Friday, February 22, 2019

How to breed your dragon


The Hidden World is a three-way race between deeply-unpleasant comedy, a mechanically-questionable screenplay, and the sheer majestic potential of animated cinema at the bleeding edge of 2019; it turns out that overwhelming visual perfection can outrun an awful lot of horrible sins.  By the way, can someone get a cinematography Oscar for a cartoon?

Written and directed by Dean DeBlois

Spoiler alert: moderate

I ought to be ecstatic, and, honestly, I am, because How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World has done the one thing I asked this now-three-film franchise to do, years ago, and that was to offer even larger, more extensive sections of runtime devoted to its ever-stunning vistas of wordless flight.  It has done this within a film that, if every part of it were operating on the same level of loving, painstaking craft that its animators have put into it, in consultation with franchise mainstays, layout cinematographer Gil Zimmerman and the master of light and dark, Roger Deakins, then we'd necessarily be talking "one of the best two or three animated films ever made," rather than just "one of the best two or three animated films of 2019, and then mostly because I lack confidence in latterday Disney and Pixar."  For alongside those huge, extensive scenes of wordless flight, representing an indulgence in the best and most sublime elements of the first two films and rendered upon the screen with technology and technique that represents the absolute apex of DreamWorks Animation—and quite possibly the apex of the art of CG animation, generally—we also have huge, extensive scenes that double or even treble down on the worst and most enervating elements of the first two films, specifically almost every character not named Toothless or Hiccup, and their kooky komedy.  I don't believe I've ever seen anything like The Hidden World before, where I loved parts of it so much I could just die, while hating others almost as intensely, and where sometimes those parts were even happening at the same time.

The film opens with a gesture that suggests what it'll be like: in the almost-black darkness of a foggy night, there is a ship transporting poached dragons from somewhere to somewhere else, and the dark explodes with orange fire.  It quickly spreads, lighting the scene while the smoke and framing continue to obscure precisely what's happening, till, out of a roaring sheet of flame, emerge the silhouettes of the dragons' saviors, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his own dragon companion, Toothless (still "voiced" with great skill and sensitivity by sound designer Randy Thom), as imposing and as simply badass as they've ever been depicted.  But then Hiccup lifts the mask of his intricately-designed, intriguingly-creepy suit of flameproof, dragonscale armor, exposing his face for no special reason; he starts yammering at his enemies, who (almost explicitly) reveal themselves to be unwilling training partners; and the tone takes a nosedive from "outright myth, on par with the entrance of Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi" to "any ol' kid's cartoon," only to sink lower still upon the arrival of Hiccup's allies Astrid (America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple).  Now it becomes a full-on annoyingly zany comedy, driven by their general ineptitude as dragon-riding warriors—except it's an annoyingly zany comedy presented within the most unbearably beautiful lighting effects, and the kind of animation and texture rendering that would have justified a ten year gap between this trilogy-capper and 2014's second Dragons film, which was, itself, already very, very, very beautiful.

Not every scene is like this: some are just unbearably beautiful, usually the scenes where Toothless is alone with another Night Fury, during which the dialogue always noticeably improves.  But enough of The Hidden World is split between transcendent visuals and hideous blathering for that to be one of its abiding impressions, and while no scene is truly devoid of visual interest, there are many parts where the shtick predominates, like in what I guess is the "funniest" scene in the movie, a three minute or possibly three day sequence in which Wiig's Ruffnut is intentionally annoying the villain, and it goes on long enough that you begin to forget there's other comedy in the world, and wonder if it must be funny, since your captor certainly believes it so, and perhaps if you agree it will let you go.  Actually, the funniest human moments belong to that villain himself, Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham, effectively reprising Salieri as a crypto-camp fantasy baddie, and it's wonderful).  He certainly has the funniest (and only clever) line, in which he inquires as to the correct pronunciation of Hiccup's name.

Well, Wiig improv'ing up a wall of obnoxiousness in a recording booth is, in any event, at least funnier than every one of this film's half-dozen or so running jokes.  Consider, for example, Snotlout trying to hit on Hiccup's mother Valka, whom The Hidden World otherwise uses so poorly and minimally I don't understand why HtTYD2 even bothered bringing her back (and I now have a new gold standard for making a waste of Cate Blanchett).  Obviously, the film's comic streak is unacceptable just on the basis of being bad.  But it's frustrating, too, that in this, the concluding chapter of the Dragon films, which have spent nine full years telling a mostly-charming coming-of-age tale (with nearly as much time elapsing within its story), we are confronted with a coterie of supporting characters who are well into adulthood yet have changed in no way but their post-adolescent character designs; who have, if anything, only gotten worse.

But scarcely anyone escapes unscathed: Hiccup is still entirely satisfactory, in isolation, as is Baruchel (and he still manages great feats of audience empathy when he's in combination with Toothless), but he's struggling against the constant headwind generated by his clownish co-stars; mentor-figure Gobber (Craig Ferguson), amongst others, is bogged down in a very ill-advised subplot that involves trying to pressure Hiccup to be a man/leader (somewhat undoing the thematic work of the first two films); Astrid and Ferrara themselves, being the object of this subplot as Hiccup's prospective wife and his main symbol of adulthood, somehow regress from where they were in the last film, with Astrid once again a helpmeet, but now one painted in shades of reemergent contempt for her partner, which doesn't actually make her a more feminist character (though you can tell the film thinks it does).  Instead, it only damages the already barely-credible human romance, sometimes in glaring ways that I don't think anybody even noticed.  Alone, Hiccup's father Stoick (Gerard Butler) manages to retain all of his dignity, but he has a two-part advantage: he is a corpse seen only in schmaltzy flashbacks, and The Hidden World does schmaltz way better than it does yuks.

The plot this all finds itself being crammed into is also bad, but more along the lines of "somewhat dysfunctional" than "terrible."  The harm done to the franchise by the decision to smoosh the Mother Strikes Back storyline into the Drago Bludvist storyline back in HtTYD2 continues to make itself keenly felt. The Hidden World cannot convince you that it isn't a repeat of the latter: in the aftermath of Hiccup's raid on the poachers, the dragon riders of Berk become a target for Northern Europe's jealous warlords, forming a coalition that gains a leader in the form of the aforementioned Grimmel, the world's most notorious dragon hunter (so notorious, we're hearing of him for the very first time), who takes on the job in order to complete his life's work of killing every Night Fury in existence.  Hiccup, convinced that Berk cannot withstand its enemies, convinces his people instead to up sticks, leading them on an exodus to the hoped-for "Hidden World" on the other side of the ocean of which his father (apparently) often spoke, where dragons roam free, and where they will forever be safe.  But things become complicated as Grimmel's machinations do their work, and Toothless is distracted by a female Night Fury, released by Grimmel in order, well, in order for Grimmel to seem like the kind of villain who has complicated machinations; either way, Grimmel certainly isn't finished with Berk and its young chieftain yet.

So that's not wholly objectionable, but it's clumsy as hell, particularly in its insistence that Berk is uniquely vulnerable, because it boasts a dragon air force. It's clear that in an earlier, more sensible version of this story, Grimmel was Bludvist: a slaver of dragons rising to the challenge of Hiccup's philosophy of kindness and Berk's preeminence in the North Atlantic.  In the version that exists, which perceives (and frankly only perceives) a need to differentiate him from Bludvist, he simply hates dragons (though he still has his own, brainwashed dragons, natch), particularly those Night Furies, which is why he spends almost no time in this movie actually trying to kill the Night Furies, and spends almost precisely zero time in this movie worrying about killing the female Night Fury he has under his control, and to whom he has introduced a potential mate.  It's very strange, and you're evidently meant not to notice it.  You're also probably not supposed to notice that The Hidden World negates the moral underpinnings of the first film.  You're definitely not supposed to notice that, if you try to treat its story as anything but a literal, character-based chronicle (or, at best, as a metaphor for humankind's relationship with nature, that clashes hard with the metaphor for humankind's relationship with nature established in HtTYD 1), it could accidentally do in a pinch as an allegory for two competing strains of racial separatism.  (The solution, of course, is "don't do that.")  It's mildly astonishing that the person who wrote this crap, and signed off on the wandering comedic performances, and the person who directed it, are the same person, series stalwart Dean DeBlois, though, admittedly, it's more predictable given that following the departure of series co-originator Chris Sanders, DeBlois was solely responsible for the cavalcade of bullshit that was HtTYD2.  And yet it's still remarkable that everything that is blundering and bad about the film's screenplay and dialogue is contradicted, often in real time, by the precision and stateliness of the film's actual making.  Even leaving aside its bona fides as animation qua animation, The Hidden World is surprising in how sedate and classicist it is as a piece of storytelling—the cutting rhythms are particularly magisterial for something nominally intended for kids—and even when it gets actiony, which it does a fair amount, DeBlois keeps the takes long and the conflicts extremely readable.  Turn off the volume, and it's a gorgeous stylistic companion piece, in some respects, with Bird's Incredibles 2.

Anyway, it's a film where story development obviously began with an ending, and had a plot built up behind it, but despite this The Hidden World's extended denouement totally works, tears and all, certainly better than the description "Return of the King-style" would make it sound, though that description would be accurate.  It draws fully upon our fond (now bittersweet) memories, and from what's worked so superbly well throughout the whole franchise—a franchise, I suppose, that has always been a host of distractions getting in the way of Hiccup's magical friendship with Toothless.  Well aware that the cat-dog dragon remains the most adorable and perfect creature of 21st century animation, the great story studded throughout The Hidden World is Toothless' own coming-of-age tale, in which he finds his alabaster counterpart in that conspicuously-never-named female Night Fury.  And these scenes are, without fail, insanely lovely, and would remain lovely even without DreamWorks' animators', Zimmerman's, and Deakins' efforts at making them so lovely: Toothless' first encounters and later "first date" with the other Night Fury are all precious pieces of silent romantic comedy, each a perfect series of escalating gestures of affection, confusion, awkwardness, and, finally, understanding—and they presume an audience capable of comprehending them in a way that no big-budget American cartoon has since the first thirty minutes of WALL-E.

Taken with the animation, they'll steal your damn breath away: the way DeBlois holds on close-ups of the dragons' faces, with the dragons' emotions sometimes driven by the smallest and most meticulous possible things, like the precise diameter of each one's pupils, is perhaps the most commendable thing I've seen in a cartoon in years.  Not that it's all, or usually, subtle: after all, so much of it's a shameless exhibition of awesome flight physics and what a computer-generated cartoon "camera" can do.  But it's always delicate, and even above its flawless rendition of the time-honored animators' tradition of stopping your heart with well-chosen moments of physical contact, it's a monumental showcase for what computers can do with light, all kinds of light—and there's hardly a frame where The Hidden World doesn't feel like it's showing off in the best possible way with light, from small fires, to big fires, to the way light moves through fire, to the flashes within the dark heart of a lightning storm, to an aurora borealis, to the neon glory of the hidden world itself.

In fact, even the film's "bad" moments are, in their less blatant ways, showing off, with DeBlois and his team going even further than HtTYD2 with the deep staging of constant, moving stuff, establishing the humans and dragons of Berk as a real-feeling community, even in the midst of annoying you with the non-Hiccup humans who keep talking and the non-Toothless dragons who keep mugging.  It is, for much the same reasons, a very great action film, though this is bolstered even further by the intensity generated by the impression of speed (practically nothing says "speed" like two dragons on a collision course) and one of the most effective, precisely-calibrated, and impacting sound mixes I've ever heard.  (John Powell is cagier with his main theme this time around, however, and I have mixed feelings about that: on the one hand, it's a varied and great score regardless, and when his central theme lands, it lands; on the other, when you have the one piece of film music in this millennium that could compete with John Williams in his prime, you gotta flaunt it.)  Finally, because I have nowhere else to mention it, I love the spews of green acid Grimmel's dragons vomit, which reacts so exothermically it turns whatever it touches to glowing molten liquid; we needed a new twist to "fire-breathing flying lizard" in this third installment, and, in this and in other things, Grimmel's scorpion-like dragons provide it.  They're just so cool.

It is, altogether, a masterpiece, only one with enough problems added on for seemingly no reason—you could delete upwards of half of the film's bad comedy, and while the resulting edit might run a little ragged, it wouldn't matter to the story—that nobody in their right mind could possibly call it a masterpiece.  Yet for all that, for all my complaining, I feel like I'm underrating it more than anything, that its genuine and heartfelt emotional journey alongside its unprecedented visual splendor practically erase everything that's wrong with it, even though, in truth, so much is.

Score: 9/10


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  2. Grimmel really WAS more bark than bite, wasn't he? I definitely found the plotter bits tedious - love at first sight just because you're members of the same species doesn't exactly thrill me. It reminds me of how romantic comedies will throw the only two gay people in the movie together, even if they're entirely incompatible.

    But that sand! That water! That fire! Those CLOUDS! Yummy.

    1. Yeah, even if Abraham's bark was pretty delightful. Oh well.

      I liked the elementalism of the Toothless/Light Fury stuff. They're animals, for starters, and it has a different valence if they're literally the only ones. (Which has as far as I know never been true with LG folks in stories, they're just the only two within the confines of a narrative.)

      Alternatively, you're referring to Hiccup and Astrid, which would be entirely apt, since after 5 1/2 hours I still don't know what they have in common *besides* reproductively compatible DNA.