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: ‘Den of Thieves’ is a Warmed-Over, Mush-Mouthed Michael Mann Impersonation

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CREDIT: STX

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

Starring: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Evan Jones, Cooper Andrews, Dawn Olivieri

Director: Christian Gudegast

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for Cacophonous Continuous Gunfire, a Strip Club Detour, and Way Too Many F-Bombs

Release Date: January 19, 2018

According to the opening titles of Den of Thieves, Los Angeles is the “bank robbery capital of the world.” I do not know if that title is actually true, partly because this movie does not make me care enough to confirm or debunk the claim. Besides, it is essentially immaterial to the plot. This is not about an epidemic of robberies, but one specific crew, who could be pulling off their big heist anywhere so long as the cash is present and an escape route is available. As for Gerard Butler’s performance as the cop doggedly tracking them, it does not scream “L.A.” so much as “nutso actor sheds any semblance of sanity.”

Den of Thieves is the directorial debut of Christian Gudegast, who previously scripted the likes of London Has Fallen (which I have not seen, but I have heard it is just as dreadful as its predecessor Olympus Has Fallen). Michael Mann’s influence on him is obvious, but not fruitful. Gudegast clearly wants this to be a sprawling crime saga on the same level as Heat or Miami Vice, but that would require characters who deliver personality instead of an endless string of groan-inducing f-bombs.

As Merriman, the leader of the den, Pablo Schreiber mostly relies on bulging out his facial muscles. As his right-hand man, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson basically stands off to the side and looks vaguely threatening. O’Shea Jackson Jr., as the team’s driver and newest recruit, is able to infuse the proceedings with a few amusing moments. (There is a running gag with a couple of randy female customers when he moonlights delivering Chinese food.) Meanwhile, the rest of the guys in the den are either too beefy or too masked to convey any tangible emotion.

But for better and for worse, this is the Gerard Butler show. His “Big Nick” is not so much corrupt or “flying off the handle” so much as he is filled with constant, fidgety, bizarre tics that do not resemble any sort of recognizable human behavior I am familiar with. I cannot say that any of his performance adds up to anything “good,” but I must admit that I could not look away.

Ultimately, the scheme wraps up with a series of twists that mostly serve to frustrate, not because they cheat with any internal logic, but because they require a great deal of patience to sit around before anything meaningful happens. At nearly two and a half hours, there is precious little to make that journey bearable. To be fair, the crowd I saw it was hooting and hollering throughout, so there clearly is an audience for this sort of muscled-up, unsubtle affair. But from my perspective, this is a dithering cacophony that drives me batty.

Den of Thieves is Recommended If You Like: Michael Mann’s crime sagas but without the visual and formal experimentalism, Training Day but with an unfathomable amount of scenery-chewing

Grade: 2 out of 5 Automatic Rounds