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Reviewing the films of 2014, Part VI: How to Train Your Dragon 2, Big Hero 6, The Boxtrolls, and the ones I missed
First, the Recap Episode
First of all I would like to apologize to my readers for taking so long to post another movie review. I went into 2014 with every intention of posting regular reviews, as I saw the movies of the year. Unfortunately, it was both a lean year for me for movies and a year in which I simply did not have enough time to write my hubs regularly. In fact, I skipped reviews on two of the year's films, not because they did not deserve to be reviewed (if nothing else, I could have fun ripping into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), but because I simply had too much on my plate. At this point, I do believe it would be unfair to write full reviews for TMNT and God's Not Dead, since they are no longer fresh in my mind, but it would also be unfair to leave them without any comment, so I wanted to take a minute for some mini-reviews.
Let me get one thing out of the way first of all about God's Not Dead--the phrase "preaching to the choir" is a perfectly applicable description. In other words, if you are a practicing Christian, and particularly if you are an Evangelical Christian, you will likely find the film moving and a fine affirmation of faith. If you are not, and in particular if you are a film snob, you will probably dismiss the film as propagandist dreck. I fall somewhere in between; as a lapsed Lutheran who makes a POINT of being open-minded, and who has learned to take films at face value without being hung up on how GOOD they are, I found God's Not Dead to be a generally entertaining film that did tug a bit at the heartstrings but which generally was best viewed as a comedy. The movie does have some genuinely funny moments, as well as plenty of unintentionally funny ones, and the soundtrack is pretty damn good (and the cameo by Newsboys is quite entertaining); Kevin Sorbo is pretty effective as the too-nasty-for-words "atheist" professor hell-bent on snuffing out Christian leanings in his students, and the production values are generally solid, if unspectacular. That said, this is a film in which each villain SCREAMS "I'm a villain!" with every action they take or comment they make, each person in need of guidance SCREAMS "I need guidance!" and the acting overall is middling to decent; a couple of actors were pretty bad, notably Korie Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame (indeed, though her co-star Willie Robertson came across as a pretty decent guy, I take a half star immediately from anything associated with Duck Dynasty). Anyway, the takeaway is that, overall, God's Not Dead is not a particularly bad film, but neither is it particularly great; I have little doubt that the average moviegoer will have all but forgotten about the film ten years from now, though many will still be watching it as a personal favorite.
As for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, all I can say is, "WHY?" Why was Michael Bay allowed any part in rebooting this franchise, when all children of the 80s already hated him for his Transformers reboot? Why did Jonathan Liebesman put himself in the unenviable position of helming a movie that will always be thought of as a "Michael Bay movie"? Why did Will Arnett, William Fichtner and Whoopie Goldberg allow themselves to be pulled into this mess? Why was all the backstory changed, for the worse? And why, when all is said and done, is this movie actually watchable and fairly entertaining? Don't get me wrong, this is not a GOOD movie by any means. But I actually got some entertainment out of watching it. True, Megan Fox is a weak actress (I continue to maintain, however, that people dump too harshly on her), and April O'Neal as presented here is the world's worst reporter. True, Will Arnett did such a good job channeling G.O.B. Bluth that I was continually reminded of a far better production of his. True, William Fichtner was so perfectly cast that I felt sorry for him not getting this role in a better film. True, the Shredder as presented here was a lifeless, flavorless husk with little apparent purpose beyond uncomfortably reminding the audience of Michael Bay's Transformers movies. True, the idea of Splinter becoming a ninja master FROM A FREAKIN' BOOK within ten years and training the turtles within that time as well is beyond laughable. When all is said and done, the movie is not as terrible as I feared. Maybe it's because I had a couple beers in me, I don't know. I do know, though, that I'd rather get this one than the Transformers movies, though I'm certainly in no hurry there. Anyway, that's my brief take on two movies from 2014 that I had glossed over; now, on to the reviews for three excellent films from the past year: How to Train Your Dragon 2, Big Hero 6 and The Boxtrolls.
Three animated offerings from 2014
Honestly, one of the triggers for my finally deciding to sit down and write another movie review hub was the realization that I might be able to have a reprise of last year's hub--one film each by Walt Disney Pictures, Dreamworks Animation and Studio Ghibli. Unfortunately, it turns out I was mistaken on being able to go ahead and watch Ghibli's Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya); I will definitely knock that one out AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, but in the meantime I went ahead and watched Laika Entertainment's The Boxtrolls instead. Added to Dreamworks' How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Disney's Big Hero 6, as well as the long-since-reviewed The Lego Movie, I now have a pretty good handle on the domestic animated films that are up for Oscars. Of course, I am nowhere close to being the only one BAFFLED that The Lego Movie is up for Best Original Song (for the insidiously catchy "Everything Is Awesome") but that it is NOT up for Best Animated Feature. I can say now, though, that all three of the films I've seen that WERE nominated deserved to be so, and I'll now take some time with each to explore why that is.
How to Train Your Dragon 2
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is something of an odd case here. The first film was awesome, but predictably lost the Oscar race to the juggernaut that was Toy Story 3. However, while this one follows in the tradition of Toy Story in that the film is arguably as solid as its predecessor, it was a minor domestic disappointment that somehow doesn't have nearly the momentum or buzz that TS3 had. It also has the misfortune of going up against the swan song of the incomparable Isao Takahata (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), a film which by rights should win regardless of whether it truly is number one (though reviews thus far lead me to believe it is). That said, HTTYD2 is nonetheless a wonderful film, one which improves on its predecessor in most ways. One of the most striking is through its visuals; the first How to Train Your Dragon was visually stunning, but the new one is noticeably more detailed. I understand they actually used new technology on this film, giving more form and heft to muscle tone and the like. The film also has a striking soundrack, much like the first one, and the voice acting remains top-notch; new additions Cate Blanchett (as Hiccup's mother Valka) and Djimon Hounsou (as ruthless tyrant Drago) both acquit themselves splendidly, and overall there are numerous arguments here for Oscar categories for vocal acting. The writing is top-notch, the direction is solid, the technical aspects appear seamless; this is solid filmmaking, any way you cut it.
The movie takes place a few years after the events of the first film, and the vikings and dragons of the island Berk have settled comfortably into life together. However, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, doing a fine job) is growing uncomfortable with the increasing efforts of his father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) to make him village chieftan, and goes out frequently on exploratory missions. On one such mission, he and his dragon Toothless encounter a group of dragon hunters who signal a potential threat to the peace of Berk. When Hiccup later manages to get in a word edgewise with his father, he mentions the potential threat of Drago Bludvist, and his father immediately starts preparing for war. He tells Hiccup, in no uncertain terms, that Drago is a man who cannot be reasoned with. Hiccup tries anyway; while his efforts do little more than make Drago take notice of Berk, he is reunited with his long-lost mother, who turns out to be the likely reason Hiccup had managed to reach out to dragons in the first place. The latter part of the film gets really action-heavy, and pretty DARK, but naturally things more or less work out; in the interest of not giving too many spoilers I'll leave it at that. This is a great film, at any rate, and well worth a visit.
Big Hero 6
No, this isn't yet another sequel (how will that work, anyway? Big Hero 6 2?). This is the new film from Walt Disney Pictures, and their first animated film based on the comics from their subsidiary Marvel Studios. I jest, slightly; after the straight-up omnipresent behemoth that was last year's Frozen, it's rather astonishing that Disney got so little buzz for this film. Maybe it's BECAUSE of Frozen that this year seemed so quiet for animation. This is also part of the reason so many people were shocked that The Lego Movie did not score a nod for Animated Feature--How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Big Hero 6 generated shockingly little word of mouth, but everyone saw Lego Movie. Also, BH6 suffered from two bits of stupidity; people either hated that it was nothing like other Disney animated films, or trashed it for playing fast and loose with the comics. Personally, I applaud Disney for exploring new ground in animation, and I believe that they used little-known characters--with Marvel's blessing--to create a relatively original take on a comicbook superhero team that worked pretty well. While Disney has weaker box office returns for their less conventional movies, that they make them at all should be encouraged; BH6 was no Wreck-It Ralph, and as animated superhero teams go they've got a ways to go yet to match the awesomeness of Pixar's The Incredibles or Sunrise's Tiger & Bunny, but I say this movie is nonetheless one that Disney can be proud of.
The film takes place in a strange mash-up of East and West called San Fransokyo. The main character, Hiro Hamada, is a rebellious young genius who graduated school early but who, rather than go to "Nerd School" like his older brother Tadashi, prefers to spend his time hustling people at underground "Bot Battles" with a deceptively puny-looking robot of his own creation. When Tadashi becomes fed up with Hiro's selfishness and lack of long-term vision, he takes him to see the lab where he works. Hiro is introduced to Tadashi's similarly brilliant classmates, and is relatively impressed by the environment in which they work; his twin meetings with Tadashi's mentor (and his own hero) Robert Callaghan and Tadashi's pet project--a robot called Baymax--deeply impress him, and before long he is working on a project that could be his ticket into the college. His demonstration of his project is a great success, but a fire breaks out in the demonstration hall; believing his mentor to still be inside, Tadashi rushes into the fire to save him, and is killed by an explosion. That right there is not your typical start to a Disney film. Naturally, Hiro is deeply shaken by his brother's death, though he starts to come around a bit with Baymax's help; when circumstances lead to his learning that his bots had apparently survived the fire, the two begin to investigate, and ultimately band together with four of Tadashi's friends to bring the villain down (hence, Big Hero 6). The story here is perhaps not the most original, and indeed should seem quite familiar to fans of comics (shades of Batman and Spider-Man, etc.); however, it is incredibly impressive that Walt Disney Pictures was able to make this movie the way they did. Also, there are a few twists that seem fresh, the music is (mostly) solid, the voice acting is excellent (especially James Cromwell as Callaghan) and the visuals are freakin' phenomenal. Honestly, visual artistry seems to be brilliant across the board in this year's high-profile animated films, and Disney and Dreamworks both continue to impress, not to mention set the bar freakishly high for the next Pixar film. There is a bit of an annoyance in that four members of the team get very little screentime; Go-Go in particular is a fun character I would have liked to see more of. However, the focus on Hiro and Baymax did make them all the more compelling, and the big reveal of who the villain was and what their story was struck me as remarkably nuanced for a Disney film. All in all, this is a worthy addition to the Disney pantheon, and to any true film lover's collection.
And now we have the surprise of the year so far, The Boxtrolls. From Laika Entertainment, the makers of Coraline and ParaNorman, this is similar to last year's The Croods in that it is a film that I had little interest in seeing, and might not have yet seen were it not for the Oscar nod. And yet, having now seen it, I find it to be a truly delightful film, well worth checking out. The movie actually almost has more of an Aardman Studios feel to it, which caused me to pause it early on and check IMDb to make sure I had my facts straight. Granted, a big part of that is the pervasive influence of cheese on the plot and certain of the characters, as well as certain amusing and/ or clever puns (Briehemoth); anyone who has seen any Wallace & Gromit would no doubt have a similar reaction. Add to that the old-school claymation style of the animation, complete with oil-painting color schemes, and the film has a truly unique visual style that does a fine job making its mark. As with both of the above films, the voice acting is excellent; Ben Kingsley is suitably smarmy as Archibald Snatcher, newcomer Isaac Hempstead Wright acquits himself well as main protagonist Eggs, Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost are a hoot as Mr. Pickles and Mr. Trout, and Elle Fanning, Jared Harris and the rest all provide solid support. The music is good (the end credits feature a fun song penned by Monty Python's Eric Idle), the screenplay is inspired ("Stop destroying my indestructible machine!"), and the story overall is well-told and entertaining.
As to that story, the film opens with Archibald Snatcher reporting a murder/ abduction to the town leader, the daffy cheese fanatic Lord Portley-Rind (Harris). Blaming the boxtrolls, Snatcher makes a deal with the politician; if he can eliminate every last boxtroll, he will be able to join Portley-Rind and his cohorts in the "White Hats," ostensibly town leaders who really meet to hold tastings of cheese. The film then shifts its focus to the boxtrolls themselves, and the "kidnapped" child, now called Eggs for the word on his own personal box. We see Eggs grow from baby to ten-year-old boy, all the while catching snippets of increased activity against the boxtrolls from Snatcher and his lackeys, The Exterminators. They consist of the philosophical pair of Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles, as well as the insane Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan, whose manic energy actually works here). One night, Eggs comes face-to-face with his first human, the comparably-aged daughter of Lord Portley-Rind, Winnie (an energetic Elle Fanning). Winnie's pretty hilarious; I don't remember her exact quote, but she gets a line at one point along the lines of, "Where are the rivers of blood and mountains of bones? I was promised mountains of bones!" Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles also get some of the best lines; pretty decent chaps, they are deeply troubled by Snatcher's obviously evil tendencies, and had the following hilarious exchange (with an assist from Mr. Gristle):
Mr. Pickles: "Here come the Exterminators!"
Mr. Trout: "Doesn't that make us sound like the bad guys?"
Mr. Pickles: (pause) "Here come the Exterminators--of Justice!"
Mr. Gristle: "Yeah, we exterminate Justice!"
I may have paraphrased slightly--hard to get quotes right on the first go. Anyway, if I had one particular gripe with the film it's that Snatcher's fate is, not to put too fine a point on it, hideously disgusting, but the way it's handled in the film makes it only a minor debit. You might be careful letting young kids see this one, though. All in all, this truly was a delightful surprise, and while I'm still disappointed that I didn't get to watch Princess Kaguya yet, and this film is a bit lower than either How to Train Your Dragon 2 or Big Hero 6 in my estimation, it's still a durned good film.
God's Not Dead 6/10 Not really definitely Oscar-worthy; arguably so for Original Score (Will Musser). Arguably Golden Raspberry-worthy for Kori Robertson and certain others of the cast. A good argument for Best Use of Music in Film Oscar.
Will Purchase? Perhaps, but not likely anytime soon. The film would lend variety to my collection, and a Kevin Sorbo credit.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 5.5/10 Not really Oscar-worthy; arguably so for Best Costume Design, Visual Effects, Sound Mixing and Sound Effects Editing. Likely Golden Raspberry-worthy for Worst Remake, Rip-off or Sequel; possibly "worthy" of other "honors" as well. Nominated for Worst Picture, Director (Jonathan Liebesman), Supporting Actress (Megan Fox), Screenplay and Remake, Rip-off or Sequel.
Will Purchase? I am deeply torn on this one. On the one hand, this movie kills a large part of my childhood. On the other, decent credits from William Fichtner and Will Arnett, plus Megan Fox looks good as April O'Neal. Not an immediate priority, that's for sure.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 8.5/10 Oscar-worthy for Best Animated Feature, Director (Dean DeBlois), Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, Film Editing, Original Score (John Powell), Sound Mixing and Sound Effects Editing; arguably so for Best Picture, Cinematography, and Visual Effects. Nominated for Best Animated Feature. A great argument for Best Use of Music in Film, and Jay Baruchel and Cate Blanchett are strong arguments for Oscars for Vocal Acting.
Will Purchase? Hells yeah. It may take a minute, but this is a definite essential.
Big Hero 6 8.5/10 Oscar-worthy for Best Animated Feature, Director (Don Hall and Chris Williams), Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, Film Editing, Original Score (Henry Jackman), Sound Mixing and Sound Effects Editing; arguably so for Best Picture, Cinematography and Visual Effects. Nominated for Best Animated Feature. A fine argument for Best Use of Music in Film, and James Cromwell is a particularly solid argument for an Oscar for Vocal Acting--Male. Stan Lee would be a contender for Best Cameo, as well.
Will Purchase? Definitely. It likely won't be right away, but I will get this film.
The Boxtrolls 8/10 Oscar-worthy for Best Animated Feature, Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, Film Editing, Score (Dario Marianelli), Sound Mixing and Sound Effects Editing; arguably so for Best Picture, Cinematography and Visual Effects. Nominated for Best Animated Feature. A good argument for Best Use of Music in Film, and Ben Kingsley and Elle Fanning are particularly good arguments for Oscars for Vocal Acting.
Will Purchase? Definitely, though it may take a while.
So, there you have it, my first film review in some time. As always, I hope you have found some information here to interest you, and I welcome feedback from others who've seen these films. The Oscars are nearly upon us, and I'm in a mad dash to knock out as many of the contenders as I can; do feel free to comment on which ones must be watched before the show. I do thank you for reading and, as ever, wish you happy viewing!