Saturday, July 26, 2014

Dream Factory: How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2
Director: Dean DeBlois
Original release date: DreamWorks Pictures 2014
Rating: PG

Summary from IMDB: When Hiccup and Toothless discover an ice cave that is home to hundreds of new wild dragons and the mysterious Dragon Rider, the two friends find themselves at the center of a battle to protect the peace.

Five years have past since the events that transpired in the first film.  As the story begins, Stoick is grooming Hiccup to replace him as chief of the village, but Hiccup focuses instead on traveling with Toothless to create an expanded map of the area.  He has also been tinkering with a set of wings for himself, although each practice attempt has resulted in a crash landing thus far. 

On one of their journeys, the duo encounters dragon poachers, but are rescued by a mysterious masked dragon rider.  Once Hiccup learns more about the poachers, he must rally his friends before the poachers capture all of Berk's dragons.

Those who are fans of the first film shouldn't be disappointed with this installment.  While the film has a number of serious moments, the trademark humor is still present in the side characters, such as Ruffnut and Fishlegs.  And the animation quality has only been improved since 2010.

What I most appreciated was the attention dedicated to a major secondary character's death.  Many family-oriented films will skim over such death sequences, but the writers here respect their audience and the scene they've created.  The scene in question is one of the most emotional in either of the films, not only because of the death, but because of how the death affects the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless.  Even though attentive viewers will see the foreshadowing of the death in earlier scenes in the film, it still stirs the emotions, which is a sign of how strong the writing is here.

My only real complaint with the film is that Hiccup is the only character who is given time to develop over the course of the film.  Astrid and his friends are very much side characters here, and the relationship between Hiccup and Astrid seems tacked on.  I haven't watched the TV show, so maybe it was developed more there?  If not, I hope the next film allots some time for other characters to mature and change.

I'm not sure why this film hasn't been doing better at the box office, as it's a solid, well-animated installment.  Fans of the franchise and of animation in general should definitely see it at the cinema.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Sara's Library: Hollow City

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs
Book two of the Peculiar Children series
Quirk Books 2014

Summary from Goodreads: Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children was the surprise best seller of 2011—an unprecedented mix of YA fantasy and vintage photography that enthralled readers and critics alike.

This second novel begins in 1940, immediately after the first book ended. Having escaped Miss Peregrine's island by the skin of their teeth, Jacob and his new friends must journey to London, the peculiar capital of the world. Along the way, they encounter new allies, a menagerie of peculiar animals, and other unexpected surprises.

Complete with dozens of newly discovered (and thoroughly mesmerizing) vintage photographs, this new adventure will delight readers of all ages.

This installment picks up at the exact point where the previous one ended: the Peculiars and Miss Peregrine (trapped in bird form) row away from their island.  It doesn't take long before the Hollows are reintroduced and our heroes are on the run, not only searching for safety but for another ymbryne who may be able to reverse Miss Peregrine's avian state.  With only three days to find a solution or risk losing Miss Peregrine's humanity, this second volume keeps up a rollicking pace for its duration.

One of my chief complaints with the first book was that, Jacob aside, there was little character development.  The majority of the characters fit neatly into an archetype, usually influenced by their power, and were paper thin.  I'm sad to say that there's not much more attention paid to characterization this time around.  It's very much a plot-driven installment, so if you're not interested in mutant kids fighting monsters in the 1940's, this book is not for you.

That being said, it is an entertaining diversion, and I enjoyed the world building through the peculiar animals and the fairy tales.  The photographs didn't seem to enhance the story this time and felt shoehorned in, almost gimmicky.  I'm curious to see how Mr. Riggs uses the photographs in the next volume and hope it will be more like those in the first book.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Dream Factory: Maleficent

Director: Robert Stromberg
Original release date: Walt Disney Pictures 2014 
Rating: PG

Summary from Rotten Tomatoes: Maleficent explores the untold story of Disney's most iconic villain from the classic Sleeping Beauty and the elements of her betrayal that ultimately turn her pure heart to stone. Driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect the moors over which she presides, Maleficent cruelly places an irrevocable curse upon the human king's newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Aurora is caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love and the human kingdom that holds her legacy. Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land and is forced to take drastic actions that will change both worlds forever.

As both a fan of fairy tales and Disney villains, I was excited when Maleficent was first announced a few years ago, albeit apprehensive given the last few live-action films released by Disney.  And while the critics have given mostly mixed reviews to Maleficent, I thought there were some great elements in it that just needed to be elaborated upon.

One of my major concerns, other than the story itself, was the special effects.  In recent years, there has been an increasingly apparent shift away from practical effects towards CG ones.  Sometimes those CG effects blend seamlessly with the live-action shots, while more frequently they are obvious and seem hollow.  The effects here are somewhere in the middle ground.  They're not perfect, but they're also not shoddy.  Being a practical effects enthusiast, I would have preferred to see the faerie realm as depicted by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, but considering that the majority of creatures were CG, they still managed to convey themselves as creatures with souls.

Fans of Eleanor Audley's portrayal may be a bit disappointed, as Angelina Jolie creates her own interpretation of the character for the most part.  The only Audley-esque scene is the christening of Aurora, which replicates much of the dialogue from the 1959 film.  Those expecting a rehash of the animated film from Maleficent's perspective will be surprised, as much of the latter half of the film is completely different, rather than just presented from a different viewpoint.

Some things worked well, while others did not, though at the risk of spoiling things for those who haven't seen the film, I won't elaborate.  Maleficent's motivation for revenge was justified, but in her rage, she harmed those who were innocent of the betrayal.  I thought this was portrayed very realistically and greatly enjoyed Maleficent's quest for redemption through her role as "fairy godmother."  Both she and Aurora were much more complex characters here than in the 1959 film, while the three "good fairies" were relegated to the role of comic relief.

While I applaud the attempt at not only introducing feminist themes to the work, but also the parallelism of the sleeping victims (Maleficent and Aurora), I found some of the narrative problematic.  Namely, the lack of positive male characters.  It's important that when empowering female characters, we don't villainize the male ones, but that's what happened here.  I'm not trying to excuse the actions of Stefan, as they were abhorrent.  I'm just pointing out that the film would have been more balanced if there were a good male to balance out Stefan's evil.  I think they attempted that with Philip (attempted being the operative word), but he's barely in the film so he doesn't do much to counteract Stefan.  I should note that I'm also not calling for Philip (or another male) to be the hero.  Aurora and Maleficent do a fine job of thwarting the king themselves.  I just want balance in the portrayals of characters of both sexes.

All in all, an enjoyable attempt to retell a classic fairy tale from a different perspective, even if it has its flaws.