I’ve always been a little frustrated by DreamWorks. Their success with cash-guzzling franchises like Shrek, Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda has made them the most prolific animation studio in the world but they haven’t been able to marry quantity with quality with any consistency. It’s difficult to know, when attending one of their new films, whether to expect a How to Train Your Dragon or a Shark Tale. There’s no denying their ability to keep kids entertained but few, if any, of their films will ever be remembered in the same way as most of Pixar’s emotionally satisfying, story-led back catalogue. Continue reading
With my old school chum Simon paying me a visit for the first time since crossing the Thames to live in North London the two of us took our customary trip to take in a movie at my local cinema, which, sadly, is not so local that it doesn’t involve a bus ride or a forty minute walk to reach.
Our choice of picture was War Horse the latest from Steven Spielberg, based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel which also inspired an extremely successful West End play against which the film will surely be critically judged. Having never seen the play I can’t compare but I did see one of the extraordinary horse puppets in action during an event in Trafalgar Square last year and can quite understand the enthusiastic reception they have garnered. The question is can a real horse prove as loveable?
Spielberg’s no stranger to war or sentimental stories about a boy’s unconditional love for a non-human but even he has never combined the two until now. With War Horse he has hit upon one of the most emotionally charged tales he has ever told on screen as he crosses the abject horror of the First World War with a story of separation. The title character is Joey, a magnificent young thoroughbred who wins the heart of simple Devon farm boy Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine). When Albert’s father Ted (Peter Mullan), a drinker with a heart of gold and a bad limp, irresponsibly blows thirty guineas on him to put to work as a plough horse Albert is overjoyed and quickly forms an unbreakable bond. But when war breaks out and with the landlord breathing down his neck Ted cuts his losses and sells Joey to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) who swears to Albert to look after his friend through the ensuing conflict.
What starts out as a gentle story about wholesome, innocent friendship develops into a series of heart-rending episodes as we follow Joey’s journey through a futile and wasteful war passing between caring hands again and again and it’s not only Albert who will have to endure a tearful farewell to his horse. Furthermore it’s not just the characters who’ll be shedding a few tears. War Horse is unashamedly a weepy and there are plenty of moments to encourage sniffles from those of us prone to them. I’ve never cried at a film before (at least that I can remember, I might have blubbed a bit at Bambi or The Lion King when I was a tot) and I didn’t cry at War Horse but there were enough people around me having a good sniff at the appropriate times. You don’t have to weep to have an emotional reaction to a film and while I wasn’t anywhere near as involved as I was with 50/50 the film is unquestionably accomplished in its tug-of-war with audience heart-strings. It’s transparent emotional manipulation and the way the sentimentality builds up into the final act is well and truly saccharine but this is only a problem if you don’t like the taste of sugar.
The 12A certificate is a safe indicator that we’re not getting Saving Private Ryan levels of distressing images of warfare but for a film a three-year-old can legally watch (properly accompanied by an adult of course) the film is quite tough. If the sight of a shell blast launching two young soldiers out of the British trench doesn’t get you the film’s most effective image of German machine-guns firing with dozens of riderless horses galloping past probably will. It’s all bloodless but only because the movie director’s advantage is in being able to choose exactly where to point the camera. Spielberg is tough on Joey too, particularly in one scene in which any real horse would surely be torn to shreds.
The interesting debate is which is more affecting, such sights as a soldier being gassed or the central story of a boy’s personal quest to reunite with his beloved horse. The impersonality of mechanised war is set against the deeply personal nature of individual humanity and the film is packed with important relationships both obvious and subtle. The changing nature of Albert’s connection with the landlord’s son who tries to outdo him by showing off to a girl in his dad’s car in peacetime, finding civility in the trenches is a nicely played example of the latter. Another interesting bond that runs through much of the long running time is between, not a horse and his boy, but a horse and a horse with Joey and black mare Topthorn who shares the former’s experience. It’s an equine connection that gets plenty of mileage in the midst of all the human relationships.
There are some for whom the sentimentality will be impossible to get past but there are more problems besides. The episodic nature of the Joey’s journey through the war asks us to form a rather brief attachment to a sequence of human characters in turn before moving on which is a slightly jarring form of narrative, Joey serving as a framing device for a succession of small, personal stories of human struggle. Having a dumb animal for a main character means we’re always having to divert attention away from him which leads to him being somewhat side-lined at times and yet it’s strangely necessary thus pointing to a fundamental flaw in the concept.
At this point I’m inclined to refer back to my review of The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword in which I made the point that giant birds aren’t as loveable as horses. Despite this the fact is that horses aren’t necessarily that easy to engage with either compared to dogs for example. Incredibly it might be that the magic of remarkable puppetry is more special and memorable than watching the plight of a live horse. It will probably hinge on how much you like the animals, which we all knew anyway. I’ve always liked them and enjoyed thinking of Joey as the protagonist but I sense some might struggle with him.
It’s also very predictable, particularly when it comes to the question of who dies, not to mention the leisurely pace and extensive running time might prove problematic for anyone expecting something else. But in spite of all these flaws the film ultimately succeeds and it does so because it achieves what it sets out to achieve. The acting from a cast that includes Emily Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch sell the tragedy well and John Williams provides reliable emotional guidance with the score. If you’re in any way cynical about the film going in chances are it won’t change you but anyone looking for what the film is quite obviously offering won’t be disappointed.
Though flawed in many ways War Horse ultimately triumphs with its powerful story that remembers humanity in a story about an animal. A tough tearjerker that could become a family classic but one sure to divide opinion.
The spin-off is not a tradition that can boast an illustrious history, existing for the sole purpose of making heaps of easy money off the back of established and popular property with little by way of genuine creative merit to support it. There are exceptions of course, Frasier springs to mind and serves as an excellent example of a spin-off that was worth making. The Shrek series is already one of the five highest grossing movie franchises in history and while the main run of films has drawn sensibly to its close, DreamWorks, reluctant to put their cash cow to sleep have decided to milk it one last time through a different character. There’s a danger that a film about the obvious choice, Donkey, could have got pretty annoying pretty quickly so we can count ourselves lucky that they instead chose Puss, a character in whom we all knew there was a film worth exploring.
Mind you, it can be argued we’ve already had that film in The Mask of Zorro, which, lest we forget served as the inspiration for the character and his casting in the first place. That’s why it was also important that we didn’t get a furry reissue of that film but that’s where the fairytale element comes in. The film draws upon well-worn childhood tales and nursery rhymes for inspiration and weaves a prequel that fills in the back story for Puss without so much as a cameo from anyone else associated with grumpy green ogres.
And it’s only in the frequent sideways references to classic fairytale that Puss in Boots resembles its movie source material, the story unfolds in a more muted, even leisurely fashion with themes of betrayal to get through. But if the film feels just slightly detached from the original animated tetralogy (yeah, quadrilogy is just a word they made up to flog Alien DVDs), it pretty much ignores the 17th century French literary work in which the character’s goal is pretty much just to get his master laid. Instead Puss is on the hunt for some magic beans, a quest which leads him face to face with another athletic feline outlaw in the shape of Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) as well as a familiar egg from his past.
Yes, Humpty Dumpty as played by Zach Galifianakis is involved and after a very long flashback telling of his and Puss’ childhood together in an orphanage they launch into a daring adventure with Kitty to fulfil their childhood dreams of riches. The journey is peppered with the appropriate amounts of swashbuckling, cat jokes, set pieces and character comedy and it’s decent value for that.
But there’s not an awful lot else to distinguish this spin-off as anything more than an unremarkably amusing romp. The narrative is focused rather narrowly on the two main characters and feels quite claustrophobic as a result and it takes time to get where it’s going, dropping apt action and comedy along the way. The result is a story that is never less than entertaining but can’t draw you in emotionally. The one consistent joy is Antonio Banderas’ central vocal performance which is as funny, sexy and charismatic as ever, and gives Puss the vitality that got the film commissioned in the first place.
Crisp animation and fine feline vocals aren’t enough to elevate this caper to the upper-echelons of animation but it’s still a worthwhile spin-off fans will enjoy.
I don’t tend to bother with new year resolutions but I’ve kind of made one for 2011 – to go to the cinema more often. I bought this film on DVD with Christmas vouchers having spent months hearing about how awesome it is and no sooner have I watched it than I find myself really regretting not seeing it on the big screen in dazzling 3D because it’s great.
How to Train Your Dragon, based on a series of books by Cressida Cowell tells the story of Hiccup a weedy teenage Viking whose island village is frequently beset by vicious dragons. After downing an especially fearsome Night Fury with a catapult of his own design, Hiccup tries to track it down to prove his achievement but when faced with the task of dispatching the fearsome beast finds himself unable to go through with it and frees it instead. With his training to battle the fire-breathing menaces getting under way he secretly befriends the grounded creature whom he names Toothless and the two slowly bond.
DreamWorks Animation have really hit the spot this time. They’ve always worked in Pixar’s shadow pumping out film after film about comedy talking animals (Madagascar, Over the Hedge, Shark Tale, Kung Fu Panda, Bee Movie) and never even approaching the level of originality or heart the makers of Toy Story find with every project. The only real exception to this rule was Shrek, a shining beacon of quality in the studio’s back catalogue but now Shrek finally has a companion that can just about stand shoulder to shoulder with it. How to Train Your Dragon recalls every great film that sees a put-upon youngsters become best friends with a non-human (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, The Iron Giant), focusing its story on a convincing, hugely charming central relationship. Hiccup’s befriending of Toothless is among the most touching work they’ve ever created, the scenes in which the two tentatively become acquainted are the undoubted highlight, not least because both are vulnerable and in need and terrified of each other. Some images the film throws up are nigh-on iconic, Toothless spots Hiccup watching him from a high ledge and crouching in a cat-like way eyes him silently, his eyes suspicious and cautious, Hiccup later reaches out to touch the dragon’s snout, scrunching up his eyes and turning his head away. It’s the kind of relationship we’ve seen before but DreamWorks have injected it with real soul.
For all its good relationship-weaving the film could have been undone by a number of other factors that have marred other DreamWorks animations but thankfully this hasn’t happened. The jokes fit the setting, are free of anachronisms and the kind of annoying hipness aimed at American youngsters and compliment the story. The voice cast is not overstuffed with big names doing absolutely nothing, Gerard Butler is the only superstar and he lends appropriate toughness to Stoick, Hiccup’s father while finding ample comedy in the role. The art direction too isn’t overly stylised. It’s a world that’s easy to settle into and believe in. The visual quality is top notch with highly detailed environments making the flying sequences and action dazzling and the soundtrack is stirring.
But the main reason why it’s so easy to lose yourself in How to Train Your Dragon is Jay Baruchel, the voice of Hiccup whose confident performance and quirkily sarcastic voice brilliantly create an immediately likeable character. Neither whiny or annoying he makes Hiccup extremely easy to root for. He’s supported by a very likeable bunch of performances, the aforementioned Butler’s manly voice juxtaposing with his nicely, Craig Ferguson is delightfully chirpy as Gobber and America Ferrera gives moody teen Astrid the right kind of feminine toughness.
Evidently DreamWorks get their best results when adapting material rather than inventing their own or perhaps it’s the period setting that works for them but whatever the magic ingredient How to Train Your Dragon is their best film since Shrek. It doesn’t quite have enough variety in its story to really achieve the status of an endless rewatchable classic but this is the first time in years that they’ve been able to rival Pixar.
With dazzling visuals a great set of characters, thrills, laughs and some genuinely touching moments How to Train Your Dragon is a superlative family film that all ages can enjoy. With two sequals in the pipeline this may be the start of a golden age for DreamWorks. More please.
ITV showed a programme over Christmas counting down the top ten family films of the last decade (don’t you just love top tens, they’ll be a regular feature of this blog in due course). Number one beating the likes of Harry Potter and Pirates of the Carribbean was Shrek. There’s good reason for this, Shrek, when it was released in 2001 was an instant classic, a perfectly judged middle-finger at Disney cheese that rammed home great gags, characters, visuals and a pretty nifty story not to mention probably the most worthwhile moral message in any animated film. Sequels were inevitable. Shrek 2 was almost as good, the story was pacey and made sense, leaving plenty of scope for laughs, introducing good new characters (Puss-in-boots, the Fairy Godmother) and not overegging the anachronistic gags. Shrek the Third spoiled the party a bit with a slightly dull story, a slew of flat new characters and an overemphasis on hipness. It looked like a great franchise was running out of steam but it didn’t feel like it had quite burned out and DreamWorks Animation aren’t shy of having another crack at a succesful franchise. After nine years and a couple of billion dollars gross the officially taglined ‘Final Chapter’ in the Shrek saga arrived in fashionable 3D.
Maybe I was a bit harsh about Shrek the Third. Shrek Forever After, as the fourth film is titled, highlights a few of its strengths. That’s not to say STT is better than SFA, quite the reverse but for all it regains in the series’ favour it loses things too. The biggest improvement is in the plot which is far more creative this time around. Shrek has grown bored of his repetitive existence and begins to yearn for the old days when people ran from him in terror rather than goggling at him from medieval tour-buses. As luck would have it he just happens to run into Rumplestiltskin who can offer him the very thing he longs for. Old Rumple (voiced brilliantly by the film’s chief story architect Walt Dohrn) offers him the chance to spend one day living life like an ogre should in exchange for one day from his past which the dodgy dealer removes from existence thus undoing everything that happened to him that day. Shrek requests if he can lose the day he met Donkey but lets the pint-sized sneak take a day from his childhood. Lo and behold he half-inches the day he was born.
We’re into Frank Capra teritory now as Shrek gets a taste of the world as it would have turned out had he never existed. It’s not a straightforward plot at all and has a couple more twists along the way and that’s to the film’s credit. There’s much more scope for originality here with the loveable green giant going through the process of meeting many of the principal characters for the first time again. While Shrek the Third felt a bit like it was drawing out its story to fill the running time there’s no such problem here with plenty of meat to the plot. The downside is the structure and pacing which feels lethargic and disjointed at times though there are a few missed opportunities holding the proceedings back too. Shrek the Third, for all its faults was nicely structured just like the first two films and it feels very much like a more focused drive for the story could have elevated the film. The fairytale world without Shrek is pretty gloomy too and this is probably the darkest film in the series in both theme and colour but the characters and gags are as dependably silly and the CG detailed enough that this doen’t matter much. It’s a mixed bag.
Where Shrek Forever After Fails the most however is in its insistence on maintaining the weak, cooky jokes that first crept into the third film. A goblin-voiced chubby boy demands Shrek ‘do the roar’, Donkey and Puss trade punny insults, Shrek breaks into awkward song to befirend Donkey, jokes like these were in the first two films but they were much better-judged, some formulae get old. But there are fewer such mis-steps than the third film and for every flat laugh there’s a hearty one. Highlights include silent newbie the Pied Piper of Hamlain tootling ogres into fancy-footed submission, Shrek relishing being scary again and pretty much everything Rumplestiltskin does.
The message is an interesting one, that you should be thankful for what you’ve got. It’s perhaps a strange thing to push at sprogs but goodness knows a lot of people should listen to it and the film handles it well enough. There’s no doubt that as many people will hate it as love it but on balance Shrek Forever After is a fun if somewhat unsatisfying final chapter in a landmark series. It’s a little sad to see it end although let’s not forget we still have the Puss-in-boots spin-off to look forward to but it’s right for DreamWorks to close the ogre’s book here, Shrek 5 would be a sequel too far.
While it gets plenty right and waves a flag of genuine originality Shrek Forever After doesn’t reclaim the high standards of the series’ first two entries. That said fans will no doubt lap up seeing their favourite characters in their inventive new scenarios and it’s a clear improvement over Shrek the Third.