Tag Archives: Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas

Kung Fu Panda 2

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Firstly, sorry for the sudden two week break.  I had a mountain of university essay work to do and, like a pillock, I don’t pre-write these.  So, anyway…

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.


kung fu panda 222] Kung Fu Panda 2 (26th May 2011)

Budget: $150 million

Gross: $665,692,281

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%

Jennifer Yuh Nelson is one hell of a director.

If I have one major regret about my work throughout this series so far, it’s that I haven’t talked anywhere near enough about direction.  Part of that is due to my own personal biases with regards to DreamWorks Animation before embarking on this project, with myself having spent much of my life subscribing to the belief that DreamWorks, way more so than Disney or what have you, was a factory that pumped out films collectively rather than individually.  Jeffrey Katzenberg seemingly having his fingers in damn near everything we’ve talked about so far didn’t really help in my attempt to dissuade myself from that notion as we’ve journeyed forth.

The rest is because I am very much learning as I go.  Yeah, to tear down that Wizard Of Oz curtain here, I am not an expert on animation.  In fact, quite frankly, I know very little about the medium, the process, and the history of it all.  If I were to show my work to somebody who has dedicated their life to studying animation, like, say, one of my university lecturers, she would probably make it to about paragraph 4 of the first entry before attempting to gut me like a pig, such is the butchery I have likely committed with regards to talking about animation.

But all of that is OK because a) I have never attempted to claim that I am a super-expert on animation (except when I was a bit younger and much more stupid) and b) I am actively trying to learn and better myself.  For example, I spent a lot of last year referring to different layers of animation, specifically where characters would be animated obviously separately to the background, as “Chroma-Keying” which, as it turns out, is incorrect.  The process, as detailed to me by the Hullaballoo production blog, is actually known as “Compositing”.  See, I’ve learned something – and now so have you, more than likely, yay! – so I don’t feel bad about having gotten it badly wrong beforehand.

Hence why I haven’t referred to directing too much during this series.  Animation is an extremely collaborative medium, where tens to hundreds of people all work on the same project and any of them can make decisions that can alter how something ends up in the finished product.  I was reticent, therefore, to praise specific directors for parts of these films that I liked.  After all, how could I be sure that it was their choices and their quirks and not Visual Effects Artist #5?  But somewhat recently I got to thinking: isn’t that the same thing with live-action films?  And why do I subscribe to this thinking with regards to DreamWorks, yet I will get giddy at the prospect of a Lauren Faust animated film?

Besides, although auteur theory is very much passé and disproven in film and television nowadays, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.  To shift from DreamWorks for a minute, I have recently been making full-on observations as to how I can tell that some of my favourite animated shows are made with certain people at the helm.  In that, yeah, it’s a team effort, but theirs is the creative voice that stands out the most.  For example, Genndy Tartakovsky – who incidentally just turned 45!  Happy Birthday! – is the creator of Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack, and both shows carry the same deliberate pacing that works long beats, pauses, and repetitions into their DNA for both dramatic and humorous effect.  It also shows up in The Powerpuff Girls, even though that’s a show by Craig McCracken, because the two were friends and Genndy had a significant hand in shaping that show.  Future shows have shown McCracken to have a faster and slightly tighter voice than Tartakovsky – Wander Over Yonder, for example, wastes not one moment of any of its episodes.

In the end, it was a combination of those and Oliver Sawa’s excellent reviews of The Legend Of Korra over at The AV Club that managed to make me realise that I really should have referred to direction more in this series.  So, with that in mind, we circle back around to our opening statement.

Jennifer Yuh Nelson is one hell of a director.

If you’ve been following along with this series, the name “Jennifer Yuh Nelson” should be relatively familiar to you.  Yuh has been with DreamWorks Animation since 1998, starting as a story artist on Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and the first Madagascar before progressing to Head of Story on Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.  Her true breakthrough came when, as a fan of martial arts movies growing up, she asked to work on the first Kung Fu Panda and was subsequently made Head of Story there, as well as getting to direct the opening hand-drawn dream sequence.  She won an Annie Award for her work on it – which, as we saw back when we talked about it, was more than deserved – and Katzenberg personally approached her to direct Kung Fu Panda 2 as a result of her work.

Hence why Kung Fu Panda 2 looks so damn incredible.  Yuh’s love for martial arts films is on full prominent display, both in terms of individual shots and scene construction – which is what most of this week’s article is going to be, just a heads up on that department – and overall pacing and tone.  Now, I must admit that I am not too familiar with Wuxia and other sorts of Martial Arts films, but I do have enough of a grasp on the style and tones of them to realise that Kung Fu Panda 2 bleeds martial arts films.  It’s one of those (worryingly rare) action animation films that has each frequent action scene actually mean something instead of just marking time.  It’s a film that deals with its character work through equal parts dialogue and action, with both working equally well.

As an example, look at the fight sequence between Po and Master Croc & Master Ox.  No, seriously, look at this thing, I’ll wait.

(You’ll have to follow this link, I’m afraid, as it turns out that embeds for the clip have been disabled.)

It’s not just a fight scene for the sake of a fight scene.  It’s a fun way of livening up what would otherwise be rather dry and boring sequence of Po pleading for help.  The dialogue is written in a way that perfectly complements the action, the music takes on this 70s funk tinge to counterbalance the cheese with some coolness, and the choreography pitches itself as this purposefully silly and slightly cheesy releasing of each character’s various emotions in order to make that sad, defeatist walk into the cell next door an act that has a genuine sadness attached to it rather than just being understatedly humorous.  It’s its own thing whilst still clearly indebted to the classic Hong Kong martial arts films Yuh loves so dearly.

Which, in fact, is very much a running theme throughout the film.  Kung Fu Panda 2 is one of those heavily-indebted animated films that actually takes full advantage of the fact that animation increases the visual and storytelling capabilities to stage things that couldn’t be done (or done this smoothly and naturally) in live-action beyond the whole “talking animals” thing.  For example, look at the rickshaw chase scene that comes immediately after the prison cell fight.  No, seriously, look at it right now.  Do it.

There’s a certain wilful excessive escalation going on in this scene – I’m specifically thinking of everything to do with the basket of baby bunnies – that I could see also occurring in Kung Fu Panda 2’s live-action equivalent, but not with the same sense of flow and believable madcap energy that animation can achieve.  For example, the moment where Po’s rickshaw flies off into the air and he has to spin it around in order to catch the flying children could be pulled off in live-action, but would require multiple frenetic cuts (compared to the controlled, calculated, and varied three shots that it takes up here) and likely a whole lot of distracting green screen work to pull off.  Again: indebted yet its own thing.

Or how about the dragon costume disguise?  Once again, something that wouldn’t feel out-of-place in live-action yet takes full advantage of the medium by utilising the smoother flow and faster possible speed of animation to turn it into an excellent gag.  Not to mention the way in which the film finds every possible spin on the gag that it can and blazes through them in quick succession.  The first time utilising the squash-and-stretch capabilities of animation to create a genuinely inspired piece of toilet humour, the second time playing the image against the kid’s confused horror, the third time using the launched goons for projectiles, and the fourth and final time using clever boarding to create an image reminiscent of top-down arcade maze games, with Pac-Man being the intended but not sole reference.

But, I have wasted too much time on the direction of the comedy.  Instead, the sequences that really impressed me, as in they got me to genuinely say the opening sentence to this entry out loud as the film was still ongoing multiple times, were the more dramatic character revelations and breakthrough sequences – the dramatic stuff, in other words.  For example, much of the dramatic thrust of the film revolves around Po discovering that he is adopted, a revelation played for laughs and legitimate drama without either undercutting the other, and his desire to learn what happened to him.  His slightly overbearing father, Ping, and Po’s eating habits have mostly been a source of comic relief up to this point, but then one exceptional sequence is able to recontextualize the pair of them into genuinely emotional character traits, again without losing the comedy.

Yes, you know what to do now.

It’s the subtle direction choices that make this scene.  How every shot is saturated in this bright, warm golden glow to signify nostalgia which firmly sets us in Ping’s mind without overdoing it to send the technique into parody, the frequent usage of slow dollies into the faces of Po and Ping to connect them both so totally even within a few moments of their first meeting, James Hong’s soft-spoken and deliberately underplayed delivery in sharp contrast to his usual ham-and-cheese, Jack Black’s similarly underplayed reaction to Po’s disappointment at having no concrete answers, the music melting into the very background to let the words and pictures tell the story.

It’s a scene of enormous confidence.  Most animated films are very much content to overcook everything, or just have the characters loudly state the themes or what have you without it fitting their characters, but this scene ends up being typical of Kung Fu Panda 2.  It has the nerve and the confidence to realise that not every joke needs to be a giant laugh-out-loud gutbuster, that a score doesn’t have to force its way to the forefront of the mix to render emotion, and that the viewing audience will get exactly how sad or upset a character feels without having to force their voice actor to strain for emotion or to have the animation flail around wildly.

The best example of this confidence in the viewership, undoubtedly, comes from when Po, under the guide and care of The Soothsayer, finally confronts and accepts his traumatic past.  I mean, just…

First of all, and because you just knew I was going to go straight for this, just look at the transitions between the CG world and the cel-animated memories.  Like, look at them!  The vivid exaggerations of the cel animation, coupled with their bright primary colours that give way to progressively darker shading as we get further and further in, brilliantly convey the dream-like lost childhood memory nature of the revelation that Po initially saw it as.  Note how the wolves themselves seem more demonic, rabid, and dangerous than the snivelling, mangy versions that we’ve been used to seeing in the movie up until that point.  And then how we switch from cel animation for the flashbacks to CG once Po has fully accepted what happened; that these are no longer horrible nightmares, but genuine fragments of his past.  How he has grown to accept the reality of the situation and how they are a part of him.

The score ends up being the most powerful piece of the entire film, striking exactly the right balance between nakedly emotional and spiritually uplifting, the dialogue cuts out literally any line that is not 100% necessary to proceedings because too many words would simply undercut the drama, and the mood remains serious the entire time as Yuh and her team trust the audience won’t grow restless as we deal with this major character breakthrough.  Then there are the actual transitions, the way that the match cuts and smooth pans and camera moves between animation mediums never jar because they utilise more subtle gestures – like the rain drop in CG that substitutes into the hair bun of Po’s mother in cel.  And finally there’s the mini-clip-show which is lingered on precisely long enough to achieve maximum impact without once invoking wonders of unnecessary repetition.

Seriously, Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s direction of this whole film is exceptional, but that sequence is frickin’ virtuoso.  It’s a sequence that heavily reminds me of Avatar: The Last Airbender – in fact, the whole film reminds me a tonne of that and The Legend Of Korra, especially with how Lord Shen is portrayed as a dark mirror version of Po who turned to rage and violence when confronted with parental abandonment – yet feels of its own, its own uniqueness, its own style.  It’s powerful, it’s inspirational, and it couldn’t have been handled better.  Undoubtedly a team effort, but clearly guided and controlled with such skill and passion by one woman.

I could sit here for the next 10 or so A4 pages gushing over Kung Fu Panda 2 and its every last facet – I am pretty much adamant in my belief, by this point, that this is DreamWorks Animation’s masterpiece – but my deadline and word count limit aren’t too far away, so I’m going to wrap up by talking about, what else, the female lead of a DreamWorks Animation film.  Now, in the first Kung Fu Panda, The Furious Five are very much minor characters who exist in service of Po’s story and little more.  We get a tiny insight into their various personalities but not much more than that.  The same is mostly true of the sequel, just with the switching of Go-To Comic Relief from David Cross’ Crane to Seth Rogen’s Mantis, barring one crucial difference.

Tigress is now co-lead.

Now, one could be cynical and claim that this is only due to somebody at DreamWorks remembering that they got Angelina Jolie to voice one of their characters, and that if you’ve gone to that much trouble, you should probably make actual usage of her.  However, I feel that that is severely underselling the character of Tigress in Kung Fu Panda 2.  One of the frequently recurring themes we’ve seen throughout this series – of articles, not the Kung Fu Panda films specifically – has been DreamWorks’ constant voluntary torching and diminishing of any female co-lead they come up with.  Fiona in Shrek, Gloria in Madagascar (although that one hasn’t bothered me so much yet), Marina in Sinbad, and of course Astrid in How To Train Your Dragon; these are (bar Gloria) all females who have their own agency and character and plot arcs, only to have said agency and arcs ripped from them as they suddenly fall for the gravitational pull of the lead male’s genitalia (METAPHORICALLY) and need saving from there on out.

Tigress is a step-up from those, a vast step-up, if not a clean break.  She gets her own plot line and arc, as she learns to slowly defrost that icy demeanour and let people into her life, although it does relate around Po and her relationship to him.  Crucially, however, “relationship” in this case very much points towards “platonic” rather than “romantic.”  It would have been very easy to twist her and Po’s various interactions with one another into romance in order to close out the film with yet another Marina-type scenario, but it instead resists.  Po is an affectionate guy, constantly hugging and professing his love for his friends, and Tigress’ slow releasing of emotion ends up coming as a result of his influence: hence the hug.  It’s not romantic, it’s platonic, a sign that she cares as a friend, further enhanced by her hysterical statue-reaction to being on the receiving end of a proper Po hug at the end, the unfamiliarity for her of that hug robbing the sequence of almost all intended romantic subtext.

Yes, she also gets captured, but only because she thought her one true friend had been killed and she had lost the will to fight, just like the rest of The Furious Five.  Yes, her plot and arc are tied to Po, but she still has her own agency and nobody questions her or her abilities.  Yes, she’s a terse emotionless, mostly humourless girl, but that part of her arc was dealt with in the first film and this one expands her character, softens her edges so that her arc feels more gradual instead of monumental.  There are even times where she gets to display genuine agency, like during the final battle where she takes Lord Shen’s shot meant for Po with no guarantee that she would get out alive.  I’m reminded a lot of Mako Mori from Pacific Rim in terms of how her character is handled, albeit not that revelatory.  It’s not perfect, but it is a major step-up for a company that, as we have touched on multiple times this series, has had a recurring problem with the female gender.

Two months ago, I covered the first Kung Fu Panda and noted how I would never truly be able to love it, despite recognising that it’s a great film and desperately wanting to love it, because I had too much prior life baggage attached to it, although I noted my high hopes for Kung Fu Panda 2.  As you may have gathered, those hopes ended up being more than fulfilled.  I actually finished the film mildly angry, because it turned out that I had spent nearly 4 years voluntarily depriving myself of a modern masterpiece.  Kung Fu Panda 2 is insanely good, the kind of sequel that recognises and improves upon what worked in the first film and jettisons what didn’t, that gets more ambitious, more confident in being able to go darker and have the audience follow along no matter what, and the kind of film where a strong directorial voice is able to elevate an already great film into something even more through their vision and drive.

So I’ll say it again, loud and clear, Jennifer Yuh Nelson is one hell of a director!  Thank the Maker she’s coming back for Kung Fu Panda 3!


A hit with the critics and a runaway smash overseas, albeit a major underperformer at home – a fact that we will touch on again in a few weeks – Kung Fu Panda 2 solidified DreamWorks’ third potential franchise as one that would stick around for the long haul.  Their other film for 2011 would attempt to re-invigorate the Shrek brand by spinning-off the series’ non-Donkey breakout character into his own franchise.  Surprisingly, the move worked with critics and even did decent business at the box office.  But was this all justified?  Next week, we pay one last visit to the Shrek universe and look at Puss In Boots.

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

Callum Petch is doing all that he can to be a warm-hearted man.  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)!

Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas

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.


sinbad 207] Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas (2nd July 2003)

Budget: $60 million

Gross: $80,767,884

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 45%

Have you noticed anything about the nature of DreamWorks releases yet?  I mean, do you notice how each of their films seem geared towards a specific audience with little overlap?  Maybe this requires further explanation.  Look at the filmography for Pixar.  With the exception of the Cars series, which are blatantly aimed near-exclusively at kids, notice how they don’t actually create films for a specific audience.  They go general, try and make films that can appeal to everyone near-equally.  They don’t go “And this one is the kids’ film, and that one is the award bait film, and that one is the one more aimed at adults…” and so on.  Pixar films mostly just aim for a wide-as-possible audience and then people get what they want out of it.  DreamWorks Animation, however, and at least in regards to the films featured up to this point, do work on a more-focussed mind-set.  Like, Shrek was the kids’ film, The Prince Of Egypt was the Oscar bait, Antz was the one aimed at an older audience…  See what I’m getting at?

Remember back when I talked about Chicken Run and I posited the theory that this intention was to create an animation company where a whole bunch of different types of films encompassing all different age ranges, genres and animation styles could congregate under one house name that represents quality?  It’s one that rings true the more I think of it and one day, if I ever get the chance, I’d like to put it to Jeffrey Katzenberg and see how far on or off-base I am with it.  So, in this cycle of DreamWorks films, if Shrek is the one aimed more at kids and Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron was the Oscar bait, then that makes Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas the one aimed at an older audience.  More specifically, it feels like DreamWorks going back and addressing some unfinished business that The Road To El Dorado had created.

You’ll recall that The Road To El Dorado was a silly, lightweight buddy-comedy adventure throwback that is far better than its critical and financial reputation suggest.  But those reputations were what people remembered El Dorado to be at the time (it would take a while for it to become the cult classic that it deserved to be) and one gets the feeling that DreamWorks felt that they had something to prove, that they needed to demonstrate that they could crack this genre and this kind of movie.  Hence Sinbad, a film that apparently has pretty much nothing to do with the Sinbad mythos excepting the character name, a Roc, the island that’s actually an angler fish, and that boats are involved; including the fact that Sinbad himself is no longer Arab (a move that was taken to task at the time of its release by certain publications).  It’s cut very much from the same cloth as El Dorado, being a fast-paced genre-blending adventure throwback.  The Wikipedia page even uses the word “swashbuckling” in the opening description without a hint of self-awareness!  It’s got charming actors and actresses swapping witty dialogue at all-times, the protagonists of both start off as anti-heroes and slowly make their way towards becoming true heroes, there’s a love-triangle (sure, you keep telling yourself that Tulio and Miguel aren’t in love with one another in El Dorado, I’m sure you’ll believe your own delusions eventually), it tries to blend traditional animation with CGI enhancements…

…and, much like El Dorado, nobody ended up biting.  It is currently the third worst reviewed film in DreamWorks Animation’s history, only ahead of Shrek The Third and Shark Tale (which is two weeks away, so brace yourself accordingly if you’re watching along), it has the smallest profit of any of their films ($80 million gross against a $60 million budget) and is also the biggest loser in the company’s history, racking up a loss of $125 million.  It, combined with the failure of El Dorado and the underperformance of Spirit, sent DreamWorks running from traditional animation as fast as humanly possible, was a key factor in the sale of DreamWorks the studio to Paramount, ending the company’s independent nature, and was the very last nail in the coffin for traditionally-animated films in the West, a topic we spent the majority of last-week talking about.  You can put El Dorado down as a failure, if you wish, but that film’s D.O.A. status (at the time) didn’t push the company to the brink of ruin.  I’d say that Sinbad holds a very ignominious position in the company’s history that is unlikely to be matched nowadays, financial-wise, but, well, I’m assuming you read all of my entry on Joseph: King Of Dreams.

So, how come?  Why did nobody bite?  Well, as per usual, we can blame marketing.  You have watched the embedded trailer for this one, right?  As I mentioned last week, it’s this kind of samey interchangeable marketing that drove people to computer-animated films that were marketed far better.  The New York Times noted that the only animated films that found genuine success during this dark period were comedies aimed at both genders instead of adventures that were aimed near-solely at young boys (of course, that doesn’t explain the disappointing underperformance of Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove, but sure I’ll go with that), a sub-genre that was already a bit over-saturated by the time of Sinbad’s release.  There’s also the release date, which was the same weekend as Terminator 3 and Legally Blonde 2 (look, they will have caused some neglectful parenting, believe me), during a Summer where Finding Nemo was picking new releases out of its teeth with $100 bills (which, in fairness, nobody could really have foreseen, especially with just how long those legs ended up being), and seven whole goddamn days before Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl.  Also, yes, much like Titan A.E. likely did so for that film, the very public crashing and burning of Treasure Planet will almost certainly have had an effect on this film’s box office takings seeing as pirates were still seen as box office poison (until seven days later, at least).

There is, however, a much simpler reason, one that explains why it didn’t receive a box office resurgence when Pirates Of The Caribbean made pirates cool again.  Sinbad just isn’t very good.  It’s not bad, and it has very good vocal performances and a great villain, but it is really unremarkable.  It wanders through its 85 minutes not really saying much of anything or trying anything different.  I mean, those aren’t necessarily bad things; El Dorado didn’t attempt to say anything and wasn’t attempting anything that a hundred other movies like it hadn’t already tried before, but I had a lot of fun with that.  The problem comes from how perfunctory everything feels.  Whereas El Dorado has love and effort put into every frame, Sinbad feels more slap-dash, more generic, like a lot of the things that do end up going on are only happening because those are the beats that need to appear in this stuff.  It feels like “here’s the action opening, now here’s the quiet little bit, here’s the villain giving our hero a reason to set off on an adventure, now we introduce the main dynamic for the film, it’s been too long since an action scene, set one off immediately!” with most being executed with a lack of soul.  The requisite thrills are there but there’s nothing beneath or in those thrills, if you get me.  It’s oddly soulless.

That’s the main problem with Sinbad, although there are other ones.  For another, the film’s structure is awkward and poor.  We jump straight into the action with Sinbad already a feared outlaw who is ready to pull one last job, and learn all the important character relationships and skills on the fly.  Nice idea in theory, but in practice it just leads to characters spouting exposition at one another (and then frequently re-stating said exposition so that even the youngest are absolutely aware of the vital info) and makes the relationship between Sinbad and Proteus, one that apparently was majorly important for the both of them in their younger years, hollow.  I never got a sense of why these two were friends in the first place, let alone why Proteus is willing to risk his life in the hopes that Sinbad still cares about him after all those years.  Contrast with The Prince Of Egypt for an example of a DreamWorks film taking the time to build up that central relationship so that it has meaning.  I understand the wish to not simply retread ground that El Dorado already covered, but I need full-on proof about a close bond in order to believe in it, not just having everybody repeatedly tell me so.

Mind, Proteus and Sinbad is not the main relationship that most of the film pivots on.  That would be Sinbad and Marina, Proteus’ fiancé.  Now, for a good hour of this film’s runtime, I really liked what it was doing with her.  She was tough without losing her feminine charm, not exactly “sassy” but capable of giving as good as she gets from Sinbad, she gets kidnapped at one point (by the Roc) but is still more than capable at escaping with Sinbad being more of an assist than her sole rescuer, and she was overall a well-written and interesting character.  Her capability at seafaring even seemed like it’ll remove Sinbad’s sexist ways via begrudging respect and a close fire-forged bond as friends when all is said and done…  And then, right on cue, it’s revealed that they have both fallen in love with one another because of course.  I mean, god forbid the token girl who ends up just as capable at proceedings as the men not immediately be attracted to the gravitational pull of the lead character’s genitalia, right?  It’s especially egregious here because not only could you cut the romance stuff and lose almost literally nothing, lest we forget that she is engaged to marry our lead character’s childhood best friend!  Oh, but it’s an arranged marriage, Proteus totally understands and just wants her to be happy, so it’s all OK(!)  I was reminded very much of how the first How To Train Your Dragon treated Astrid, giving her depth and character motivations of her own and teasing a plot where she eventually comes to respect and like Hiccup as a friend or comrade, only to set fire to that hard work at the halfway point by also having her succumb to the gravitational pull of the lead character’s genitalia (METAPHORICALLY! Metaphorically! They’re children, literally would be gross and horrible and wrong).

This makes as good a segway as any to talk about Sinbad himself and how he’s kind of an unlikable dick.  Oh, sure, he doesn’t immediately start that way, the opening action sequence with the ship raid finds him in relentlessly charming anti-hero mode, talking and acting like pretty much any Joss Whedon character ever.  The issue starts when he is set free from prison with the goal of getting to Tartarus and he immediately, and without any guilt, decides to head to Fiji and leave his childhood friend to die.  It’s a dick move, plain and simple; a bit too much of a dick move for me.  I get that the idea is for character development to eventually prevail and turn him from a puckish rogue into a full-fledged hero but, well, your lead character should probably not be so much of a jerk as to turn your audience against him near-completely.  Plus, his sexism towards Marina only compounds the unlikability.  Sexist characters, for me at least (being a very strong feminist and all), are often near-immediately thrown into the “I would like for you to suffer a painful death as quickly as possible” pile anyway (so, if you ever see any pieces of media in which sexists suffer long drawn out dispatches, be sure to check the writer credits cos I may have bumbled my way into an industry I have interest in being creative in), but it’s rarely exaggerated enough to be humorous, like the intention is supposed to be.  The film at least has the good grace to call out his behaviour as wrong at every opportunity, but then he gets over his sexism by falling in love and I just want to drink the draining fluid from under the sink.

Animation, meanwhile, is not great.  It does hold the distinct honour of being the first animated film made entirely in Linux (in 2003 when, according to TV Tropes at least, animation functionality in Linux was limited, to say the least), so it has that going for it, but it’s still not great.  Character animations frequently seem to be missing a whole bunch of frames, coming off as jerky as a result, character designs are too Disney-esque for their own good, feeling like pale imitators instead of a unique voice, whilst the attempts to blend CG and traditional animation (if it’s not a person, it’s mostly computer-animated) are frequently nowhere near as seamless as, let’s say, Long John Silver from Treasure Planet.  Backgrounds and complicated camera tracking shots are fine.  Ships, monsters, the sea and various special effects really aren’t, noticeably sticking out in a way that’s more distracting than a conscious artistic decision.  Time and advancing technology may be influencing my thoughts in this regard, it may have looked damn near seamless and really pretty back in its day, but I can only tell you about how a film looks now and it has aged poorly (and before you think I’m too in-love with it to level any criticisms against it, Treasure Planet kinda really suffers from this issue as well).

All this being said, Sinbad isn’t without merit.  Although its genre-blending often leaves the film feeling a little schizophrenic until it finally settles into its groove, it does enable us to have a fantastic villain in the form of the Goddess Of Chaos herself, Eris.  She’s everything I like in a good showy movie villain: she’s playful, affable, perfectly aware of herself and using that to her advantage, hammy without being overly so, and in it just enough to make you wish she was there more but not so much that she overpowers the film.  Most of the animation work also clearly went into her, too, because her every movement is filled with details both obvious, like how she never once stays totally still for even a half second, and incidental, how her eyes can flit between being something close-to-human and completely otherworldly depending on the situation.  Initially, upon the realisation that she actually was Eris, I jokingly and rather pessimistically made the mental note that she was going to give me the perfect excuse to go on about the Eris featured in The Grim Adventures Of Billy & Mandy, and Rachael MacFarlane’s performance of said interpretation, if she underwhelmed in any facet, but she doesn’t.  Everything really does come together on that character, here, and she is the best part of this film.  Hell, you can watch all of her scenes in this video embed, if you want, at least then you’ll know that you’ve seen the best parts of the film and saved yourself another 70 minutes of your life.

The other big plus is that the voice acting from the leads is really damn good, presumably because two of them had genuine personal reasons for getting involved beyond “is that a whopping great paycheque I smell?”  Michelle Pfeiffer plays the aforementioned Eris, a role that she took based on the urging of her children apparently (I sometimes wonder what it’s like to be the child of an actor and actress who might play a role in a cartoon), and she knocks it out of the park.  Barring one or two awkwardly delivered lines, she gets the character dead-on, going theatrical without being overly hammy and helping to make Eris a villain who is a prankster, but one whose pranks carry about them genuine threat.  Brad Pitt plays Sinbad, a role he took because he wanted his nieces and nephews to be able to actually watch one of his films, and his natural charm and likeability is trying its damndest to keep Sinbad himself from veering off the cliff of tolerability, even if I did spend a lot of the runtime distracted trying to figure who exactly was voicing him (you know when you recognise the voice but can’t remember who it belongs to?  Yeah, this was one of those times).  He was even committed enough to be conflicted about the fact that his Missouri accent sounds nothing close to ethnic or Arab, which is something I guess.  Catherine Zeta-Jones is Marina and she’s very convincing in the role, especially when Marina is barely tolerating Sinbad’s sh*t.  Also, Dennis Haysbert is in this!  I like Dennis Haysbert!  He was David Palmer in 24 and Lambert in one glorious instalment of the Splinter Cell series, and his voice is like a hug from a warm teddy bear!

I should mention that I don’t dislike Sinbad.  I had some good fun with its mildly entertaining action beats, Eris is a cracking villain, and I was really liking what the film was doing with Marina until it ended up exactly where I should have known it was going to end up.  It’s just really mediocre, though.  It doesn’t do anything that hasn’t already been done better, its animation is of a lower-quality than I expect, and it’s all rather soulless.  There’s no real emotional connection to the film and it leaves the enterprise feeling hollow.  Did it deserve the 6th place debut and complete and total failure that it got?  No, and I feel that it wouldn’t have suffered that fate if a) traditional animation wasn’t officially in the last stages of life support, b) it were much better marketed, and c) released a few months after Pirates Of The Caribbean in order to capitalise on the resurgence of pirates, but that’s how it ended up and it wouldn’t have fixed the issue of the fact that it’s not a particularly good film.  There may have been a higher opening weekend, but it would likely have still sunk like a stone afterwards, and most definitely would not have had the same legs that Finding Nemo had.  Sometimes, films fail at release and disappear into obscurity for a reason, and this just happened to be one of those times, I’m afraid.


As you may have gathered, DreamWorks was in a bad spot in mid-2003, with their last two films underwhelming spectacularly at the box office and the company itself having been bought out of its independent roots in order to survive.  Fortunately, things would swiftly turn around next year with two major financial successes, starting up a box office hot streak that would last for the next 4 years, albeit at the expense of critical praise and respect by the Internet animated fandom.  Next week, we tackle the first of them which is still one of the most successful animated films of all-time: Shrek 2.

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

Callum Petch is here of his own free will.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!