26 July 2010

Review: How to Train Your Dragon

This blog came too late. In the late 90s through the mid 00s, the Internet had a few forms... there was Usenet, message boards, and internet sites. It would not have been horribly difficult to be able to create a website that reviewed MSTings in a format like this; after all, even the "new releases" link on our webpage is nothing more than a faux-blog which provides links to our latest MSTings.

However, push-button publishing really didn't take off until the tail-end of online MSTing's popularity. The SVAM message board could have been close, and even allowed for the review and critiquing of MSTings, but that is also a long-gone artifact of the Internet, not even accessible anymore.

This means that I need more than just MSTings to be able to put up topics on this blog. It's why I've been putting up real-life faux-drama like my job search, and pseudo-reviews such as the anime series I'd been watching lately. Today is no different, though it is a review about a movie that is now in the second-run theaters.

How to Train Your Dragon never really showed on my radar, though I do enjoy animation. I think it's because the trailers they make anymore really aren't aimed at me, there's only so far you can take the same repetitive joke. However, the rest of the family went to go see it a couple weeks ago and reported that it was terrific. So, having nothing much to do on a Saturday evening, we all went once again.

Without giving too much of the movie away, I really enjoyed it quite a bit. The animation is a ton of fun, you can tell that the animators had a blast trying to figure out all of the various possibilities of dragons. You had tall ones, skinny ones, short ones, fat ones... one memorable scene is of dragons that look (and act) a lot like squirrels. One of the characters was a walking encyclopedia on dragons, and it makes you think that there could have been a bit of success if the animators had just scrapped the movie idea and created some sort of card game like "Magic the Gathering" out of all the sketches.

The animators did know what they were doing with the animation though, and that really shines through. I quite admittedly enjoyed flying with the main character and his trained dragon through the skies, far more than that CG'ed up Avatar movie. I suppose that this could be another proof of the "uncanny valley" principle, but I suspect it's something deeper, which is the biggest issue I have between the two movies.

In Avatar we're confronted with a jarhead Marine protagonist who seems none too bright and barely cares that he isn't. With extra irony thrown in, he's a broken Marine, as he is currently injured and in a wheelchair. This would not be an issue except for the fact that he goes to a *jungle planet* (which presumably doesn't have wheelchair ramps) yet has not even attempted to train himself to be a gunship pilot, or a mecha pilot, or even operate the remote-controlled bulldozers. He doesn't CARE about any of that, and presumably doesn't have the intelligence to do so.

Through the course of the movie, we seem him gain an Avatar body through sheer dumb luck (hey, your brother's dead and you're close enough genetically to serve!). He proceeds to learn how to work it within only seconds movie-time, as he's running within a few frames of waking up. This same jarhead proceeds to learn how to integrate himself into a new culture and even learns a new language in scant months, which is presumably more difficult than learning how to pilot one of the many contrivances that would make it worth having a handicapped gun-toter. In the process, he gets two new flying birds, one the Big Red Plot-Contrivance Chicken, and becomes the de facto leader of all the tribes.

Almost all of that growth feels like it happens off-screen and implausibly. I relate all of that because it seemed so out-of-character and was, to me, the example of trying to fit a square peg (non-curious, unable to help himself jarhead jock) into a round hole (having to learn and adapt to way too many new things simultaneously for someone who barely cared when he got there).

As far as I'm concerned, How to Train Your Dragon did it the right way. The protagonist is shown to be a curious person who puts the plot into action due to his characterization... he refused to kill the titular dragon. The parts where he and the dragon are shown to be growing in trust to each other are actually rather sweet, and they're not without bumps along the way. I felt happy for the protagonists (for the dragon is certainly one of the protagonists) as their journey was shown on the screen.

This really is the best comparison I can make. Avatar had bogus contrivances and a protagonist that had a very badly-written characterization. Graphics can't save that. Of course, all movies have contrivances... you have to accept that there is a unicorn in the garden before you can have adventures with the unicorn. On the other hand, you can *explain* the unicorn and as long as the reason sounds somewhat plausible, audiences will make the leap of faith to accept your premise. How to Train Your Dragon had its own leaps of faith, but it did the best it could to allow this moviegoer to accept what was going on and to enjoy the concept.

Which brings me back to the beginning of this post. MSTing is both a blessing and a curse, because while it really forces you to think critically about a piece of work it is hard to turn the critical thinking off. Ultimately, while I cannot give my opinions of good new MSTings to read or discuss much about the field of MSTing, I can at least attempt to think critically about movies, anime, and other things. I can then post opinions and rationale about these works and to try to take you readers into the critical thought process as to why some things work and why some things may not work.

MSTing, after all, is nothing more than witty critique about a piece of work that seems to have fallen short of its target. In order to draft those jokes though, you have to try to identify what's going on, what kinds of images the author/screenwriter is trying to convey, and hopefully craft a joke that relates the image to something humorous, all while trying to stay one step ahead of the audience's first reaction.

Ultimately, I am certainly recommending seeing How to Train Your Dragon, even if just once. I enjoyed the story's heart, the characterization, the humor, and the main pull is just all those dragons. They range from mean, snarly, and noxious to weird to cute. The setting is just fun to be in, and the movie really zips along (barely 100 minutes). It's a terrific popcorn flick and the kids'll love it too.

On tap, some updated status by the end of the week regarding MSTings, my current real-life exploits, and still going through My HiME.

No comments: