Thursday, July 24, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes was written my Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver and directed by Matt Reeves (who also directed Cloverfield). It's the sequel to 2011's Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, which was a reboot of the Planet Of The Apes franchise of the 1960s and 1970s.

Andy Serkis, motion-capture actor extraordinaire, once again stars as Caesar the chimp, and actually gets top billing this time. That's pretty darned impressive for a man pretending he's an ape!

Dawn (Sorry, I'm not calling it DOTPOTA) is the rare sequel that actually surpasses the original film, taking its rightful place alongside The Godfather Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, ALIENS and Terminator 2. It actually builds on and expands the story, rather than rehashing the original like most yesterday's dinner.

The filmmakers did an amazing job of creating a storyline with an aura of doomed inevitability, that's almost like a Shakespearean tragedy. You want so much for the two species to get along, but you just know it's never going to happen, which is heartbreaking. 

Dawn is also surprisingly smart, especially for a big budget summer tentpole film. The characters– human as well as ape are all well written, and they all act believably. Amazingly no one does anything overtly stupid just for the sake of the plot. That's a rarity among summer movies.

The Plot:
Ten years after the previous film, the Simian Flu virus has nearly wiped out humanity while genetically augmenting apes. That's some virus!

A group of immune human survivors have gathered in the ruins of San Francisco, while a shrewdness of apes (believe it not, that's what you call a group of them), led by the chimpanzee Caesar has built a colony in nearby Muir Woods.

The humans, led by two men named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) are anxious to repair a nearby hydroelectric dam to provide power to the decimated city. Unfortunately the dam lies deep inside ape territory. Can the two groups work out a solution and coexist peacefully, or will the situation decay into all-out war?

• Andy Serkis reportedly received a seven figure paycheck to reprise his role as Caesar. More power to him I guess, but man, that's a lot of dough to act like an chimp!

• As the movie opens, Caesar and his tribe are hunting a herd of elk. Whoops! I was under the impression that apes are vegetarians. 

After a bit of admittedly spotty research, I found that chimps are usually vegetarians, but will occasionally consume small quantities of meat if there's nothing else around. Gorillas and orangutans though, are strict plant eaters.

These are mutated, intelligent talking apes we're talking about though, so maybe they didn't get the "don't eat meat" memo. 

• The film takes quite a chance by spending a big chunk of the film among the apes, most of whom can only speak a word or two and communicate primarily through sign language (with subtitles). This could have backfired big time, but surprisingly it works. No doubt due to the efforts of the motion-capture actors.

• It's extreme nitpicking time! Why is this movie called Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes? Doesn't "dawn" usually signify a beginning? They really should have switched the titles and called the first film Dawn and this one Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.

• Things I learned from this movie: The Koba character is a bonobo. Chimpanzees are divided into two species: the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and the bonobo (Pan paniscus). They look more or less like the common chimp, but have longer legs and a darker face. I did not know that.

This is the first time an Apes film has ever included more than the classic three ape species (chimps, gorillas and orangutans). 

• Kody Smit-McPhee stars as Malcolm's son Alexander. What a difference a couple of years makes! I didn't even recognize him. On the left is how he appeared in 2009's.The Road, and on the right is how he appears now. He looks like a completely different person!

• Apparently the studio couldn't afford to hire Gary Oldman full time. He appears near the beginning of the film, then literally disappears for a good hour or more before finally showing up again near the end.

• Kirk Acevedo (of Fringe) plays Carver, an ape-hating human who causes a good deal of the trouble between the two species. Carver is the movie's Designated Asshole: a character who acts like a jerk for seemingly no reason other than because the script says so (think Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films).

On the other side of the spectrum, Koba (mo-capped by Toby Kabbell) is the DA for the apes. Koba's got a legitimate reason for hating humans though, as he was kept in a cage and tortured by human scientists before being freed by Caesar. In fact, his motivations were so compelling I found myself almost siding with him, despite his despicable actions.

• When Koba wants to sneak into the human city, the guards are initially wary of the large intelligent chimp. He then starts hamming it up and acting like a trained circus chimp, which puts his foes at ease. And then he kills them.

Koba's "monkeyshines" scenes were very well done.

"Koba" was also the nickname of Joseph Stalin during his time as a revolutionary in Soviet Georgia. Coincidence, or intentional?
• One big plus about this film: there are no cutesy callbacks to the original series this time around. The previous movie was absolutely lousy with them. Every time you turned around someone was shouting, "It's a madhouse!" or some such line. I counted at least 21 callbacks or references in Rise. It was tiresome after a while. Fortunately the filmmakers seem to have got all that out of their system.

I'm aware that Caesar's son is named Blue Eyes, and I suppose you could argue that's a shout out to Planet Of The Apes, but it's different enough that I'm willing to give 'em that one. 

• Let's take an obsessive look at that poster, shall we? First of all, it's a cool image, but nothing even remotely like that happens in the film. Boo!

Second: why is the Golden Gate Bridge on fire? Is that even possible? Isn't it made out of cement and steel? Even if they poured oil or gas on it, I doubt the temperature would get high enough to melt a suspension bridge.

Third: those are some awfully big apes we see swinging around on the bridge (and amidst the flames). They'd have to twenty feet tall for us to see them from that distance.

Fourth: This new poster is very similar to the first one, and for a minute I thought they might line up and form one image, but nope. Darn.

• One area in which the film drops the ball: ape strength. Several times in the movie a group of apes pounce on a fleeing human and rain blows on them with their fists. Nope!

Apes are strong. Very strong. Superhumanly strong. In reality you'd see limbs, spleens and faces flying through the air as the apes tore at their victims. Ape attacks are horrifying, and not at all pretty.

I'm guessing the filmmakers most likely know this, but toned down the ape on human action so as not to gross out the audience and get an R or NC-17 rating.

• The apes have but one rule: Ape Does Not Kill Ape. No exceptions!

So how then to deal with a psychopath like Koba, who most definitely did kill other apes? Why, by declaring that he's not an ape of course, and then killing him, that's how. I knew they were gonna come up with some kind of loophole for that law, and totally called the "You're not an ape" line.

• At the end of the film, Caesar battles Koba atop a large tower for the fate of the ape tribe. Caesar lets Koba fall, ending his threat for good.

Or did he? Even though Koba seemingly falls to his death, note that we never actually see his lifeless body. That pretty much guarantees he'll be back in the inevitable sequel. It's one of the Unwritten Laws Of Film.

• In the previous film, a news report in the background mentioned the spaceship Icarus, commanded by one George Taylor (!), had disappeared on its way to Mars.

I'm assuming the Icarus was caught in some kind of time warp and will reappear in some future remake of Planet Of The Apes.

•  The end of the film sets up the inevitable sequel, which will no doubt feature Caesar against what's left of the US Army.

This would round out the trilogy nicely. If they're planning on continuing the series though, I'm betting that further adventures will have to star Andy Serkis as a descendent of Caesar. Chimps generally live 40 to 50 years, so unless the Simian Flu dramatically extends his life expectancy, he's not going to live the thousands of years it would take for man and ape to switch places, ala the original Planet Of The Apes (and that's no doubt where the Icarus will come in).

• My, how far CGI has come! In the final shot, the camera slowly zooms right into Caesar's face and it looks absolutely real. No "dead eyed" Polar Express stares here! 

I was leery when they first announced they were using CGI apes in Rise instead of human actors in prosthetic makeup, but it worked out pretty well for them. Well done, Weta Digital!

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is a surprisingly smart sci-fi sequel that outdoes the original. I give it an A.

Lost Futureboy Drawing

Way back in 2009 I posted a couple of entries about Futureboy, a character I created in the late 1990s. You can read all about him here

Imagine my surprise when I was googling myself today, as one does, and ran across this: a vector drawing of Futureboy.

At least I think it's forgotten. I don't remember posting this one before, and it didn't show up when I searched for it.

I completely forgot all about this drawing. This is the first (and so far only) time I've ever drawn him in vector. It's definitely my work, but I have no memory of drawing it whatsoever, or even why I did it. It's kind of eerie seeing something I obviously did but don't recall. Like there's another version of me out there posting things and jet setting about the globe and generally having a better time than I am.

I suppose I'll have to chalk this one up to old age, as my once steel trap-like mind becomes more like a sieve. Next stop: adult diapers!

Late To The Party: Nitpicking Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade

Last weekend I re-watched Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade for the twentieth (at least) time. I've always considered it almost as good as the first film, and definitely better than the second. What's that? How's it compare to the fourth film, you ask? I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about. There are only three Indiana Jones movies.

Anyhow, something occurred to me while it watching it this time, nearly a quarter century (!) after if premiered. At the end of the film, Indy's finally found the resting place of the Holy Grail, but in order to grab it he has to make it safely through three trials. 

Let's examine these trials in obsessively over-critical detail, shall we?

Presumably these trials are there to protect the Grail so no breaks in and walks off with it. They require an above average knowledge of Christianity, archeology and religious lore in order to pass them. Otherwise they wouldn't be very good trials, right?

In the first trial, Only The Penitent Man Shall Pass. This one seems pretty simple, as it consists of just a narrow, spider web-choked corridor. Indy's Nazi enemies force several grunts through the passage, without much success. They're all decapitated by an unseen force.

Indy, being a biblical scholar, correctly surmises that "Penitent Man" means he has to kneel before God. He does so, and a spinning blade just misses him as it sails over his bowed head. Only someone with Indy's fancy book learnin' could have made it through.

In the second trial, Only In The Footsteps Of God Shall He Proceed. This one consists of a small room with a floor covered in lettered tiles. Indy correctly deduces he has to cross the chamber by stepping only on the tiles that spell out "Jehovah," the name of God. If he steps on any other tiles, they'll collapse and he'll plunge to his death thousands of feet below.

Because of Indy's superior religious smarts, he knows that in Latin, Jehovah is spelled "IEHOVAH" and successfully takes the right path, passing the second trial. Again, Indy's specialized knowledge saves him, as, let's face it, Latin ain't something the average person knows.

Then we get to the third trial, Only In The Leap From The Lion's Head Will He Prove His Worth. It consists of an ledge on one side of an impossible-to-jump bottomless abyss. Indy appears stumped here, as there's seemingly no way to cross.

Eventually he realizes that this trial is a leap of faith. He summons his courage and steps off the ledge...

...and lands on a stone bridge that's camouflaged to look invisible.

Visually it's a very cool scene, but... c'mon! ANYONE could have passed this trial! The first two required specific knowledge about biblical lore and Christianity in order to pass them. This one didn't require any special smarts. It's a stinking stone bridge! Any lummox could have blundered their way across it. It's not like it could disappear if it sensed your faith was lacking. 

I feel like the Grail Knights who made the three trials kind of dropped the ball with this last one. Maybe they figured the first two would take care of any intruders and they kind of coasted on this last one.

Also, since the bridge is painted to blend in with the background, it would only work from one specific angle. If Indy had moved his head even an inch either way, he'd have been able to see there was something there. As I said it definitely looks cool, but there's no way it could work in reality. Parallax shift and all that.

Once Indy makes it to the other side, he throws a handful of sand onto the bridge so that it'll become visible to the group following him. Um... that bridge has already been there since the Crusades. Wouldn't it already be covered in a foot of dust? Or does the Grail Knight come out of his cave and dust it now and then?

"You have blogged... most unwisely."

The Hobbit: Are We There Yet?

This week MGM and New Line Cinema unveiled the official poster for the upcoming The Hobbit: The Battle Of Five Armies, the third and final chapter of The Hobbit trilogy.

Back when the series was first announced, the third film was going to be subtitled There And Back Again. Then in April 2014, New Line registered the title The Hobbit: Into The Fire, fueling speculation that they were changing the name of the film. They've apparently changed their minds again and settled on The Battle Of Five Armies.

I have a better subtitle for them: The Hobbit: Are We There Yet? How about The Hobbit: Jesus, When Will It End? The Hobbit: Christ, I Think My Ass Is Asleep?

I noticed something odd about the poster right off the bat. See that figure at the bottom? That ain't a hobbit! That's Bard The Bowman of Lake Town. The human male who (77 year old spoiler alert!) ultimately kills Smaug the dragon.

That's right, unlike the previous two, this new poster for The Hobbit contains 100% fewer hobbits.

"The Defining Chapter" is a very odd tag line too. Wouldn't "The Final Chapter" have been more appropriate? Apparently the first two films were just placeholders and this is the only one worth your time.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why Do They Call Them Comics: Snuffy Smith

Once again on the comics page we see Snuffy Smith displaying an advanced knowledge of the universe and man's place within, despite the fact that he's a backward hillbilly who can probably barely scratch out an X as a placeholder for a signature.

This happened back in April too, when Snuffy revealed his familiarity with the Many Worlds Theory Of Quantum Mechanics. Mind your words, Snuffy! Folks in Hootin' Holler don't take kindly to such book learnin' and them that gits above their raisin.' People have been lynched for less.

I'm starting to believe that Snuffy Smith artist/writer John Rose is really a pen name for pop astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson. How else to explain the sudden surge in cosmic-themed strips?

Bonus Round Nitpicking: why is the title of the strip Snuffy Smith, but all the characters pronounce his name as "Smif?" Shouldn't the names match?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ancient Astronaut

Hey, those Easter Island heads had to be inspired by something, amirite?

Dang, this drawing took forever. I just couldn't quit fiddling with it. Originally I wanted him to have an orange spacesuit, but it drew attention away from his head. I tried pretty much every possible color before finally giving up and just making it white. I need some kind of agent or editor who'll take drawings away from me to prevent me from picking at them until they're ruined.

If you look closely you may notice that his helmet was stolen from inspired by the ones in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Who the hell decided that's the way you spell "odyssey?" No wonder Americans are such awful spellers.

The Ancient Astronaut was drawn in Photoshop on the graphic tablet.

Here's the original sketchbook doodle of him.

And the more refined digital sketch I used for the finished piece.

It Came From The Cineplex: A Hard Day's Night

Wha...? Is this a movie review from the past? Did I travel back in time to when I started my blog in the early 1960s? Am I having a stroke and randomly banging on the keys?

Nope, none of those things. 2014 marks the 50th Anniversary of The Beatles' first film A Hard Day's Night, and my local cinemaplex is showing a new print of the film. So since it's currently playing in theaters, I say it's far game for a review, no matter how old it is!

A Hard Day's Night was written by Alun Owen and directed by Richard Lester (director of Superman II and Superman III). Lester also directed the Beatles' second film outing, Help!

Needless to say I missed the film when it came out in 1964, so when I saw it was being rereleased I thought I'd better jump on the chance to see it. I probably won't be around to catch the 100th Anniversary.

I was sure I'd seen this movie before, but after watching it I realized that not one second of it was familiar to me. Either I didn't see it after all, or I did and somehow forgot 100% of it. Maybe I'm thinking of Help.

There'd been many "music exploitation" films before, but they generally consisted of setting a camera in front of a band and recording one of their concerts. The Beatles and director Richard Lester were determined to do something different in this film, seemingly giving the fans a behind the scenes look at the lads. 

It was great seeing the Fab Four at the height of their popularity on the big screen. This was the young, fun Beatles, before all the LSD and the maharishi and the Yoko and the "bigger than god" bushwah that came later.

In a way it was kind of like time travel, sitting in a theater watching a black and white movie from 1964. I almost felt like I should have worn a suit and hat to the theater. And the music! It's been a long time since I'd listened to The Beatles, and I forgot just how good their songs are. Far, far, FAR better than 99% of the dreck that passes for music today. I know, I know, get off my lawn.

The Plot:
The Beatles run from a mob of fans and jump onto a train. They arrive at their hotel, and feeling restless, go out on the town while dodging their manager who's trying to keep them inside before a TV appearance. And they sing a lot. That's pretty much it!


• The film was every bit as scripted as Citizen Kane, yet it has a freewheeling, meandering "day in the life" style that makes it seem like a documentary. This was no doubt helped by the fact that the lads were pretty much playing themselves, with only a touch of exaggeration. 

• When United Artist studio execs saw the finished film, they worried that American audiences wouldn't be able to understand the lads' Liverpudlian accents and wanted to dub their voices. Paul McCartney famously quipped, "Look, if we can understand a f*cking cowboy talking Texan, they can understand us talking Liverpool!"

Jesus, their accents were part of their charm. Why would you ever want to dub over them? They're not that hard to understand. Just more proof that studio executives have always been clueless.

• In the film, Paul McCartney's grandfather is played by Wilfrid Brambell, who starred as Albert Steptoe in the British sitcom Steptoe And Son. Steptoe was the inspiration for the 1970s U.S. sitcom Sanford And Son. And That's One To Grow On!

Throughout the film characters keep commenting about Grandpa McCartney and how "clean" he is. This is a riff on Brambell's Steptoe character, who's constantly described as a dirty old man.

• For the record, the songs included in the film are:

A Hard Day's Night (natch!) 
I Should Have Known Better
I Wanna Be Your Man
Don't Bother Me
All My Loving
If I Fell 
Can't Buy Me Love
And I Love Her
I'm Happy Just To Dance With You 
Ringo's Theme
Tell Me Why
She Loves You
• Some have complained that the film's original mono soundtrack has been replaced by one in stereo. It didn't bother me; I'm not an audiophile and didn't notice the change. If you're a purist and want to hear the original soundtrack, it's available on the Criterion Edition blu-ray.

What's that? The restored version of this film is freely available for home viewing? And I paid to see it in a theater? Why, yes. Yes I did. I know I can buy it on Amazon, but I wanted to see it on the big screen once in my life.

• At one point Paul's grandfather complains that he tagged along with the band for a change of scenery, but so far all he's seen is "a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room." 

This line was actually spoken by one of the Beatles to screenwriter Alun Owen, who spent several weeks with them in order to generate plot ideas. Apparently the band was struggling with the burden of their fame and were tired of having to hide in hotels from their hordes of screaming fans.

• During the press scene, a reporter asks Ringo if he's a mod or a rocker, and he replies, "Uh, no, I'm a mocker." This and most of the other questions and answers in this scene came from actual Beatles interviews.

• The working title of the film was just The Beatles, which was then changed to Beatlemania. Ringo Starr, who was famous for uttering malapropisms, is credited with coining the eventual title, when, after a lengthy concert said, "Phew, it's been a hard day's night."

• In the film, the director of The Beatles' TV show is played by actor Victor Spinetti, who wears a truly horrendous hairy-looking sweater. I'm wondering if that sweater was part of the film's humor; surely no one ever wore anything like that, even in the 1960s. 

Just look at it! It's making me itch just looking at the hideous thing!

• Most films are shot out of order, but A Hard Day's Night was filmed pretty much sequentially.

• The movie was made for just $500,000, which was pretty low even in 1964. That'd be a little less than $4 million today.

• Extreme nitpicking time: As a graphic designer, the "scoreboard" backdrop in the finale drove me nuts. It looks for all the world like it says "8EATLES." So I fixed it for them.

• I always knew that The Monkees and their eponymous TV series were "inspired" by The Beatles and A Hard Day's Night, but until I saw the film I had no idea just how closely they copied them. The freeform plots, the non-sequitor dialogue, the innovative camera work, the music video segments, the zany romps accompanied by the band's songs-- The Monkees copied it all. With precision!

The Monkees even copied the A Hard Day's Night end credits, which feature closeups of the boy with various expressions!

• Proof that merchandising cash-grabs are nothing new: there was actually a novelization of the movie, if you can imagine such a thing. The movie has such a thin, wandering, stream of consciousness plot that I can't imagine how anyone could turn it into a book. I wonder if the novel included all the song lyrics as well?

A Hard Day's Night is a fun romp through an imaginary day in the life of The Beatles, and a welcome reminder of just how good they were. I give it a B+.

The Power Of Marketing

If you're a regular reader of Bob Canada's BlogWorld (as millions are), you've no doubt heard me blathering on from time to time about Marketing

But Bob, I hear a percentage of you pleading, what exactly is Marketing? Alright, alright, get up and I'll tell you.

Imagine you've got a kid. Say, nine or ten years old (kids are nine or ten, right?). So you sit this kid down and tell him you'll take him to the ice cream parlor (kids like ice cream parlors, right?). But... the catch is he has to wear a cardboard box on his head.

What do you think would happen? The kid would press a shiv against your neck for even suggesting such a thing, that's what would happen (kids carry shivs, right?). And to top it off, he'd probably call Child Protective Services on you for daring to even suggest such a thing.

However... if you take the box and cover it with pixely squares so it resembles the characters from Worlds Of Minecraft or whatever the hell it's called, and then tell them they have to wear it, why they won't be able to put it on their head fast enough! In fact they'll proudly strut down the street and into the ice cream parlor with a goddamned cardboard box on their head, and they'll like it!* You probably won't be able to get them to stop wearing it! They'll press a shiv against your neck before ever removing it.

And that is what Marketing's all about.

*This ain't something I invented-- I went to a large comic and toy show last year and saw scores of kids walking around with boxes like these on their heads.

You Lose, Hallmark

Like most American families, it's become an annual tradition in ours to watch the A Christmas Story marathon every year on TBS. 

My dad particularly enjoys the movie, and especially likes Darren McGavin's performance as Ralphie's Old Man. His absolute favorite part of the film is near the endwhen the Old Man yells, "Sons a'bitches! Bumpases!" out the door after the neighbor's hounds eat the family's turkey dinner. My dad will dutifully sit through the entire movie just to see that one scene, and will then roar and guffaw every time he sees it. It is a pretty funny scene, especially considering it occurs in a Christmas movie. Dad's reaction to it is just as funny, if not more.

So given all that, I was very excited last week when Hallmark unveiled their line of 2014 Christmas ornaments (despite the fact that it's still July). Among this year's overpriced decorative geegaws is one titled Bumpases, depicting my Dad's favorite scene! And it even has a sound chip! Could it be? Do we really live in a world in which we can now buy obscenity-shouting ornaments? Huzzah! 

I rushed out to the nearest Gold Crown store to get one for my dad so he can listen to his favorite scene over and over and over until the battery wears out.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. The ornament is sadly lacking in the sound department.

Sculpting-wise it's not awful. The faces are a bit soft, but I can definitely see Darren McGavin and Peter Billingsley in there. There's a lot of nice detailing in the clothing too.

But the sound feature is shockingly subpar. First of all, when you push the button, it offers up a lame, edited version of dad's favorite line. No "Sons a'bitches, Bumpases!" here. Instead we get a half-hearted "Bumpases!" followed by thirty seconds or so of Ralphie's monologue about no turkey for Christmas. BOO!!!

OK, so I suppose one could argue that it's not exactly kosher for a Christmas ornament to spout PG-13 language. The prime demographic for these things is Uptight Soccer Moms who are constantly on the hunt for things to be outraged about, so it's not surprising that Hallmark took the safe route. So don't make an ornament of that scene then! There's plenty of other scenes in the movie they could have immortalized in plastic. Make Randy in his overstuffed snowsuit, or Ralphie in his Black Bart costume instead. 

And if that weren't bad enough, the sound chip doesn't even feature the original actors on the sound chip! They cheaped out and hired mediocre sound-alikes. Jesus, Hallmark, why not just stick a church hymn in there while you were at it?

Any time you don't hear the original voices in a product, that's a sure sign that the company didn't want to deal with contracts and talent royalties. 

If I understood anything about electronics, I'd buy one of these, crack it open and reprogram the chip with the actual sound byte from the movie. Alas, my talents in that area are sadly lacking.

You could have had several guaranteed sales in my family alone, Hallmark, but due to your wimping out on the dialogue and cheaping out on the sound chip, you missed out. Better luck next year.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Stay Weird, Target

I was wandering around my local Target this weekend, and saw this in the men's "sleep wear" (wink wink) department.

I think we all know what's really going on here. Yes, it's Target, proudly serving the furry community since 1962.

Say what you will about Walmart and their business practices, but at least they don't carry unwholesome fetish-wear.

By the way, what clothing designer thought it would be a good idea to give this ridiculous thing a neck-to-crotch zipper? If you get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom you're pretty much going to have to peel it off all the way down past your waist. Convenient!

Friday, July 11, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: How To Train Your Dragon 2

How To Train Your Dragon 2 was written and directed by Dean DeBlois. Not surprisingly, it's a sequel to the 2010 film How To Train Your Dragon.

The entire voice cast from the original film is back, including Jay Baruchel as Hiccup, Gerald Butler as Stoick the Vast, Craig Furguson as Gobber, America Ferrera as Astrid, Jonah Hill as Snotlout, Christopher Minzt-Plasse as Fishlegs, And T.J. Miller and Kristen Wiig as Tuffnut and Ruffnut.

Joining the cast is Cate Blanchett as Valka, Kit Harrington as Eret and Djimon Hounsou as Drago.

I enjoyed the first film a lot more than I thought I would, and felt it was leaps and bounds ahead of most non-Pixar animated films. This one is just as good, if not better, and takes the story into darker territory, ala The Empire Strikes Back.


The Plot:
It's five years after the events of the first film, and Hiccup, now twenty years old, is being pressured by his father, Stoick the Vast, to become the new chieftain of Berk.

Hiccup and his dragon Toothless go exploring and are captured by a dragon rider who just happens to be his long lost mother Valka. She explains that she left Berk to start a dragon preserve and protect them from an insane warlord named Drago Bludvist.

Drago controls a huge dragon called a Bewilderbeast, that can psychically control all other dragons. He uses the Bewilderbeast to enslave Valka's dragons and to attack Berk. Stoick is accidentally killed by Toothless, who's under Drago's control.

It's then up to Hiccup and his friends to save Berk from Drago and his dragon army.

• The film series is very loosely based on the series of books by Cressida Cowell. There are twelve books in the series so far: 

How to Train Your Dragon
How To Be A Pirate
How To Speak Dragonese
How to Cheat A Dragon's Curse
How To Train Your Viking
How To Twist A Dragon's Tale
A Hero's Guide To Deadly Dragons
How To Ride A Dragon's Storm
How To Break A Dragon's Heart
How To Steal A Dragon's Sword
How To Seize A Dragon's Jewel
How To Betray A Dragon's Hero
The first film deviated quite a bit from the source material, and this one even more so. It's a direct continuation of the first movie and as far as I can tell has nothing whatsoever to do with any of the books. From the admittedly superficial reference I've done, a lot of the books seem to be concerned with pirates rather than vikings.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 does a very good job of expanding the story and the world of the first film, unlike most sequels that rehash what's gone before. Time has passed, the dragons have become more integrated in Berk, Hiccup is older and a bit more mature, and there are new lands and many more species of dragons. Well done!

That said, there's one big exception. In the first movie the Berkians had to go up against a monstrous, Godzilla-sized dragon. This time there are two gigantic dragons; one good and one bad. Stay tuned for the inevitable How To Train Your Dragon 3, in which we'll no doubt see a trio of skyscraper-sized dragons threatening Berk.

• In the first film, Hiccup has a line about "watching the setting suns," which sure sounds to me like Berk isn't on Earth, but in some vaguely defined fantasy realm. There were no further mentions of multiple suns in the film, and none in this one as well. 

So is Berk really on another planet, or are they sweeping that concept under the rug and hoping everyone forgets about it?

• Hiccup's flaming sword was new, and pretty darned cool. Almost like a light saber!

• The biggest reveal in the film concerns Hiccup finding his long-lost mother Valka. 

You know, Dreamworks, this might have been a more shocking revelation if you hadn't shown it in the goddamned trailer. Why would you do such a thing? Thank the maker that The Empire Strikes Back wasn't made today. If it was the trailer would no doubt loudly trumpet the fact that Darth Vader is Luke's dad.

• When Stoick is reunited Valka after all these years, they immediately begin arguing. Looking on, Gobber the blacksmith tells Hiccup, "This is why I never married. Well, that and one other reason." 

At first I thought maybe they were implying that Gobber was missing more than just a hand and a leg, but then I wondered: was that a gay joke? Actor Craig Ferguson confirms that the character is indeed homosexual. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

• Eret, Son Of Eret starts out as a villain working for Drago. In one of the quickest turnarounds in film history, he's captured by Hiccup's friends and immediately switches sides, becoming a good guy.

• I'm impressed that these films don't pull any punches and wimp out, like so many of the family films in our current ultra-safe "think of the children" society. Hiccup saves his village in the first film but gets his foot burned off in the process. Gobber the blacksmith is missing a hand and a leg from past run-ins with dragons. Stoick the Vast dies saving Hiccup. The Bewilderbeast kills Valka's alpha dragon.

There's death and dismemberment galore in these films, just like the original violent, unsanitized versions of classic fairy tales. 

Read The Wizard of Oz book sometime if you don't believe me, especially the chapter about the Tin Man. It'd make a Saw fan queasy.

• The movie's main villain is Drago Bludvist. He's got an awesome character design, but... he doesn't really do all that much. He pretty much stands around looking threatening and occasionally summons the Bewilderbeast. I was hoping for a big Luke vs. Vader battle between him and Hiccup, but it wasn't to be.

He also seemed pretty easy to defeat for someone who looked so menacing. His death scene was pretty vague as well-- he just sort of quietly slipped into the ocean with his dragon. We didn't see a body, which tells me he's going to be back in some capacity in Part 3. 

• Sadly the film isn't performing as well as expected, grossing less than the original and falling far behind its main competition, the execrable Transformers: Age Of Extinction.

I'm not sure why this is, as it's far superior to the Transformers "movie." Maybe it's because there's a Dragons TV series, and parents are reluctant to spend good money going to the theater when they can watch the same thing at home?

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a rare sequel that expands its world and doesn't rehash the original story (mostly). I give it a B+.
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