April 8, 2010

Teach Your Children Well

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In 2008, a lot of people wrote off Wall-E as a “kid’s film” due to the coincidental fact the film was animated. Those same people (or mouth-breathing turd-nuggets, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing) probably missed the film’s desperate post-apocalyptic drama, biting consumerist social satire and the heartwarming love story at the chewy center. All of that packaged in a lush film that used the power of animation to defy laws of gravity and suspend disbelief simultaneously in ways live-action films could never do.Those people also may have missed the excellent “change is nature” speech at the buoyant egalitarian core of Ratatouille and the cleverness of the fairy-tale fracturing inherent to the first two Shrek films. Bottom line? Animation isn’t just for the kids, and films don’t require stupid “hip” jokes to make adults chuckle, either (case in point: Happily N’Ever After, which no one saw). The best stories transcend age. Remember Bambi? An American Tail? Toy Story? How old do you have to be to grow beyond learning lessons about love, jealousy, a better life and/or companionship?How to Train Your Dragon, the newest computer-animated film by Dreamworks, uses this premise of timeless, parable-oriented storytelling to its extreme. It’s a tale of a colony of Vikings living on the razor’s edge on a fog-enshrouded outcrop of land on the mythic version of the North Sea. The mythic version being the one regularly assaulted by dragons as believably diverse as the first 150 Pokémon. And so the Viking island lives in a state of perpetual war against two-headed, pug-nosed and protesting-Buddhist-monk versions of fire-breathing monstrosities from the sky. Amidst one such near-absurd assault which opens the movie in a sequence as horrifyingly thrilling as London being blitzkrieg bombed by the Luftwaffe, we meet our human characters, with traditional Viking names like Hiccup, Stoick, Gobber and Fishlegs. Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel, also currently starring in She’s Out of My League) is our protagonist, a horizontally, vertically and in-every-way challenged boy who apprentices for the blacksmith Gobber (late, late night host Craig Ferguson). Hiccup’s father is the town Alpha Male, Stoick (Gerard Butler, finally avoiding a lame attempt at sounding American and appearing in a pointless chick flick at the same time), who is busy fighting the dragon threat with his bare hands while Hiccup is busy building failed inventions and whining about his missed opportunity at embarrassing himself in a fight. One of Hiccup’s inventions miraculously works during the night raid, and a lightning-fast species of dragon never documented is downed by the device. No one believes Hiccup, and think his shenanigans burn down a chuck of the town. His father disapproves.The rest of the film is based on two stories, as old as the Vikings themselves, the one of Hiccup finding the downed rare dragon and striking an uneasy relationship with it, and the other of Hiccup trying to earn his father’s respect by taking the town’s dragon-fighting seminar, a self-imposed Sparta for suicidal serpent-stalkers. There he meets a mini-Xena in the form of Astrid (America Ferrera, TV’s Ugly Betty), incompetent jock Snotlout (Jonah Hill, Superbad), gamer-nerd-centuries-before-his-time Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Superbad, Role Models) and violent twins Tuffnut and Ruffnut, voiced by T.J. Miller (Cloverfield, Extract) and Kristen Wiig (Whip It) respectively. This motley crew finds Hiccup a huge distraction/ buzzkill as Gobber attempts to train them in dragon survival with what can only be described as a Socratic approach (throwing them in the ring with live ones).Will the scrawny ne’er-do-well rise up and prove himself? Will he get the girl (who is a total badass until The Matrix Syndrome sets in, i.e. halfway through the film she remembers she’s the girl and a supporting character)? Will he save the village and earn the reluctant approval of his father?It’s a cartoon movie. And a parable. Why do we watch romantic comedies? To not see the two leads end up together? Sometimes predictability is no roadblock to a good story with a good journey and a character arc full of development. Rue the day when a Disney princess ends her movie being decapitated with a piano string just to mix things up. Not every movie has to end like Pan’s Labyrinth to be as good.And within the journey are so many things that echo the power of cinema. Hiccup’s understanding his dragon leads to a greater understanding of dragon society. And what comes with understanding? A desire for bipartisan coexistence. Who doesn’t want that? Apparently a race of Vikings who have lost husbands, wives, sons, daughters, neighbors, lovers, homes and limbs over centuries of unquestioned hatred.Oh.And therein lies the lesson in the movie. How to negotiate coexistence. How to foster understanding. How to defy years of tradition to achieve the greater ideal of mutual survival. It’s a hippie message, but the story arrives at it organically, and that makes it the anti-Avatar. However, that’s not to say the cinematography isn’t breathtaking, or that the battle scenes are any less impressive than that blockbuster’s. Wait for the sunset flight, or the ascent of what sleeps beneath the volcano. White-knuckle-inducing and awe-inspiring at once.The characters are cartoonish caricatures with just enough CGI-lent breathing room to express joy, betrayal, frustration, ecstasy, heartbreak and the good old standby — jealousy. Hair looks realistically wet. Smoke and fire billow, singe and waft as we’re accustomed to. Humans and dragons coexist in a dangerous balance, but the cartoonish reality saves us the realism of chainmail sticking uncomfortably to third-degree burns, captive animals projectile-defecating molten magma in protest and the grisly reality of attaching false limbs. And the ins and outs of Viking culture, in relation to horned helmets, regular raping and pillaging of northern France and the actual existence of dragons … are glossed over. It’s a cartoon movie. Fine, whine about double standards. Next you’ll wonder aloud why they all have Scottish accents. The movie is about freaking dragons. Watch it with a significant other if you’re secure and the two of you will likely revel in the warmth of the message and get closer. Go with a younger sibling if you’re the opposite and we won’t judge. You’ll love it either way.

4 Towers

Original Author: Naushad Kabir