How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

2015 #45
Dean DeBlois | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Four years ago, DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon came as a pleasant surprise: a film I thought looked weak in almost every respect, but which turned out to be immensely entertaining and beautifully made. This sequel has the opposite level of expectation, then, but fortunately it’s (mostly) up to the task.

Part of its success stems from being bold with the concept. Rather than just rehashing the first film’s story, or taking it in only a slightly different direction, returning writer-director Dean DeBlois (his former co-director, Chris Sanders, having moved on to fellow DreamWorks hit The Croods) jumps the story forward five years, in the process changing the status quo of the film’s world enough to keep it fresh. So whereas the last movie ended with dragon-hating vikings having some kind of grudging acceptance of the titular bewinged creatures, here those dragons have been fully integrated into viking society; and the teenage heroes have been aged up to be young adults.

The latter, in particular, necessitates some great design work to age the younger characters appropriately. It’s the kind of thing that looks obvious in retrospect, but it isn’t — how many animations can you think of that have to reimagine their characters as slightly older; enough to make a notable difference, but not as extreme as, say, turning them from young children to adults, or from middle-aged to very old? I can’t think of any. Nonetheless, the team here have done a faultless job. That applies to the film’s visuals on the whole. It looks gorgeous in every way: the design, the animation, the construction of the digital world, the lighting… and so on.

Tonally, DeBlois has been productively inspired by The Empire Strikes Back: it’s still child-friendly, but nonetheless more mature, and with some striking emotional beats. The main plot — concerning an army that enslaves dragons, vs. our hero vikings who live alongside them — is a little hit and miss, with some construction issues (which I’ll come back to). The characters and their emotional arcs, however, are more consistently realised, sometimes with a less-is-more approach. For instance, it’s quite nice that DeBlois doesn’t introduce needless jeopardy into the romance between Hiccup and Astrid: they’re just a couple, and happy — that’s not rammed home, nor do they quarrel over nothing; they don’t split up only to inevitably get back together. Such beats are overworked and over-familiar, and the film has enough else going on not to bother with some fake-out relationship trouble. However, challenging the relationship between Hiccup and his dragon Toothless, even if only briefly, is a much more emotionally rewarding thread to pull. Of course, to say how it’s challenged would be a gigantic spoiler, so I’ll leave it at that.

The first film quickly and effectively sketched a largish supporting cast, and they’re deftly used again here. Their parts may be doled out in snippets — a couple of lines here, a short scene there — but they build subplots and comic relief, and pay them off too, all without shifting the focus too heavily on to things that fundamentally don’t matter. Perhaps this is, in part, the benefit of a starry voice cast (where the supporting players are bigger names than the leads!)

If there’s a flaw, it’s in some of the new characters. The primary villain is underused, introduced too late in the game to become a palpable threat. More time spent building him up, seeing his evil on screen rather than just being told about it, would’ve been appreciated. So too for the mysterious vigilante dragon-rider, who turns out to have a very significant role. The deleted scenes include a prologue that would have introduced the character at the start, which would have better established the mystery and import of their role. It’s clear why it was deleted (to focus on Berk and keep the initial tone light), but I still think it would’ve worked better in the film. In the final cut, the vigilante is mentioned all of once, then turns up and is unmasked about two minutes later. Really, though, these are niggles — even for them, the cumulative consistency is certainly better than, say, its Oscar conquerer Big Hero 6.

To make another inter-film comparison, on balance I’d say that the first Dragon is probably better, but there’s little between them — they’re just different. By pushing the world and the characters in new, interesting, more emotionally mature directions, this is a sequel that ensures there’s a welcome freshness to proceedings. Too many animated films skimp on that side of things, but thought and care has been put into making this a worthwhile continuation rather than a cash-in re-hash.

4 out of 5

Feast (2014)

2015 #28a
Patrick Osborne | 6 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / G

FeastThis year’s Best Animated Short Oscar winner is a charming little tale of a dog and his owner. I absolutely adored it, though there’s little doubt that it was helped to victory by being produced by Disney and released theatrically alongside Best Animated Film winner Big Hero 6. I haven’t seen any of the other shorts nominees, but you only have to look at clips of The Bigger Picture and learn a little about how it was made to see that it’s a monumental technical achievement, if nothing else. But I’ve not seen it, so perhaps a nomination was reward enough.

Anyway, Feast is the (mostly-)silent story of a stray dog and his adoptive owner, told from the dog’s point of view through their shared meals. The little dog is the man’s faithful companion, particularly for all the wondrous food he provides, but when the man finds love, will our little canine hero be subjected to healthy food for the rest of his life?

Essentially one long montage, Feast is the very model of economical storytelling. With nary a word of dialogue — certainly, none that drive the plot — we quickly learn everything we need to know, see everything the characters are thinking, and follow their decisions and motivations. It’s obviously a slight tale — it’s only six minutes long — But it's empty!but nonetheless packs an emotional punch. Viewers have been known to shed a little tear (though fear not, dear reader: it doesn’t come via a Marley & Me-type ending).

Whether Feast is the greatest or most groundbreaking short on this year’s ballot, I wouldn’t like to say. It is, however, a lovely rendering of a beautiful little story about, truly, man’s best friend.

5 out of 5

Feast is available on the Blu-ray (and DVD, I guess) release of Big Hero 6, out in the UK today.

Big Hero 6 (2014)

2015 #28
Don Hall & Chris Williams | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Big Hero 6 UK posterThis year’s Best Animated Film Oscar winner is not this year’s best animated film. Not by a long stroke. What it is is one great character, one great emotional plot/subplot, and a lot of stuff that feels like every other big-budget action-orientated CGI animation of the past few years. Most succinctly, this is little more than (as a reviewer on Letterboxd dubbed it) “How to Train Your Baymax”.

Set in a world where teenage kids seem to be constantly inventing groundbreaking robotic tech that multinationals spending billions on R&D haven’t come up with, the plot sees 14-year-old genius Hiro (Ryan Potter) bonding with his brother’s invention, a medical diagnosis/treatment robot called Baymax (Scott Adsit), while they investigate the theft and abuse of Hiro’s own invention. After stumbling across a mysterious masked supervillain, they team up with a gaggle of equally-skilled college friends to transform themselves into a superhero team.

Adapted from a Marvel comic book — albeit so loosely that Marvel didn’t even feel they could justify issuing a tie-in edition of the original — this is “Disney does superheroes”. Unfortunately, that’s not what Disney does best. The real meat and fun of the film comes in earlier sections, where Hiro and Baymax bond, where the emotional storyline is explored. I’m working hard not to spoil the latter plot — other reviews merrily do, because it’s kicked off in act one, but I went into the film blind and think it worked better for that. Based on interviews, some of the filmmakers seem to be under the impression that part of the film is up there with the infamous “Bambi’s mother” narrative. I don’t think it’s that striking, nor that universal, but it’s a bolder move than you normally see in kid-focused US animations.

Cuddly robotThe element that is an unequivocal success is Baymax. A soft robot — made of inflated vinyl so as to be genuinely huggable — he’s sweet, funny, and always entertaining. Memorable moments abound, in particular a sequence where his batteries run low, and his interpretation of a fist-bump (a recording booth improvisation by Adsit that was worked into the film). The movie truly comes alive whenever he’s on screen, but conversely loses some magic whenever he’s pushed into the background.

Otherwise, there’s some nice animation and design. It’s set in the city of San Fransokyo, which is imagined as what San Francisco would be if Japanese immigrants had rebuilt it following the 1906 earthquake. The design work is top-notch and the amount of world they built incredible, but it then goes underused, only glimpsed as background detail during one flying sequence. Worse, much of the movie’s story is sadly derivative, especially towards the end. It’s a bit hole-y too, and uncomfortably pushes at the boundaries of plausibility — I know it sounds silly to say that about a future-set superhero movie for kids, but c’mon, the way our young heroes can just merrily invent all kinds of super-advanced stuff just doesn’t make sense.

Implausibly clever kidsBig Hero 6 is by no means a bad film. It will certainly entertain its target age group, especially if they haven’t seen the other CG spectacles it nabs from. That aside, the entire thing is worth a look purely for Baymax and a few stand out moments — all of them involving the aforementioned vinyl robot, of course. Otherwise, it’s pretty by-the-book. The five-star-level praise it’s attracted in some quarters is completely unwarranted.

3 out of 5

Big Hero 6 is released on US DVD and Blu-ray this week, and is still in UK cinemas.