Sunday, 29 June 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

There were several things I wanted to do before watching How to Train Your Dragon 2. Rewatch the original. Watch the Riders of Berk spin-off, and the series that followed it. Perhaps even read the books, even though it’s clear that the films are going to take little or no further inspiration from them. I didn’t actually get around to doing any of that – but I have no regrets about going to tonight’s preview screening of the film, because How to Train Your Dragon 2 is probably my favourite animated film of the decade, above its predecessor, and certainly my favourite animated sequel of all, including such fare as Toy Story 3 and Puss in Boots. I regard those highly, but this film captivated and delighted me. If the first film was a pleasant surprise based on low expectations, this one was a pleasant surprise based on high expectations, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

I was a little worried when it was announced that Chris Sanders wasn’t directing this film, working instead on The Croods, which managed to also be better than expected yet doesn’t resonate all that deeply. But his Lilo & Stitch co-director Dean DeBlois stayed on from the first film, and showed that perhaps he was the real rock of their successes. DeBlois has said that, along with the human-animal bond of Totoro, one of his main inspirations here was The Empire Strikes Back, something which many major reviews have picked up on – just as that film took the Star Wars premise and made everything bigger and more serious, so does How to Train Your Dragon 2. Usually this is the territory of anime, to start from the rather silly and charming premise and turn it into something big, dark and epic, but DeBlois has pulled it off spectacularly.

Five years after the original film, the kids have grown up and Viking society has changed. Everyone is a dragon-rider now, more or less, and the kids are now teens and hone their skills through competitive games. Hiccup, now 20, has lost the goofy, cute look and become quite handsome – if painfully skinny – and loves to explore the wider world with Toothless. His father wants him to become the chief of Berk, however, which would curtail his freedom, so he is looking for an escape.

Of course, the exploration leads to some conveniently-timed meetings. First Hiccup meets some dragon-trappers, led by Eret, voiced by the ubiquitous Kit Harington. His character is initially an antagonist, but by first being cut down a peg or two and made the butt of some pretty funny jokes, and then redeeming himself with some rescues, actually becomes not only sympathetic but likeable, which I was quite surprised by. After them, Hiccup meets – slight spoiler for anyone who hasn’t seen the trailer – his mother, who is living amongst the dragons, including a vast old ‘Alpha’ with impressive ice powers. Together, they have to face Drago Bludvist, the enslaver of dragons, who has caught wind of others riding dragons, as well as the alpha, and moves against them. Drago, voiced by Djimon Hounsou, is a little problematic for being an evil foreigner character, but pretty awesome in battle and in his boasts. Gerard Butler as Hiccup’s dad Stoick and Cate Blanchett as his mother Valka do a wonderful job, especially in a little naturalistic musical moment with lyrics, bizarrely, by Shane Macgowan of the Pogues, who presumably can be relied upon for something that sounds authentically Celtic-y.

The film does a lot, but it does it well. It has the classic story of the hero resisting responsibility but ultimately having to take it. It has the best depiction of enduring love I’ve ever seen in animation. It has a subtle depiction of the mixed feelings of a son whose mother wasn’t there when he was growing up. It has genuinely funny humour, be it the amusing over-enthusiastic flirting of several of the teens, poor long-suffering Gobber or the dragons getting up to Pets do the Funniest Things antics in the backgrounds. It has an incredibly sad scene, just skirting looking insincerely inserted for some easy emotion-jerking, with some lovely eulogies. It has triumph with fireworks and a lovely ‘standing together’ moment. And it has goddamn huge dragons 
fighting like two Final Fantasy VII Weapons going at it. Marvellous!

Also, this is the first time I’ve seen a film in a DBox seat and felt it added something. Well, my only other experience has been with The Hobbit where it largely just tilted annoyingly to follow a sweeping camera, which didn’t work. An animation that frequently centres on flight, however? Ideal. By no means essential, but a nice little enhancement.

I’m very pleased there’s another sequel coming. This is a great world that’s being built, and How to Train Your Dragon has after all transformed Dreamworks into  studio that isn’t afraid of being serious and epic with its animations – even if Rise of the Guardians is really the only other film in this mode just yet. I’ll definitely be going to see how the story continues, and very probably will be buying the trilogy on Blu-Ray. 

Friday, 6 June 2014

中二病でも恋がしたい! 戀/ Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai! Ren / Second-year Illness aside, I want Love! In Love

Chuunibyou was popular enough to warrant a continuation, but continuing a series that focuses on romance is always difficult. From Da Capo to Clannad, second seasons have often struggled to find a way to continue while keeping up dramatic tension when a series has really revolved around which girl a central male character will get with.

Comparatively, it was more obvious who Yuuta would end up with in the original series, but where Chuunibyou could go after its central couple got together was a tricky point, one explored through these twelve episodes. And personally, though Chuunibyou Ren was still pleasant to watch and likeable, I can’t think of many ways the series could have continued its love story that I would have found more tedious.

There’s psychoanalysis to be done with this, to be sure – about the otaku culture’s love for the pure, unadulterated female character, who wants to be in a romance but finds it all too embarrassing and hides away like a frightened mouse or, y’know, a twelve-year-old girl who despite her canonical age she rather resembles in how she’s drawn. The series begins to revolve around how despite having been in a relationship for months, Yuuta and Rikka haven’t so much as held hands. She’s too bashful to kiss, and right at the end of the series they build up to her kissing Yuuta on the cheek. Sure, it’s all very adorable, except that I don’t see it in terms of Rikka’s interesting character and neuroses as an individual, but rather in terms of the male audience, the ‘male gaze’ as Tumblr types would put it, and that Rikka isn’t behaving this way because yes, there are girls that averse to intimacy and it’s interesting to consider it, but because (a) the romance story will otherwise lose momentum, and (b) anime has inherited from aidoru / wota culture absurd ideas of purity and innocence. It all feels to me like a desire for an easily-controlled girlfriend with no prior, threatening sexual experience, and rather makes me long for another anime like REC. There’s coy, and then there’s annoying – and it all takes me out of the story to think about the audience this targets.

Aside from this rather strained central relationship, spiced up with the addition of a bland rival in love, childhood admirer Satone, who fancies herself a magical girl and calls Yuuta ‘Yuusha’, meaning ‘hero’. Conceptually this works as a foil but she never really develops an interesting enough relationship with another character to fit into the fold.

What is really good about the series, bizarrely enough, is its padding. Several episodes are devoted to the minor characters, and in particular episodes about the rivalry / affection / sexual tension between Dekomori and Mori Summer. These are rich and amusing enough characters that, crucially, seeing them out of character is very entertaining. The girl whose personality is defined by sleepiness and the hapless boy courting her lose what charm they had in the first season, though, and come over as very tiresome.

The times that the characters’ delusions are represented on-screen remain very entertaining parts. Visually they are great fun and the ridiculous, huge weapons remain very funny. That the new girl Satone brings more opportunities for this, as well as jokey transformation sequences (in the Lite omake animations), which is one reason to be somewhat pleased she exists. As usual, KyoAni provide some excellent animation and pretty art, and the shots of the characters rotating in the intro are technically pretty impressive.

There’s a lot going for Chuunibyou and I actually wanted this second part to be good. The trouble is that the romance part makes the whole thing seem stagnant, though, so all the well-done peripheral parts feel like without something solid to lean on, they only fall down. KyoAni seem to need to learn that sometimes, one season is just the right amount. Just look at K-On!...and Haruhi...and, though this is only a premonition, most likely Free as well.

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Well, after going to see the enjoyable but flawed Maleficent, it felt like the right time for a viewing of this classic. And this may surprise some, but this was in fact – barring, possibly, as a baby – the very first time I ever saw Sleeping Beauty. I’ve seen bits and pieces, of course – clips of Maleficent’s big entrance, that most persistent of earworms ‘Once Upon a Dream’, which rather makes me think Disney should lift melodies from great composers more, Prince Philip’s kiss of true love – but I am almost certain that this was the first time I’d seen the full film. The most exposure I had to Disney’s version of Sleeping Beauty has been through Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.

It may be a result of this lack of experience, but I had a lot of misconceptions about the film, and honestly I think they’re pretty widespread. For one thing, with Aurora being part of a trinity of the most iconic fairytale princesses with Snow White and Cinderella, the film feels like older Disney than it really is. Sure, Cinderella is 1950 and Sleeping Beauty is 1959, the same decade, but for all the continued involvement of the Nine Old Men, the Disney of Alice in Wonderland and the Disney of Sword in the Stone feel rather different, and the difference is visible here, not least because there is a clear attempt at a distinct, stylised, sharp-edged style, especially in the opening sequence of crowds gathering for Aurora’s christening.

Other misconceptions I had included that the main character was Aurora, or even King Stephan – really, quite oddly, the central figures of the narrative are the three fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, who are also the only characters who really get any development. I was also under the impression that one of Maleficent’s main problems was that unlike this film, it shows Aurora as asleep for only a matter of hours whereas the real story has the princess sleep for a hundred years. In fact, the same problem exists here – Maleficent leads Aurora to prick her finger and fall into an enchanted sleep, which she remains in only for as long as it takes the fairies to free and arm Philip and get him to his love.

I understand why this has been done – like many modern readers, the Disney writers clearly had a problem with the idea that the princes wakes when total stranger arrives and kisses her, which is hardly true love. Maleficent even dismissed the idea that two young people who meet once and are attracted to one another can be said to share ‘true love’s kiss’ a day later. All of which, of course, is more pleasant than the infamous older versions in which the prince impregnates the enchanted sleeper without her even knowing about it and accidentally wakes her by sucking on her fingers and extracting the splinter that had caused the enchanted sleep. Creepy, man.

But from my point of view, even this very 50s view of romance seems creepy. Aurora is messing about with the cute woodland creatures, the owl and squirrels very much like those who will feature prominently in Sword in the Stone using Philip’s coat and boots to pretend to be a prince, and seeing this and chuckling to himself, Philip steps in and takes the place of the cutesy animals. Rather than screaming and getting out the mace, Aurora finds this charming and loveable.

But the fact is that the romance, 50s or not, is functional and the plot still works. It is also tempting to be influenced by Maleficent and imagine that ‘Good’ King Stephan was actually a very nasty piece of work who had set Maleficent against him, and that Maleficent herself was sympathetic, but as I said in my review of that still-enjoyable film, one of its main flaws was that it had to write its own story rather than successfully managing to weave into the classic narrative. Thus the fairies were different and it was Maleficent herself who provided the ‘true love’s kiss’ get-out, and the ending was a complete departure.

Intriguing as the reinterpretation was, the cartoon Maleficent is wonderful, easily one of Disney’s top villains – and they do villains so well. She is evil because that is her nature, not because of her twisted backstory. She turns into an awesome dragon, rather than transforming her henchman. Her scenes are not without humour – as when her minions reveal they have been looking for a baby for fifteen years. And her devilish, elegant, regal design is a thing of brilliance.

Too bad Aurora and Philip are so bland – and I have real difficulty perceiving Aurora as just-sixteen when she looks 25. But again, it’s the fairies who are the film’s true centre, and they are very clearly defined, especially the likeable, fussy Merryweather. Diablo also gets remarkably good characterisation for a bird with a very minor role.

It doesn’t feel Disney is showing its greatest strengths here. The musical centrepiece is Tchaikovsky’s. The animation, while fine, is less ambitious than it was decades before, with repeating parts and some lazy colouring. The story relies on a very brief love affair, bland heroes and a sleeping beauty who sleeps for less than a day. Yet it just about hangs together on its quirkier strengths, as well as the better-chosen borrowed parts. But it is less impressive than many Disney classics. 

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Dofus: Aux Trésors de Kerubim / Dofus: The Treasures of Kerub – series 1 part 2

Indeed, as expected, the series wasn’t over when I wrote my impressions of part 1 of The Treasures of Kerub, but had a season break – just as with the Thundercats revival.

We left Papycha’s stories with the suggestion that at some point, he lost his love – Lou – forever. It was not to be, though. She lost her memories, but Kerub was determined to follow her and win her once again.
This is largely more of the same, which with a series that thrives on nostalgia and light adventure stories is no negative. There are some pleasant bits of variety: the parodies extend to detective films, horror, disco, kung-fu movies and Wacky Races, there’s a rather odd critique of getting hooked on simple things on television – presented on the television, of course – and there’s a very entertaining episode about a cursed puzzle that, if the wrong answer is given, forces the challenger to run to the centre of town and shout out their darkest secret. There’s a fun episode that shows that Kerubim’s old nemesis Indie Delagrandaventure is living in just the same way, telling his old stories to a ‘grandchild’ who hangs on every word. Indeed, their rivalry is one of the series’ most well-developed, interesting and clever elements

There’s a lot Dofus hasn’t yet revealed. Simone leaves the others’ lives – at least professionally – and opens them up to resuming their adventures, but we don’t know how this leads to Joris becoming an adventurer – and an immortal – in his own right. We don’t know why Kerubim took him in as an adoptive grandson. But that, presumably, is all for the big-screen movie announced so long ago but finally heading to big screens in 2015. I’m even considering a trip to France to see it. Well, a trip to France that will include a detour to see it. Then, of course, there will be the Kickstarter-funded translation that I gave generously to – for the high-quality blu-rays rather than for the dub, I must say. And I hope that Kerubim gets a similar treatment as well!

I’m honestly quite worried what Ankama have in store for poor little Joris. He’s so adorable in this and so grim in Wakfu – what happens to him in the interim, and will it be in line with what happened to poor Ogrest?

The online fandom for Wakfu and related properties has very much quietened down now. Ankama no longer bring a stall to the London Expo (still makes me smile that my friends and I were in their little Youtube clip of the convention), and I don’t know if they still have such a big presence at Paris’ Japan Expo.

But it could be that it’s the Dofus movie that takes Ankama into an even bigger league. If that happens, expect me to be first in line to see what they do next. In the original language, of course. Always in the original language.