Thursday, March 10, 2011

Two for the price of one!

I'm sorry for the quality of the last two posts. I was tired. I watched movies that didn't do much for me. My creative juices were exhausted. I needed to get something up, though. I'll make it up to you today by going over two movies! Not only that, I'm awake. I had an energy drink and will have coffee in the middle of the post. I have things to say about the movies. Man, it's going to be awesome. Check it:

One of the Oscar categories I didn't even make an attempt to finish was Best Animated Feature Film. In reality, this would have been the easiest category to finish with only three films nominated and having already seen one of them in Toy Story 3. It may well have also been the most pointless category to finish because, even more so than Best Actress, I felt that the winner would be decided regardless of the merit of any other contenders. I was right, too. Toy Story 3 won, and it's a shame, because How to Train Your Dragon is a damn fine film.

Yes, Toy Story 3 had all those magical Pixar characters. It had the universal pain of growing up and leaving your toys behind. It had themes for goodness sake. It was rich in drama. It had a vile and viable villain in Lotso Hugs. It had everything going. Except for enough Pixar magic to make me really care. There's a certain limit to how grand you can go, and I think Toy Story 3 surpassed that. Too big, too climactic, and I just won't care that the toys are going to burn alive with garbage. Part of the magic of the Toy Story series is in how we can all relate to the exact world the toys inhabit. We all have played the claw game. We've all known a kid who likes to, ahem, "reconfigure" his or her toys. Most all of us have had to make a choice between new friends and old friends or family, even. We've been separated from those we love. Those are all themes from the first two entries in the series. The third, though, brings in daycare, jailbreak, and certain death in a physically impossible incinerator. The world isn't as relateable, the adventure less understandable and the punishment of failure less realistic. Even the theme of growing up and setting your old toys aside couldn't save this film.

This isn't to say Toy Story 3 isn't a good film. It's quite good. It's not great, but that is largely in comparison to the previous two films. I enjoyed it, but I came out with bruised expectations. It simply lacked the magic of the other films. I've grown up, and sold, thrown away or donated almost all of my toys. The one's I haven't are indeed in a box in my closet. I live that theme. The world, though, simply was no longer one I could live in. Toy Story grew up with me, but moved to a universe I couldn't believe in and won't understand.

How to Train Your Dragon then was by no means the perfect film. It certainly suffered from sequences we have all seen before. The dragon training - a major part of the film - made me feel like I was watching Avatar all over again.

These days it's hard to think of a major animated film that doesn't look good. They're smooth and crisp and stylized. They all have their strong points, but none of them are by any means garish. They're all good without seeming stupendous anywhere. Unless you count Avatar, there isn't really an animated film that has been lights out gorgeous and jaw-dropping in a while. This movie is no different. It looks good, great even if we remember what we might have expected only a few years ago.

Even the plot of How to Train Your Dragon wasn't astonishing. Loser kid surprises kinfolk and saves the village! Okay, we've all seen that one before. Oh, wait, two arch enemies end their everlasting war and rely on each other to avoid mutual destruction. Nope, seen that one too.

What then is the saving grace of How to Train Your Dragon? Why does a movie with so many things I've seen a million times before resonate so well with me? Oh, just the crux of any good story: the characters. Now, I won't say that there was an all-star cast of characters. I won't say every character was spot on - or even that most were. They didn't need to be though. This was a story about two characters, Hiccup and Toothless. The others were decent to good with some roundness (however obvious it was to foretell). This movie really won with the interactions between Hiccup and Toothless and their collective story.

Anyone who has ever had a pet not named Mr. Bubble or Hamster Bamfster can understand the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. More than one person has claimed that Toothless is their pet. The task of gaining a pet's trust isn't universal to pets, and neither is the hyperactive pet. If, however, you roll up enough pet experiences, you're going to make anyone with a pet fall in love with Toothless and understand on a basic level his relationship with Hiccup.

Most people have had the experience of worrying about living up to their parents' expectations - and many of us of failing to meet them. We know what it is like to be outcast from something and not included in some form of worldly "normalcy." What Hiccup does is subvert his culture. He's clever and studious. He's lucky in some ways with Toothless, but he takes what he learns and uses it to put himself over the top. He learns dragons aren't demons, and he uses that to his advantage.

What Hiccup and Toothless do then, is take a movie about so many things we've seen before and make it about us. We suddenly are vikings and our pets - or our friends' pets are dragons. They like their heads scratched. They like "dragonnip," and they have their own unreasonable fears. This is the classic "boy and his dog" film in disguise. It is so many tired themes reformulated and repackaged that they feel new again.

The film does a lot of things well; even the score was nominated for an Oscar. Nothing falls flat on its face. Everything is there to support the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, and those characters don't let their supporters down.


  1. All this hubbub over breathtaking visuals almost has me wishing I had a brain that appreciated that kind of thing. I just can't take in that much information about colors though. This probably has a lot to do with my preference for cartoons and anime.

    I remember wondering back in the days of N64 what the big deal was about graphics. Donkey Kong Country looked the best I thought anything had to look.

    Am I rambling?


  2. By the way, thanks for the gigantic post. I particularly enjoyed the distinction between climactic and over-the-top and the explanation for Hiccup's likability.


  3. i think toy story 3 neatly closed the toystory 3 storyline well.
    You learn what happened to Andy's father
    You learn that the toys will go on