choice: Sunset Shimmer is our main protagonist.  That’s not to say that the rest of the ensemble get left out, on the contrary, but most of the film is viewed from her perspective and its most prominent, not to mention best, plotline revolves around her trying to atone for her many past sins and trying to gain acceptance from other people.  To put it simply; anybody who found, like I did, the main cast’s sudden forgiveness of her at the end of the first film to be extremely unearned for a character who, up until that point, had shown no reason for sympathy or forgiveness should find this more than enough of a course correct.

It, like the best moments of the show it’s spun-off from, taps into real insecurities and worries and feeds them through a character who is very easy to like.  Sunset is somebody who is desperately trying and wanting to change, wanting to become a good person who helps her friends and does the right thing, but she can’t escape her past because nobody will let her forget it.  Even her new and only friends keep inadvertently bringing it up regularly enough for her to be used to it.  Her attempts to fit in, to gather up the courage to help out, and to completely believe that she really is capable of change are extremely well handled, able to be played for big laughs and quiet emotional nuance in equal measure, and it is the best part of the film.  Credit needs to be given to both Meghan McCarthy’s excellent script and Rebecca Shoichet’s brilliant vocal work; they’ve turned a mediocre character who had pretty much no redeeming qualities into somebody I’d like to see more of whenever possible.

Speaking of that script, this is a far better paced film than the first Equestria Girls was.  Whilst that film raced through plot point after plot point, whilst still finding time to work in a whole bunch of character beats to keep it from feeling like a soulless exercise in plot, Rainbow Rocks has much less plot than the first one.  Much of it was actually summarised in that paragraph a while back, and the film is structured in such a way that we get far more time with the cast of characters to make its emotional beats register that much more.  The first film had to tell a story and set-up the world, but the second one is able to relax and breathe more, so it feels like I’ve been able to immerse myself more in Equestria Girls’ dimension than I did the first time.  Nothing is rushed, nothing feels forced excepting one bit in the finale; it all feels natural.

On that note, the humour is less pronounced this time.  Don’t get me wrong, it is still a very funny movie, it’s just that the jokes are much lower-key.  There’s a lack of giant laughs, although they do exist – one is a brilliant self-acknowledgement of how conflicts in the series tend to resolve without it devaluing said thing, another involves the appearance of one of Season 4 of the original show’s best one-shot characters – but the joke ratio is still high, coming from character traits and certain turns of phrase rather than extended sequences of Twilight trying to act like a person.  It fits, the laughs complimenting on-screen events instead of overpowering them.

Animation is great, considering the limitations of Flash.  Due to the restrictive nature of the technology, one shouldn’t expect anything close to the levels of How To Train Your Dragon 2 or The Book Of Life but it’s still very good regardless; director Jayson Thiessen and the folks over at DHX really mastering this form and pushing it to its apparent limits.  Character designs are distinctive without being off-putting, specifically the anthropomorphic features that the main cast take on at points are slightly less pronounced and therefore less awkward than before, whilst the colour scheme is bright and breezy, to a degree that can come across as excessive, but tempers its primary tendencies with good deployment of shades to add an actual spectrum and variety to proceedings.

Camerawork and perspectives are vastly improved, too; there are multiple instances of dollying, focus-shifting and perspective switching – manipulating the camera in a two-dimensional plane in a way that gives off the illusion of three-dimensions – that come off much smoother than they have in many prior instalments of both the show and the last film.  There’s also some great board work going on here, too; sequences that are made thanks to well designed and laid out shots and images.  Most specifically, there’s a musical montage late in the film of the Battle Of The Bands competition that visualises the various clashes like an actual battle with real kinetic energy that makes the sequence a lot of fun.  Also it reminded me of Scott Pilgrim and I love Scott Pilgrim.

Related: the songs, penned primarily as always by Daniel Ingram, are really darn good.  There’s a lack of anything that I’m still humming about 24 hours removed from being exposed to it, like the show’s best numbers ended up doing to me many times, but they also fulfil the more important job of fitting the film.  They hop between genres and moods and tones – the Sirens mostly sing incredibly well-harmonised goth pop, our main cast get earnest but likeable pop rock, whilst The Great And Powerful Trixie performs a brilliantly naff early-00s electropop number – but they always feel consistent and unified whilst still having their own identity.  The final battle ends up incorporating elements of heavy metal, whilst Snips & Snails have to perform an incredibly awkward rap number earlier on, yet they don’t feel out-of-place or blatantly calling out to the older segments of the audience.  They fit and they work, even if the lyrics do sometimes cross the line from “earnestly rubbish” to “just plain rubbish”.

The only real knock I have against Rainbow Rocks, and by which I mean the only part that isn’t improved from the first film in any way, is with regards to the character of Flash Sentry, the teenage boy whom Twilight has a reciprocated but never openly stated crush on.  He’s in the film for about the same amount of time as he was in the first one, but he’s still pointless to overall proceedings.  He mainly seems to exist so that the audience has somebody to worry about when the film needs to show the effects of the hostility that the Sirens bring out in people.  So he spends most of the film being a paper-thin jerk, in stark contrast to Equestria Girls where spent most of that film being a paper-thin pretty boy.  He only seems to be here because nobody was confident enough to admit the character didn’t work and cut him, with his negative characterisation being a way to turn into the skid of nobody liking him.  In a film where Sunset Shimmer was able to be totally redeemed as a character in the space of 75 minutes, Flash sticks out like a sore thumb.

Forget about Flash Sentry, though (heaven knows the film does for long stretches), and My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks is an unqualified triumph.  A major leap forward in nearly every respect, this is what a sequel should be: using a previously established world and characters to tell a new story with character development that actually sticks, a story and set of character arcs that aren’t just rehashing the beats of the original and improving upon their problems to create a film that stands head and shoulders above its predecessor.  Admittedly, if you’re not already on board the super-earnest and occasionally-proudly-cheesy My Little Pony bandwagon, this may not be the movie to convince you, even if it does have a literal music battle for a finale (that is AWESOME).  But if you found yourself disappointed with the first Equestria Girls, then you should give Rainbow Rocks a shot as I guarantee you that you will find it a major leap forward comparatively.

Considering how this series first looked to be a cynical heartless cash-grab driven purely by the need to sell toys, Equestria Girls has turned into quite the fantastic little series.  See, folks!  Heart-on-sleeve sincerity wins out, after all!  Roll on the inevitable third instalment in 12 months’ time!

Callum Petch has a nagging fear someone else is pulling at the strings.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

US Box Office Report: 17/10/14 – 19/10/14

Sound and Fury signify a change in the top spot, Birdman will be able to buy law books with pictures this time, Nicholas Sparks is not getting the best, the best, the best, The Best Of Me, and Other Box Office News.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Movies, successful movies at that, often go about trying to solve questions that the public need answers for.  For example, our new number 1 film, Fury, finally helped to answer our year-long conundrum, “So, is this what caused Shia LaBeouf, who wasn’t exactly the most stable and upstanding citizen to begin with, to finally go completely off the deep-end?”  As marketing hooks for World War II movies go, it’s a pretty unique selling point, and one really should commend LaBeouf for starting so far away from the film’s release date and sticking with it for so long, too; professional wrestlers can’t commit to a bit this much!  $23.5 million worth of Americans ended up tempted enough by the possibility of a train-wreck to pony up and watch an apparently pretty alright film.

In release news that doesn’t involve me making really tired and terrible jokes about a man who is most likely suffering from some kind of mental health problems, The Book Of Life continued the trend of animated films not made by established companies, and not outstandingly marketed to hell and back, opening rather soft with a third place debut and $17 million in ticket sales.  By contrast, Studio Ghibli’s second-to-last planned film, The Tale Of Princess Kaguya, opened in limited release to a very respectable $51,700 from 3 screens – which sounds small, but one must remember that this is the return feature of Grave Of The Fireflies’ Isao Takahata and that not everybody wants to be reduced to blubbering, incoherent wrecks at art-house cinemas filled with snobby judging art-house crowds.

Meanwhile, and thankfully for people absolutely f*cking sick of his goddamn signature brand, the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation, The Best Of Me, bombed majorly, only managing $10 million for sixth place and allowing hacks like me to make unfunny Foo Fighters references.  Admittedly, Nicholas Sparks films have very fluctuating performances – The Notebook was followed by Nights In Rodanthe, whilst The Last Song was followed by Dear John – so we can’t break out the party poppers just yet, but it’s still the lowest opening for any of his adaptations ever so I’m calling this a win!  Along similar total-failure lines, Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children expanded to 608 screens this past weekend and scored the fifth worst nationwide debut ever, with just $320,000.  Films that managed a better per-screen average than it ($526) include Let’s Be Cops in its 10th week ($795), The Giver in its 10th week ($561), Lucy in its 13th week ($778), How To Train Your Dragon 2 in its 19th week ($566) and… well, pretty much everything else on the list.

Finally, we have the limited releases and the big success story of the weekend: Birdman.  The new film from Alejandro González Iñárritu starring Michael Keaton as somebody who once played a superhero now trying to make it on Broadway and filmed in a way that gives off the illusion that the film is just one continuous shot… actually, now that I think about it, it’s absolutely no surprise that the LA and NY cinemas that got this film ate it up so massively.  In any case, $415,000 from 4 theatres makes it the second-biggest-per-screen-average for a limited release of the year (behind The Grand Budapest Hotel) and the ninth best live-action limited release opening ever.  Also doing great business on 11 screens, for a very impressive $31,273 per-screen average, was Dear White People with a weekend total of $344,000.  I don’t really have anything else to add, to be honest, the film looks way too good for me to get snarky at.

dear white people

This Full List has got another confession to make, it’s no fool, it’s getting tired of star- (*is forcibly pulled away from keyboard*)

Box Office Results: Friday 17th October 2014 – Sunday 19th October 2014

1] Fury

$23,500,000 / NEW

Owen will be handling review duties on this one, folks.  Be gentle with him.  I also find it interesting to note that Fury has made more domestically in one weekend than David Ayer’s other 2014 film, Sabotage, did worldwide throughout its entire run.  Good to see his year has turned around significantly!

2] Gone Girl

$17,800,000 / $107,069,000

Gone Girl has been embraced by Men’s Rights Activists, just as I feared it would be.  Sigh…  I guess that’s the risk one gets when trying to tell stories like this one, but it is saddening to know that I am going to have to spend the rest of my life lengthily explaining myself when I tell more Internet conscious people that I love Gone Girl, so that they don’t get the idea that I’m some kind of woman-hating psychopath.

3] The Book Of Life

$17,000,000 / NEW

Out here on Friday, so one last time for good luck: I ORDER YOU TO NOT SUCK!

4] Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

$12,039,000 / $36,871,000

And this is out this weekend, too.  Well, I guess you gotta learn to live with the bad days to ap- (*looks down to see hands have somehow become sentient and are strangling the author to death*)

5] The Best Of Me

$10,200,000 / NEW

Should probably clarify that the strangling that occurred in the previous joke involved my throat, not anything dirty like I know some of you more childish readers were attempting to misconstrue it as.  There are no such uses of toilet humour in these articles.  This is a family feature.

6] Dracula Untold

$9,889,000 / $40,735,000

A pretty large 58% drop between weekends, so it’s a total flop domestically.  Unfortunately, it’s almost cleared $100 mil overseas, mainly thanks to Russia and Mexico of all places, so I can’t smugly sit here and claim that it completely bombed like I predicted it was going to.  Drat and blast!

7] The Judge

$7,940,000 / $26,843,000

No, seriously, watch the trailer for Dear White People.  It looks absolutely excellent and the kind of film I need in my life right f*cking now.

8] Annabelle

$7,925,000 / $74,127,000

Yes, that is a really close gap between The Judge and Annabelle, but actuals have yet to actually flip the places of two films that are dead close to one-another in estimates under my watch, so don’t expect anything to actually happen here.  You know, except for the realisation that I just managed to sufficiently kill time by making a big deal out of nothing with this entry.

9] The Equalizer

$5,450,000 / $89,170,000

Fuck off.

10] The Maze Runner

$4,500,000 / $90,837,000

OK, I’m not stupid.  I know you haven’t actually watched the Dear White People trailer yet.  I have no control over you and can’t force you to visit every single link I attach to these articles.  You’re busy people with places to be.  So I’m just going to leave this here and we’ll all reconvene next week for me to do this dance with another completely different film possibly maybe.

Dropped Out: Addicted, The Boxtrolls, Left Behind

Callum Petch is watching the television with no sound.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

How To Train Your Dragon 2

HTTYD2How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a bunch of excellent individual scenes in a pretty good whole.  Exactly like the first film.  Exactly like the first film.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

I get why everybody is head over heels in love with How To Train Your Dragon.  I do.  It’s a good movie, and the fact that it came from the studio that only half a decade earlier believed that Shark Tale was quality work that they were willing to stand behind and release to the general public is friggin’ miraculous.  It had a good amount of heart, some great visuals and some beautiful or just plain excellent individual scenes.  I would stop short of declaring it “great,” though.  Despite those individual scenes (Hiccup’s first encounter with Toothless, the montage of the pair slowly warming to each other, and the realisation that Hiccup has lost one of his legs are the ones that currently spring to mind), the film never quite came together as a whole, for me.  It felt a bit too unfocussed, expected me to care about a motley crew of secondary characters who weren’t particularly likable or relevant until the plot said they were, the animation wasn’t quite up to the ambitions it clearly had, and the Astrid stuff infuriated me to no end.  As a film on its own, divorced from contexts surrounding it, it’s very good at what it is but disappointingly falls short of greatness. As a gold star “Yes, DreamWorks!  You’re on your way; more like this, please!” piece of encouragement, I can get behind it.

2010 was four years ago and, in that timeframe, DreamWorks Animation have clearly taken that gold star encouragement as incentive to get better.  One need only look at the Rotten Tomatoes scores for their last three films in 12 months (70% for The Croods, 67% for Turbo and 79% for Mr. Peabody & Sherman) compared to those in the same time period from 2006 to 2007 (72% for Aardman’s Flushed Away, which is being generous, 40% for Shrek The Third and 51% for Bee Movie), whilst the Kung Fu Panda movies (the second of which I haven’t seen and the first of which is due a re-watch) have gathered a substantial fan-base and the first DreamWorks film I had watched in five years (with the exception of Puss In Boots), Mr. Peabody & Sherman, was a genuinely great film that I was completely surprised by the quality of.

You may be wondering why I used a full paragraph and one terrible, comma-filled sentence to tell you this stuff.  Simple; I wanted to properly set the scene and let you know that it is no longer 2010.  It is 2014.  We live in a world where Walt Disney Feature Animation has been on a hot-streak not seen since the early 90s, where Pixar have taken a huge battering after a string of sub-par for them and just plain sub-par films, where Laika proved Coraline was not just a fluke, and where The Lego Movie was legitimately fantastic.  It’s a changed world and the animation landscape has changed with it.  How To Train Your Dragon 2, however, is still stuck in 2010.  I have pretty much the exact same qualms and praises with it as I did the original, and the film still fails to live up to the potential its best individual scenes clearly demonstrate it to have.  There are legitimately great films in here, but they keep getting lost by the wider picture which is just “good”.  Naturally, if you loved the original and had next-to-no problems with it, I guarantee you’ll love this one too cos it’s the exact same.  I keep hearing that bit in 22 Jump Street where Nick Offerman snidely remarks that the case they’re tackling was exactly the same as the last one.  The exact same.  It fits here far more snugly than I’m comfortable to let it get away with.

We rejoin the inhabitants of the island of Berk five years after the climax of the first film.  The island has become a practical paradise with dragons and humans co-existing peacefully and happily together.  Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is being groomed by his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) for the island’s chief, but he’d much rather head off and explore the world with his dragon best-buddy, Toothless.  It’s on one of these explorations that they come across a destroyed fortress home to a group dragon trappers, led by Erit (Kit Harrington), who work for ruthless warlord Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou).  Drago is building an army of dragons for mysterious reasons that you can probably guess due to him being a villain and the mere mention of his name causes Stoick to lock down Berk.  Hiccup believes that Drago can be reasoned with, though, and sets off to convince the man that dragons and humans can live together peacefully.  And that’s when he runs into his long-lost mother (Cate Blanchett) who has been rescuing and living among dragons for the past 20 years.

Right, I’m going to stick to the stuff I liked first, because the stuff I liked, I really liked.  Exhibit A?  This is without a doubt one of the most gorgeous CG animated films I have ever seen.  The original HTTYD occasionally touched the level of quality present in here, but that was held back by the technology of the time; some noticeable chroma-keying, an inconsistency in fluidity of animation with regards to humans, weird drops in quality and detail when things get busy.  Fortunately, four years have passed since then and HHTYD2 finally delivers consistently at the level it wants to.  There are times here where I could have sworn that this was just CG overlay on real-life actors performing the material but there’s still a stylistic tinge to the art-design that keeps it from just being creepy.

The key word here is detail.  There is a breath-taking amount of it going about in nearly every single scene, no matter whether it’s just Hiccup and his family sat in a cave or a giant battle sequence with hundreds, if not thousands, of constantly-moving variables on-screen at once.  It brings the world to life and makes the little things stick out that much more.  Early on, Hiccup has a little tuft of his hair knotted/braided (I don’t know hair terms, sue me) by his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) and it stays that way for the entire length of the movie; it’s rather tiny and the film never draws attention to it, but it’s there in every shot that I could see its existence in.  Every dragon has individual little marks and bumps that set them apart from others in their species, instead of just being palette swaps.  Tiny little crusts of frost appear on Stoick’s beard and moustache when he goes flying through Arctic-like conditions, enough that you can tell it’s not too cold by the fact that they don’t cover up his entire beard, you can still see its colour peeking through.  There’s a section in the finale that communicates the majority of events happening purely through little changes in the shape and movement of a pair of eyeballs.  Details, the kind you may not immediately notice but only add to the life of the world.

Human animation is extremely fluid and naturalistic, again to such an extent that I would not be surprised to find out that they were primarily done by actors in mo-cap suits.  At times they’re a bit too distractingly realistic, the animators putting in too many unnecessary shrugs and bounces and movements as if they’re showing off technologically, but those moments are rare.  90% of the time, the animators know just how much is too much.  In these cases, faces move like real people, they gesture like real people and they just plain move like real people.  Even when they don’t need to, when they could just be in the background or out-of-focus and let up on the detail, they still keep up that level of detail and fluidity and that’s what keeps it from being distractingly fake-looking.  Praise too should go to the dragons whose excellent design work means they can be imposing and dangerous one moment and cute and lovable the next without it ever seeming jarring.

Lighting is utterly gorgeous.  Although there aren’t as many scenes set at night or in darkness as there were in the original film, ones that are still make excellent usage of shadows and shading.  There’s a scene where Hiccup is surrounded by dragons in a dark cave that’s a particular showcase for the technology powering the film.  It even works during the day, too; shadows cast by dragons flying overheads affect everything in its area accurately.  Cinematography, meanwhile, overseen by Roger Deakins, no less, is exceptional, frequently conjuring up images of sheer beauty (the end credits run over concept art of the film and practically the only difference between them and their equivalent shots in film is that they’re hand-drawn) and swooping and diving and shaking during the action scenes like the action is happening on a real film set.  Visible chroma-keying is practically non-existent even during some of busiest scenes, I think I noticed it once during a mid-battle conversation between Astrid and Hiccup that was shot in close-ups but that’s about it.

Point is, if you’re looking for an animated film to absolutely blow you away visually, stop looking.  This is it.  I was astounded at this film’s visuals and you may notice that I am not easily impressed with these things.

Meanwhile, there are several excellent individual scenes worthy of note.  Obviously, thanks to the animation, there’s pretty much any time any character mounts a dragon and the pair go tearing through the sky, but there are more specific instances.  The aforementioned scene where Hiccup is surrounded by dragons leads into the reveal of his mother and even though the reveal bit itself has been seared into my brain permanently thanks to trailer overexposure these past six months, the scene still had genuine emotional impact.  Although their relationship is barely touched on, there’s a very naturalistic and cute scene with Astrid and Hiccup early on.  The reunion between Stoick and Valka (the name of Hiccup’s mother) is sweetly tender, as is a duet between the two later on.  The first of the film’s two giant battle sequences is a technical marvel and, though its emotional climax didn’t really work for me personally, it’s executed strongly enough that it will lead to wet eyes for the majority of the audience.  And there’s one short little sequence in the film’s finale that goes back to the Hiccup/Toothless relationship (which is put on the backburner for most of the film, more on that in a second) that legitimately affected me, though that may be due to my being a dog owner.  These are the film’s high points, when everything is in perfect sync and operating at full power, and they tease towards an excellent film.

And I know that sounds like an excellent segway into a “but…” but I need to single out Jay Baruchel’s voice work, real quick.  He wasn’t bad in the original film, far from it, but hearing his voice come out of the body of a 14 year-old was… jarring.  I get the idea it was going for, but it didn’t really work.  Now, though, Hiccup is 20 and Baruchel’s voice is practically perfect for the man.  Of course, if that were all it were good for, I wouldn’t be singling it out.  He is fantastic in this.  Genuinely fantastic.  He nails practically every single line, getting the right cadence for the situation and conveying Hiccup’s feelings expertly; there’s a scene during the film’s emotional high point where, again whilst it didn’t quite work for me, I realised exactly how powerful it’s supposed to be thanks to his subtly distraught line delivery.  He’s so good that it’s even more jarring when he over-eggs the film’s final narration just a little bit too much cos he’s fantastic, otherwise.

OK, now it’s time for the “but…”  See, despite the beautiful animation, Jay Baruchel’s phenomenal voice work and those excellent individual scenes, the film still doesn’t work as a whole.  Some of those reasons are easy for me to explain, some aren’t at all.  Although it doesn’t have the pacing issues the first film did (which, for me anyway, dragged in spots even though it only lasted 98 minutes), How To Train Your Dragon 2 still has a large amount of dead weight and a lack of true narrative focus.  For example, remember the other dragon academy kids from the first film?  They’re back and they still do pretty much nothing except provide occasional bursts of comic relief and be another recognisable face in the battle scenes.  The film teases having a subplot for them, involving two of the guys competing for a very uninterested girl’s affections, but it never amounts to anything more than tossed-off comic relief.  So the kids show up to get kidnapped at one point and that’s about it.

More problematic is the lack of a true emotional core to the film.  HHTYD2 has the mother plot and the Drago plot and it wants to do both.  It really wants to do both.  The problem is that both plots, theoretically, have enough ideas and themes in them to sustain an entire film by themselves.  The mother one has parental abandonment, couple reunion, re-integrations into society, mother-son bonds and the question of whether people really can change; the Drago plot has dragon hierarchies, militarisation of dragons, noble intentions corrupted by power, tragedy, indiscriminate mass-murder by the heroes (are you seriously going to try and argue that all of those random human mooks in the battle scenes teleported away before death or something) and the opportunity for a morally murky villain.  Unfortunately, the film wants to do both and neither side has themes that cross over enough to allow either side to be developed fully.  So, consequently, neither side gets explored enough to have their full impact and both sides end up relatively wasted in some way.

Drago, for example, doesn’t appear on screen for the entire first half of the movie and is barely on screen even after his appearance.  He’s first mentioned at the 20 minute mark but despite constant invocations of dread by the characters of the film, he doesn’t actually do anything until a good hour in, like he’s just waiting for the mother stuff to finish so his plot can start.  His backstory gets a dramatic reveal and teases motivations that could lead to a morally tricky conflict, but it’s almost immediately discredited as Hiccup all but shouts, “You’re a bad guy,” and Drago basically smirks and admits, “Yeah, you’re right, I’m a dick and didn’t mean a word of what I said.”  He’s not even an imposing or menacing villain, he’s just boring and one-dimensional instead of mysterious or threatening.  It’s a waste of a villain.  Also, yes, the fact that the villain is the sole character of colour shown in this world in-film is a very unfortunate implication that I can’t believe an entire company, in a post-The Last Airbender world, allowed to pass through unflagged by somebody.

Valka, meanwhile, does get a lot of time fostered on her but she affects practically zero percent of the plot.  Because the plot ends up revolving around Drago and, despite being a master dragon wrangler/tamer/rider, when it’s time for battle to start, she is knocked on her arse and shoved off to the side-lines for Hiccup to resolve everything.  Snippiness aside, despite taking up pretty much the entire middle act, Valka contributes nothing of real value to the film besides a pep talk to Hiccup and to exist for something that just clicked in my head but I can’t talk about because spoilers.  It’s like the Astrid stuff from the first How To Train Your Dragon, which similarly showcased tonnes of narrative potential only to be totally squandered by the film’s decision to just turn that character into a satellite that orbits around Hiccup accomplishing nothing by themselves (incidentally, Astrid’s role in this film consists of: couple talk, pep talk, getting kidnapped, being rescued by someone else, face to follow during battles, Big Damn Kiss).  It’s extra-infuriating here because the film spends so long on Valka and her character arc, even attempting to make her the emotional centre, until it just flings it all away for the last half hour…

…wherein we return to the Hiccup/Toothless relationship to raise stakes for the finale.  It should be a huge emotional gut-punch, but it doesn’t work because the film kind of forgets how important the two of them are together once Valka hits the scene.  It relies on prior attachment for all of its emotional impact, so HHTYD2’s near-total dismissal of just how important the pair’s bond is until it’s relevant to the plot kills most of the possible impact.  It feels cheap, especially since the whole situation gets wrapped up about 10 to 15 minutes after it’s brought up, so there’s no real chance to let it sting or for the themes it wants to touch on to resonate.

But more than that, something has plagued both How To Train Your Dragons for me.  Like, both films have clearly definable issues but there’s also something… more.  Something else that I can’t quite explain.  They’re missing… “something,” a certain feeling, a certain magic, the kind of magic that can overcome issues like poor story structure and a lack of focus.  I don’t know, I can’t explain it, but it’s there in Wreck-It Ralph, it’s there in The Lego Movie, it’s there in Mulan, it’s most definitely there in ParaNorman, but it’s missing from here.  It’s especially baffling because Dean DeBlois (who directed both installments) and Chris Sanders (who only did the first one) are previous of Lilo & Stitch, which had the unexplainable yet tangible quality in spades.  It’s not heart, because both films do have it and both films are clearly made with a lot of love, it’s something else and it’s the lack of that “something” that keeps the whole enterprise from soaring as high as it should do and as it keeps teasing it can.  Better film critics or film scholars than I will likely come up with actual theories or explanations that may hit the nail on the head for me, be they explaining that missing “something” or finding an actual problem that I couldn’t explain, but all I can do is tell you what I know and what I know is that something I don’t know is missing from or spoiling this movie and that keeps it from being excellent despite my not knowing exactly what it is… if you get what on earth I mean.

How To Train Your Dragon 2, then, really is its parent film’s sequel.  It has most of the exact same strengths, most of the exact same highpoints, most of the exact same flaws and that exact same “something” that dragged down the first film.  If I had seen this in 2010, from the animation company that just two months later was going to deploy yet another Shrek sequel on this undeserving planet, I would have given it a gold star sticker of improvement and given it a total pass in the hopes that DreamWorks can do better.  Unfortunately, this is 2014 and DreamWorks have shown that it can do better, but it’s made a movie with the exact same strengths and weaknesses as that film from 2010, so I have to evaluate it as I see it.  And I see HTTYD2 as a good movie that I very much enjoyed held back poor plotting, inconsistent focus in both the narrative and the emotional core, and suffering from a certain “something”.  Gorgeous visuals, though.

Of course, if you had no problems with the first How To Train Your Dragon, you may want to ignore all of this and go and see it anyway.  In fact, no, if you had no problems with the first How To Train Your Dragon, you should ignore all of this and see the film immediately.  It really is exactly like the first one, so I see absolutely no reason why you wouldn’t love this.  I can only tell you how I felt and I didn’t love the first one, so… yeah.

Callum Petch is oh so healthy in his body and his mind.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!