Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Dragons without dungeons, part II: He says "red" a lot during dragon training


If the aesthetic problems of the first are addressed and then some, every issue the shaky background mythology could possibly have is trebled and jammed right into your soft, quivering brain.  How to Train Your Dragon 2 is recommended for the audiovisual splendor, and for the occasional awesome character moment that rarely (or never) quite pays off on its promise, and for not too much else at all.

Written and directed by Dean DeBlois (based on the book series by Cressida Cowell)
With Jay Baruchel (Hiccup), Cate Blanchett (Valka), America Ferrara (Astrid), Gerard Butler (Stoick), Craig Ferguson (Gobber), and Djimon Hounsou (Drago)

Spoiler alert: moderate

If you had told me the person keeping the first Dragon's narrative mostly elegant and credible was Chris Sanders, auteur of the oddball Lilo and Stitch and the impenetrable Croods, I would have laughed at you, along with your tinfoil hat and crazy theories about 9/11.  But, now, I would have to consider your stance on the Reptile People with some care, because the sequel is a gorgeous mess, and Dean BeBlois, co-director of the original, is flying solo this time.

I would happily bet five real dollars I stole the second half of that line near-verbatim from at least three other reviews.

Half a decade has passed since the first film.  Hiccup has gained six, maybe seven pounds in the interim, along with a cool glider-suit he designed.  It has a mask that still leaves his eyes exposed to 120mph winds, and thus one supposes he wears it just to complete the leather ensemble and dehumanize himself in preparation for ego-annihilating pleasure.

In presumably related news, he's now engaged to Astrid, the woman who hit him a lot in the first movie.  Astrid, however, has made the happy decision to no longer be an awful caricature.  Technically, she made that decision halfway through Dragon 1, but I refused to accept her putative character arc as anything but a reaction to circumstance until presented with this, the matured, five-years-later version.  Regardless, they seem to have a sweet, healthy relationship, which makes it all the more inexplicable that they've failed to marry and procreate, even though this is medieval times and both of them are due for death by infected parchment-cut any day now.

But if the anachronistic social mores of today couldn't be forced into an animated all-ages fantasy about the past, there certainly would be a lot fewer of them.

Their home of Berk has become a dragon rider's paradise, as we learn when we open directly upon a set of games centered around cruelty to animals other than dragons, proving that no one actually learned any moral lessons of general applicability from the first movie, and that it's still praiseworthy to torture an animal to death, so long as it's not more useful for something else.

Luckily for the dragons, they are useful, and the Vikings are beginning to use their newfound air mobility to explore a wider world.  Naturally, that wider world sucks, as they come to discover when they run into a man who has built a dragon army to conquer it.

Half the problem with Dragon 2 is that, at some point, for some unknown reason, its script was radically rewritten to replace the intended villain of the piece with this guy, one Drago Bludvistand it takes dedication to introduce the worst-named character in a franchise that already includes a "Hiccup" and a "Stoick," but there it is.

Drago is the evil version of Hiccup, using punishments and threats to control his dragons.  This may seem like it would be immediately counterproductive, given how ludicrously easy it is to train them with rewards and friendship, but never mind.  (Also never mindI mean do not think about for one secondwhy the film consciously avoids depicting precisely in what manner he used "punishments and threats" to enslave an 80,000 ton monster.)  (It's because it's bullshit and impossible.  Sorry.  I thought about it.)

The Bewilderbeast: a great play on words, or a pun so foundationally immoral it warrants an exorcism?  You decide!

Drago is not quite as two-dimensional as some folks would have it.  But despite a physically imposing countenance, effective voice acting by Djimon Hounsou, and the fact that he poses a nice counterpoint to the pacifistic weenies of Berk, by no means is he a truly compelling villain.

Valka, on the other hand, the villain that isn't, would have been the best damned antagonist in a theatrically released cartoon in very possibly all history.  For one thing, she dresses like this, with a war mask that I'm all but certain is from an actual, extant horror movie, but since I can't place it, let's just say it fiercely recalls Morpheus' helm from Sandman:

Is Best Entrance an Oscar category?

For two, her dragon is awesome and she rides it like a '20s wingwalker.  For three, she's not evil.  I would actually love to see how they motivated the conflict in the original script treatments, but in this incarnation, she's an ecowarrior, keeper of a dragon preserve and enemy of Drago's poachers.  Like him, she's also allied with a Bewilderbeast.  Her Bewilderbeast is white, while his is black, which means nothing except maybe now you can tell them apart, you racist.

For four, she's Cate Blanchett, and she plays Valkawith the assistance of supervising animator James Baxterwith just the right mix of observant zoologist, regretful zealot, crazy cat lady, and your actual feral human.

For five, she's Hiccup's long-lost mother.

I ought to mention that Dragon 2 has the worst-spoiling trailer I ever saw.

I will happily bet ten real dollars Dean DeBlois didn't know how the trailer would be cut when he staged the reveal, which with a bit slower pace could have been Empire Strikes Back-level greatbut is still regular great.

(Oh, and speaking of Star Wars, this movie has a lightsaber in it, that they take thirty minutes to explain is not actually a magical fiery sword, which I am filing under the heading of "insanely distracting missteps," and though we'll get to the rest momentarily, trust methat is one full cabinet.)

Anyway: even in her apparently-neutered incarnation, Valka is a scene-stealing presence (and proof that Blanchett can sing better than Gerard Butler).  Some of the film's best moments are in the unspoken subtext, the lost two decades that you can see in Valka's facial animation, that reveal she realizes that the very success of her son's revolution, which made their reunion possible, is testament to her failure.

That is Valka's tragedy, which is why it's such a pity that she has almost no actual narrative value whatsoever.  Around the beginning of the final third, the scenes turn the tables and steal her instead.  With one last great entrance on the back of her cool dragon behind her, Valka fades decisively into the background, not too long after her heartfelt reunion with her husband Stoick.

(Impeccably timed, that, since due to some too-close framing, Jay Baruchel failing to modulate his emotional register properly, and their seeming constant need to impress each other, for a split-second there I was afraid Valka and Hiccup might bang.)

And that would be a pretty weird foray into gritty realism for a kid's movie about dragons.

But enough about hot deviant sexuality.  How about boring normal sexuality?

Around this point, Hiccup's quasi-mentor Gobber recites a line which apparently confirms that he's gay.  This is mostly unworthy of mention in itself, but I'm impossibly happy that I did not read any of the press which clarifies this line, because the Enigma-encrypted code goes "That's why I never took a wife... and, there's one other reason."  And it comes out the mouth of this guy:

(He is also missing a leg, because amputations are high-larious.)

So I guess you all got to see a motion picture that, in our enlightened times, had the unfathomable courage to reveal a tertiary character as gay in a unreadably vague, almost insulting manner; but, for an hour and a half, I got to live in a world where a moviea children's movie!implied instead that a man got his dick cut off.

I knowyou're unspeakably jealous.  If it makes you feel any better, I've once again reentered the realm where the 20th century never stopped and important character traits are conveyed by means of a wink, a nod, and a really lousy joke.

This is also not far from the moment when Dragon 2 descends into a plot-mechanical death spiral from which it never truly recovers.  It's already weathered Hiccup's attempts at peacemaking that crossed the frontier between bright-eyed optimism and arrogant megalomania pretty much immediately.  But the kid with a messiah complex is evidently Hiccup's character nowthough not unreasonably, given that he went from being an unwanted loser to the most important person ever without any time to grow organically into the role.  (Pity he learns nothing from the events of this film, but why would he?  Oh wait.)

No, the really insuperable problem with Dragon 2 was already there in nascent form in Dragon 1.  It wasn't worth officially noticing there, but here, the mythology that was never even remotely well-defined in the first film explodes into a complex fractal nightmare of pure making-shit-up-as-we-go-along.

Nothing about dragon biology makes the remotest amount of sense in context with anything else, and every single fact that is establishedand never, ever explained, even though Jane Goodall of the fucking dragons is right there to explain itis awkwardly bent in support of a specific plot point.  Then, when it's served its purpose, it is gleefully, even sadistically left to stand there, deformed and ignored with all the other facts, when the plot requires those facts to no longer exist.  Even after every scene in each film that's demanded we follow Hiccup's lead and take a scientific approach to their existence, I'd accept that the dragons are simply magic, but couldn't they at least have been made of consistent magic?

Please, do try to keep up as the Bewilderbeasts' power over the other dragons goes from that of a physically powerful pack leader's, to an insect queen's toI guessoutright telepathic mind control, and then right back again, for each of these radically differing modes is used, depending on precisely which the story requires to force its dramatic beats down the audience's throats.

And try to keep the vomit in your mouth when it turns out Toothless was, apparently, built in a dragon factory.  Toothless, unbeknowst to anybody, especially him, can pop fins on his back that let him turn on a dime.  And how is the new x-treme battle mode achieved?  WELL HE HAS A BUTTON ON HIS BACK THAT HE CAN'T EVEN REACH.  OBVIOUSLY.


It is all so brazenly contrived, and from such misshapen pieces, that the back third of Dragon 2 can't help but feel depressingly cynical in the byzantine manipulations it puts to its characters, especially its best.

Which is not to say its manipulations don't work in the moment.  They do.

And, it is also not to say that Dragon 2 is a failure.  A legitimately bad story it may be, with too few good character moments and too ready to undermine the ones it has.  It may tell a tale of a self-aggrandizing tool endangering everybody he cares about, a great female character who fades into a barely-supporting role, and the lackluster villain they fight, all supported by fantasy elements that can't stay consistent from one scene to the next.

But it is redeemed by its craft.

I'd never call mediocre any movie that made me shiver with awe at its sights and sounds as often as How to Train Your Dragon 2 did.  Perhaps, had I seen the first in theaters, Dragon 2's scenes of Hiccup and Toothless in flight might not have struck as hard as they did, but I much doubt it, for they are gorgeous and full of the very wonderment you'd seek in any fantasy film.  The battles threaten to render Dragon 2 a legitimate contender in the kaiju genre, with swarms of dragons filling the skies while impeccably-designed giants lock themselves in thunderous, murderous combat, so intense as to shake your bones.  The use of color, light and darkness in Valka's first scenes can be matched only if I raise you Tangled, and if that is your animated film's only better in this arena, it is praise as good as any superlative I could possibly employ.

So, yes, go see itin the theater, if you can!and behold it.  However, perhaps it is best that, if you must think about what you're watching, you try to keep it to a bare minimum.

And they did tone down the "but Vikings drive like this" "jokes," which is really something to celebrate, at least a little bit.

Score:  6/10

P.S. I also enjoyed the Plinko reference.

Other reviews in this series:
How to Train Your Dragon: Are you out of your Viking mind?

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