Movie Review: In ‘The Hidden World,’ The ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ Franchise is Not Particularly Fresh, But the Animation is as Beautiful as Ever

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CREDIT: DreamWorks Animation

Starring: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Kit Harington, David Tennant

Director: Dean DeBlois

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Rating: PG for High-Flying Fantasy Danger

Release Date: February 22, 2019

I do not remember a whole lot about the first two How to Train Your Dragon films other than the fact that I generally enjoyed them. The first one was among the initial wave of expansive 3D animated blockbusters. But nine years later, studios hardly ever bother to even screen their films in 3D, and I almost never seek the extra dimension out myself. But the CG animation is still of the utmost quality. Hair blows delightfully in the wind, and from what I have heard from the trenches of animation, realistic hair movement has been one of the biggest bugaboos in this medium. And this is a franchise about dragons, which don’t have a lot of hair! So the fact that the HTTYD team cares that much about rendering its human characters as well as its fantastical creatures should tell you all you need to know about the level of craft at play.

The Hidden World, the third in the series, finds Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his trusty dragon Toothless realizing that they are running out of room on their little island for all the humans and dragons to fruitfully co-exist. Meanwhile, an infamous dragon hunter named Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) has declared he has his sights set on Toothless and all the other domesticated fire-breathers. There are admirable messages here about looking past surface differences and treating nature with respect, but there is also a bit of a sense of same-old, same-old. At this point, shouldn’t everyone know that these dragons are as loyal and affectionate as dogs? But while the story may be a little pedestrian, the animation continues to stun. Toothless develops himself a bit of a crush, and let’s just say, the dragon seduction dance is a (family-friendly) sight to behold.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is Recommended If You Like: The Most Thorough Animation in the Business

Grade: 3 out of 5 Night Furies

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Ponders So Many Questions About Who Belongs on the Throne

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CREDIT: CREDIT: Liam Daniel/Focus Features

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce

Director: Josie Rourke

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: R for A Surprisingly Horny Approach to the Material and the Violent Retribution That Results

Release Date: December 7, 2018 (Limited)

If you’re an anglophile who loves tracking all historical matters of royal succession, then you ought to add Mary Queen of Scots to your to-watch list. But if you’re more ambivalent on the subject, this film is likely to instead get you frustrated and shout at the 16th century to move ahead hundreds of years when questions of leadership have less to do with the intricacies of bloodlines. Of course, 21st century politics has its own problems, but Mary Queen of Scots feels obsessed with the minutiae of what was specific to a bygone era. There is some intriguing conflict to be had, as Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and her cousin Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) both apparently have legitimate claims to the English throne. The internal psychological drama and external tension of impatient courts and citizenry are present, but the same points keep getting pounded over and over.

Part of the problem is the film’s lopsided structure. It makes sense that the title is what it is and not “Mary & Elizabeth,” as this is at least two-thirds Mary’s story, if not more. Perhaps there is an element of correcting the historical record, or the cinematic historical world, as Elizabeth’s story has hitherto been told more often than Mary’s. But if that’s the case, then you might as well go whole hog into Mary’s realm and render Elizabeth more or less heard but not seen. As it stands, though, it makes me wonder, “Why can’t they both be queen?” Alas, for the sake of the narrative (and historical accuracy), that’s probably too pat and conflict-free. But it’s almost all worth it for the scene when Mary and Elizabeth finally meet in person. Ridiculous measures are taken to keep this meeting “secret,” thus fulfilling a promise to really examine the nonsense inherent to this state of affairs. It’s all silly, and should be treated as such, instead of resorting to beheadings.

Mary Queen of Scots is Recommended If You Like: Any and all royal British period piece

Grade: 3 out of 5 Heirs

 

This Is a Movie Review: Ferdinand is Not Your Typical Bull, But ‘Ferdinand’ is Your Typical CG-Animated Kids Movie

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CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: John Cena, Kate McKinnon, David Tennant, Bobby Cannavale, Anthony Anderson, Peyton Manning, Jerrod Carmichael, Gina Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias, Miguel Ángel Silvestre, Flula Borg, Boris Kodjoe, Sally Phillips, Lily Day, Juanes, Jeremy Sisto

Director: Carlos Saldanha

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG for Destruction Wrought by a Bull Who Refuses to Accept How Big He Is

Release Date: December 15, 2017

Based on Robert Lawson’s 1936 children’s book The Story of Ferdinand, the Blue Sky animated film Ferdinand is all about one of the most massive bulls in all of Spain. He is a beyond-perfect physical specimen for bullfighting, and in this country it goes without saying that calves spend their youths obsessing about the day they will get to face off against the matadors. But Ferdinand does not have the same pugnacious instinct as his peers. He would much rather spend his days on the farm, sniffing flowers, scarfing down carrots, and just hanging out with the preteen girl who dotes on him. But in a world that sees him as a beast, he must find a way to reconcile his hulking physicality with who he is on the inside.

Ferdinand the film, however, does not stick out from the pack as much as its titular character does. Its message of staying true to yourself is de rigueur in kids’ fare, and the CG animation, while certainly professional, does not pull off any truly lasting images. Thus, it lives and dies on the strength of its voice cast and the laugh-generating power of its gags. John Cena’s giant teddy bear persona is the correct vibe for Ferdinand, while Kate McKinnon is just right as the goat sidekick she’s versatile enough that she probably could have voiced any or all of the characters if the Ferdinand casting crew had been in the mood for that). While everyone else is at least adequate, the only significant standout is David Tennant as a heavily accented Scottish bull. Regarding the chuckles, there is some amusement to be had, as when Ferdinand sucks a caterpillar up his nose and sneezes it out as a butterfly or when the mostly blind owner of a china shop mistakes his tail for a feather duster.

Ferdinand also touches upon the fate of the bulls who are not deemed worthy of the bullfighting ring. I’m talking about the chop shop. This raises the question: are all films about talking animals secretly vegetarian propaganda? And if so, is that always, sometimes, or never intentional? A frequent, nigh-unavoidable trope of this genre is the slaughter that is just around the corner from failure or carelessness. When your lead character is an animal whose meat is favored by carnivores and omnivores, it is only natural to draw sympathy out of the threat of being eaten. Efforts to remain kid-friendly often result in daring escapes from pulverization as moments of triumph, and that is very much the case here. I do not mean to make a moral judgment one way or the other, but instead offer a philosophical pondering: are vegetarians drawn into working in the talking animal film business, or does the talking animal film business make its workers vegetarian?

Ferdinand is Recommended If You Like: Every Talking Animal Movie Ever

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 “Macarena”-Playing Flowerpots