Category Archives: Dreamworks Films

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016): A Solid Part of the Series and Becoming a Teacher

kung-fu-panda-3

     Dreamworks has two great Franchises that still manage to put out great animated films. Those Franchises are “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Kung Fu Panda.” These are series that take inspiration from their worlds (fantasy, Kung Fu films) and keep the characters and plots real and at times deep, while still managing to have a sense of humor. “Kung Fu Panda 3” is no different, though I think “Kung Fu Panda 2” is the better film, which I’ll go into at another time when I go through the first and second film.

      “Kung Fu Panda 3” was directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni, written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger and produced by Melissa Cobb.

    The story involves Po (Jack Black) being found by his father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) and returning back his father’s village to learn the art of chi when Kai (J.K. Simmons) breaks free from the Spirit Realm and is seeking to consume everyone’s Chi. Po must learn the art before all fall before Kai and the Masters whose chi he possess and now controls.

SPOILERS ahead

 The Pros: The World – The world is a fantastic fantasy world populated by humanoid animals that live in China. We have far off villages like the Panda one that are almost Tibetan in theme and also the main city with the Jade Temple which is reminiscent of Beijing. The world feels lived in too and the heroes who walk among the people are celebrated as such, like celebrities.

The Animation – The animation goes between classically inspired painting in telling back stories or montages, to the flowing 3D that makes up most of the film. It truly is beautiful.

The Soundtrack – Hans Zimmer creates an amazing score and pulls on classical Chinese music for a lot of his score. It is wonderful and pulls on the heart strings and elevates the action when it needs to, but I wouldn’t expect any less from Zimmer who is a master of his craft.

The Characters – The main characters are fantastic and have great moments that give them complexity and reason for their actions. This is a character driven story and it is the relationships that inform the action, like any good action movie.

Li Shan – Bryan Cranston plays Li Shan (Po’s Father) and does a great job as a man who lies to be with his son again as he says the Pandas know the art of Chi (even though it has been lost to time) and spends time connecting with Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping and in the process helping Po realize that he isn’t alone, which saves his son multiple times.

Mr. Ping – James Hong is an amazing voice actor and I’ve loved him in his role as Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping. We see him go through jealousy when Li Shan finds Po but also him get over it as he becomes a part of the Panda Village and gets the chance to be a father again to all the baby Pandas as well as council Po in the coming battle when Po feels only alone.

Master Shifu – Dustin Hoffman is a great actor and he has the chance to shine here as the one challenging Po to be better and that he still has much to learn. Sadly we don’t get to see him at his height as Kai consumes his chi, leaving it up to Po to rescue him. In the end he has humility though and asks to learn the art of chi from Po after the final battle.

Grand Master Oogway – Oogway’s chi is consumed in order for Kai to enter the mortal realm and through it all he is the one guiding all of them as it was the Panda’s of old who made him realize that it would be there that that the Dragon Warrior (Po) would be born. In the end Po gets to say good-bye to him too and we see how much of Yoda type figure Oogway has always been.

Kai – I liked Kai and not just because J. K. Simmons voiced him. This is a character who felt left behind as he watched his friend who he saved found peace…and he couldn’t stand that. He was a general so to him power was things and this what leads him to take chi from others. In the end his greed consumes him though as he misses the point of what power really was.

Po – This is the film of Po not only getting comfortable in his skin but becoming a teacher of others as he realizes it is playing to peoples’ strengths that can help them master themselves. He also is saved by the village when Kai nearly consumes his chi as it is in him realizing all his different identities that he realizes how he is the Dragon Warrior and uses his infinite chi to explode Kai as Kai’s body is unable to contain it all.

Finding Self – Finding self is a major theme of the the film as Po doesn’t really know who he is beyond being a warrior who cares about his friends. It is only after he becomes a teacher that he begins to realize how much he doesn’t know again and that who he is, is a part of everyone else. It is this individualist yet collectivist belief that he becomes the Dragon Warrior.

Power in Community – Kai is alone and uses others as slaves in order to take more. Po is someone who is dependent fully on others and it is in that difference of the many versus the one that his full power is unlocked. One stick can break easily, but it is harder to break a bundle.

Taking v. Serving and Enlightenment – The other theme of the film involves taking versus serving…all the characters who grow are those who learn to see outside of themselves and their own selfishness. Li Shan tells the truth, Po serves others, Oogway defeats Kai the first time by protecting others. This is where true power is unlocked in the film.

Family is Greater Than Blood – Mr. Ping is not Po’s blood and the movie makes a point of that, and it also makes a point of showing that Mr. Ping is Po’s second father and that he needs both of his fathers and it is because of both of them he lives and has grown to be who he is. This is an awesome message that really illustrates that family is greater than blood.

Okay; The Other Masters – Master Mantis, Monkey, Snake and Crane are all comedic relief and Master Tigress is relegated to action hero who doesn’t get to make any choices. This is sad as they got some great exploration over the last two films. They aren’t ever annoying but this was a missed opportunity.

The Pandas of the Village – There is a line between comedic village and real people and I don’t know where the Pandas fall on this line. So I’m putting them at okay.

Kai’s End Game – Was he going to conquer the world after consuming everyone’s chi or did he plan to just consume forever? I wish this had been set down a little better.

      This was a really good film, for me it was “Finding Dory” levels of enjoyable, though it didn’t reach original Pixar quality like “Inside Out” or even touch the perfect film of “Kubo and the Two Strings,” but it worked for all that it was. This is Dreamworks paying tribute to Kung Fu films and taking the philosophy into the film while giving us fun and comedic characters…as well as drama and family. If you haven’t seen it or any of the films in this Franchise, go and check them out. If you have kids they will love it and the world is so much deeper that it appears at first glance, just like the Kung Fu films it draws inspiration from. The action is used to make a larger point and tell the drama of people who show us the ways we can grow as well.

Final Score: 9 / 10 I’d rate it higher if Kai had been explored better and if the other Masters had been treated better and not just played for comedic relief.

Penguins of Madagascar (2014): A Dumb Fun Satire of Spy Films

 Penguins_of_Madagascar_poster

     I have never been a fan of the “Madagascar” series. It struck me as suffering from the Dreamworks winking at the audience and being far too aware of whatever it was it was trying to satire, as well as being way to clued into popular culture, which in the end takes away from the jokes. Again, this isn’t a series I hate but I’ve never sought out this series and will be surprised if I ever do. What lead to me watching “Penguins of Madagascar” than? I have younger kids in the family over Thanksgiving and I’m not someone to miss out on a chance to spend more time with family or to miss the chance to see a film…even if it’s one I probably won’t like.

This film, like the first “Madagascar” movie wasn’t bad. It was really stupid but it had some funny moments so it wasn’t bad. There was a lot it could have done better, but I think it set out to accomplish what it wanted to…afterall the Penguins are spin-off characters in the same line as Puss in Boots and the Minions who also got or are getting films. They exist as attempts to make money off the legacy of the larger films they come from…usually because they are the characters who became popular because of original said film series. But, enough on that. Let’s get to the film!

“The film was directed by Simon J. Smith and Eric Darnell, produced by Mark Swift, Lara Breay and Tripp Hudson, and written by John Aboud, Michael Colton, Brandon Sawyer, Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell once more.

The premise is that three penguins break away from being followers unlike all other penguins when they see an egg blown from the snow. It is here the three penguins (Skipper, Kowalski and Rico) save the egg from Leopard seals and begin the adventure with the newest member of their group, Private. From here the story unfolds as all Private wants is to truly be a part of the team as everyone else is specialized in some way but can’t as he is not taken seriously because he is cute.  All that soon changes as an evil Octopus names Dave plots to destroy the Penguins forcing them to work an elite force who is called the North Wind. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Penguins – The Penguins have a great dynamic and are fun to watch. Private is a bit idiotic at times but thinks well in a jam, Skipper is adaptable and good at getting out of tight spots, Rico is unhinged and deadly and able to take on most threats and Kowalski is able to assess threats. They do a fantastic job in this and minus the changing of Private back to normal were very fun to watch in their interaction with others. They take themselves so seriously, which is the best joke through it all. They are also contractions which makes their debates with others good. Tom McGrath is the most distinct as he voices Skipper the leader, Kowalski is voiced by Chris Miller, Rico mostly growls but is voiced by Conrad Vernon and Private is voiced by Christopher Knights. The Penguins basic arc is learning to accept help from other and admit when they’re wrong and to value Private beyond his cuteness and accept as a member of the team.

Okay: Dave – John Malkovich does a good job as the baddie and gets some good laughs and actually has a good reason for his motivation as he was forced into smaller and smaller tanks everytime the penguins were at his zoos. This leads to him making them ugly monsters, which he actually succeeds in before Private’s cuteness powers his ray puts everything back to normal for the most part. This also leads to Dave’s defeat as he is shrunk and made cute. He was a creepy character but also sympathetic at times which shows that, that at least was done well.

North Wind – The North Wind was okay but not super memorable. I get they were meant to satire the technological badasses in spy films and it does satire this when their plan falls apart and they make not of why you should look back after you’ve exploded something…but they were mostly Skipper’s team’s foil and I didn’t get much character from them. I put them as okay because Cumberbatch’s Classified at least had personality and a character where he grew to respect the penguins, which is more than can be said for the rest of the team.

The Cons: Too Many Puns – I like puns, I make puns all the time…this movie had too many. Most were related to the names of Octopus who were given celebrity names like Hugh Jack man, etc. The puns were pretty weak and I tired of them quickly.

Madagascar References – It starts with the “I like to Move It” song and even the Penguins point out how tired they are of that song…and also the King Julien is able to use his cute assistant to change Private back to normal which completely removes Private’s sacrifice. I’d have preferred they kept him purple, spotted and horned. It would have been a thing for the team and him to adapt to and show the consequences of his sacrifice.

No Consequences – Private being retconned was lazy because they probably knew him remaining a monster wouldn’t sell toys. So not very impressed that they changed him back, even if it was predictable.

This was a fun stupid film that succeeded sometimes at the satire, and other times had jokes lag on for way too long. Also most of the minor characters didn’t feel like characters and functioned mostly as plot devices which just didn’t lend itself well to giving the story consequences. This is a shame but I also don’t expect great out of “Madagascar” as a series. It is stupid fun first and foremost…just doesn’t take any risks within that. The Penguins are great as characters but not anyone else. Little kids will probably like this film but this is no “Wreck-It-Ralph,” or “How to Train Your Dragon.”

Final Score: 7 / 10. Wouldn’t see it again but it was stupid fun.

Rise of the Guardians (2012): The Power of Fun

2909727-rise_guardians_quad

“Rise of the Guardians,” is a concept that was similar to one that my brother and I had as a child…though instead of Classic Fairy Tale Characters, ours were from children’s literature and some Disney films. So coming into this film, I was intrigued. A few days ago was my second time watching it, the first was on a flight and it impressed me. How did it fair with a second viewing? I’ll go into that with the assessment. The film was created by Dreamworks studios and was directed by Peter Ramsey while also being inspired by “The Guardians of Childhood,” book series by William Joyce.

The premise of “Rise of the Guardians,” is that the Man in the Moon chooses people to become Guardians to safeguard the children of the world from fear. The latest person the Man in the Moon chose is Jack Frost who is seeking his origins as well as working in a group, since he likes being alone and causing playful trouble. The arrival of the Boogeyman Man Pitch Black changes things as all of them are sustained by belief and he wishes to destroy the belief in the Guardians through his power of fear and nightmares. From here the story unfolds as Jack wrestles with himself, his role in the world and his relationship to the Guardians.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The idea – The idea is wonderful, again it was like what my little brother and I did when we were children and it’s what I’ve done with some of my themed Holiday stories that I’ve written. Seeing it through the eyes of a new Guardian in Jack Frost is brilliant too, given the others are already so well established (Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Sandman and Tooth Fairy).

Santa Claus – I love this character and Alec Baldwin does a good job with the Russian accent he makes for the guy. We see Santa Claus as the unofficial leader given it is his world device that first shows him Pitch Black is free. He also has an army of yetis who make toys and elves who are there mostly for comedic relief and so he can make them feel important. He is the most fun loving character besides Jack Frost in this and is the biggest mentor for Jack outside of his anti-mentor Pitch.

The Easter Bunny – This role would have been easy to mess up, but it plays on him being a bunny originally at one point and the fact that he is kangaroo size now and has an Australian accent. He is the but of most of the jokes but when it comes down to helping he is great, taking the heroes to his warren after Pitch’s attack on the Tooth Fairy’s kingdom. He has large eggs that protect the little eggs and the making of the eggs sentient fit the theme of the Tooth Fairy’s hummingbird fairies and Santa’s elves.

The World – The world in this fantastic! It starts out kind of dark with Jack drowning to death and being resurrected by the Man in the Moon. Yep, it starts with killing a teenager. We see how powerful the Guardians are through and why they need Jack when Pitch Black arrives given they’ve become complacent and outside of Sandman, never go out in the field, having their underlings do most of it.

Pitch Black – I almost put him as okay, but if a sequel happens he may be worthy of this spot again. Suffice to say the Man in the Moon messed up giving this guy power. Here is someone who is alone and wants to make everyone afraid and alone. We see him turning Sandman’s dreams into Nightmares and he even manages to destroy the Sandman, nearly destroy the Tooth Fairy, and stops Easter. My only issue with this character is we don’t get motivation. Was he good at one point? Fear doesn’t have to be a bad thing, a little caution can help. I like his attempts to corrupt Jack too since Jack Frost is already a pretty selfish character. Jude Law’s voice is what really does it. He feels it with such emotion that the character elicits sympathy…until he does horrible things.

Jack Frost – Jack Frost is the main protagonist and is played by Chris Pine. This is probably Pine’s least dickish character, even though Jack is always starting play fights and harassing the Guardians until he becomes part of the team and has to protect them. We see how he used fun to save his little sister and in the process drowned because of it. He uses this same tactic to defeat Pitch, giving children laughter and energy to fight the fear and darkness of Pitch. I liked his character arc, I just wish it hadn’t taken away from the Tooth Fairy, Sandman and Pitch’s development as much as it did.

Okay/Good:  The animation – There are moments where the animation doesn’t look quite right…like you have super detail and after it looks like you can see clearly that it is computer animated. This is contrasted with the fact that there are some beautifully animated scenes too, such as the two resurrections and time in The Warren, North Pole and Tooth Fairy Kingdom.

Okay: The Tooth Fairy – She is energetic and obsessed with teeth, and probably has a crush on Jack like the rest of her fairies. I like her but she’s more defined by her relationship to the protagonist and her job…not like Bunny and Claus, who do a lot of action based on their personalities. We learn later she collects teeth because they hold childhood memories…but this is never used in regards to her. Who was she before she was the Tooth Fairy? What does she see in Jack? These were the questions I had.

The Sandman – It is is creative in that they made it gender neutral as a character and it talks through making symbols with sand, but Sandman has Tooth Fairy’s problem. Why does it give children dreams? Does it know the Guardians need the belief so it is giving them an energy source? How is he tied to Nightmares? Because Nightmares destroy him, but children’s laughter resurrects him. Again, I like the character, but can’t really list as a pro, though I’d like to. There isn’t enough there to like. The Sandman is a force of nature like the Man in the Moon almost. When everyone is strong, he is strong and can one-shot Pitch, when everyone is weak, Pitch can absorb him into his Nightmares.

The Final Fight – Pitch isn’t really a threat in the end, which is a fitting way to tackle nightmares, but we never see why the Man in the Moon created him or why he is suddenly so weak after owning nearly all the world but this one child. I think it falls a little into the savior trope with the kid and Jack Frost…which is a shame since when they fight him it is as a team with all the Guardians with a resurrected Sandman present. Pitch threatens to come back, but he is no longer a threat…I wish he’d still felt like one. Fears don’t just go away, and I’d expect a bit more out of the living embodiment of fear.

The Writing – The writing isn’t the best. It is no Pixar, it is alright, just isn’t great. It kind of falls into the comic book writing trap where it becomes cliche…but the voice actors and animators are able to elevate it thankfully.

In the end, “Rise of the Guardians,” was really good, but not great with a second watch. It doesn’t have the depth of the “How to Train Your Dragon” Franchise but is still one of Dreamworks better films. Jack is a good protagonist, even though he takes away from time with the rest of the Guardians…and his arc is a little predictable, but it is fun. His power and center of fun is really the theme of this movie and it achieves that. This film was a lot of fun, and I definitely recommend it. It was a pleasure to watch it again with a bunch of friends.

Final Score is 8.5 / 10

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014): A Time to Fight

How to Train Your Dragon 2

“How to Train Your Dragon 2,” is definitely the best Dreamworks animated sequel and might be the best Dreamworks animated movie…I’d have to rewatch “Prince of Egypt,”again before I say that for certain though.

Everything the first movie did well, this movie did better (though introduces a problem the first movie didn’t have) and the movie also dealt with loss, morality and growing up in a much deeper way than the first film. I’m saying all this now before getting into the assessment, since explaining all these things will be spoilers.

The premise to “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” is that Hiccup has been chosen by his father to the heir to Berk and Chieftain of the clan. Hiccup doesn’t feel ready since his passion is exploring and mapping the world, living free and in the moment. Things come to a head though when Drago and his army arrive on the scene and Hiccup must deal with the consequences of this new enemy.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Here is my assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Music: The music once again is fantastic. It takes the Scottish theme and even incorporates a traditional tune for a love song that appears at one point in the film. Just as great as the first film musicwise.

The Animation: The animation has been improved. I saw it in 3D and in this instance the 3D is definitely worth it. The details of the dragons and the hair upon the people (from slight facial hair to large beards and different hair styles) is fantastic. They’ve improved upon the first one which already had great animation.

The Characters: The characters are once again fantastic, the main Dragon Riders team has grown up and is given more to do. There is even a three way romantic triangle between them (3 way being that the guys competing for the affection of Ruffnutt feel no ill will towards each other). I’m going to go more in depth on the individual characters who stood out next before I get into the relationships.

Eret – Eret the Dragon hunter played by Kit Harrington is a new character in this film, and Kit Harrington (Jon Snow from “Game of Thrones) does a great job! We see this egotistical dragon hunter ruled by fear of dragons eventually come to accept and love them when Astrid’s dragon saves his life. He eventually is taken into the community of Berk at the end and inherits a dragon.

Gobber – Gobber is gay and the reveal is fantastic! It is sad that he is the only explicitly gay animated character that we know about so far. Get on that Pixar! He is great as the supporting character again and he really is part of the family. He is like Hiccup’s Uncle and an adopted brother to Stoick. He has some comedic moments but he always shines on the emotional moments and the fights. His character grew a lot this film.

Astrid – I debated putting her in the okay area, but decided against it. She is used pretty well in this film. We get to see that she is like Stoick, she leads and is stubborn in her beliefs like Stoick against the flighty Hiccup. This is done well, though could have been done better. She kind of disappears again in the third act as mostly support…though she is really active in the first 2 acts and is once again the unspoken leader of the Dragon Riders (as Hiccup becomes the Leader of the Clan).

Stoick – Stoick is one of the best characters in this movie. We get to see how much he’s sacrificed and sacrifices for this people and that though he is stubborn he listens and is willing to try the path of the people he loves. For example when he find his wife alive…which will get it’s own entry further down…as well as what happens to him.

Valka – Hiccup has an awesome mom! You can understand why she left, given that she saw her inability to harm dragons as putting the village in danger…and that there is no way to build a bridge between Dragons and Vikings. Her role as a rescuer of Dragons is really well done. She is essentially the anti-Drago representing freedom of choice verses Drago’s domination of others.

Hiccup – Is great in this in that he is dealing with his desire for freedom verses responsibility to his people as well as how is world is changed when he learns his mother Valka is alive and is living the life he wants to live (saving Dragons and exploring the world to find other Dragons) and also dealing diplomacy verses fighting given that Drago has no desire for peace and goes about destroying everything precious to Hiccup at one point in the film in his conquest for power. Suffice to say we see Hiccup rise to the occasion and become a worthy Chief.

Toothless – This film is as much about Toothless as about Hiccup. He also has an ascension story as he builds relationships with the other dragons and even finds his inner power when he takes on an Alpha to defend to Hiccup and in turn becomes the Alpha of the Dragons, proving the way to a person’s loyalty is sacrifice and not fear.

The Stoick and Hiccup relationship – Is really well done in this film. They develop their dynamic further and we even see Stoick going out to rescue Hiccup after he leaves to try and convince Drago to accept peace. In the end their mother builds a bridge between them as she represents where Hiccup is and when he sees his Father’s patience and tenderness with going where Valka wants to go he begins to accept that he is a part of them both which leads to him beginning to accept his future role.

The Valka and Hiccup relationship – This reveal could have ruined the film…his mom being alive but missing for twenty years…there are more ways than I can count that that premise could destroy the plot. It doesn’t though, it only compliments it. Valka teaches Hiccup about dragons and apologizes for abandoning him. They do start over and we see her reflected in his as the life he wants to lead. He also begins to realize that Drago can’t be negotiated with when she warns him against it because of that time together.

The Dilemma – The Dilemma is perfect and answers the question, is there a time to fight? The answer is yes. Over the course of the film Hiccup realizes he must defend his home and his community from those who don’t want peace and want to dominate and enslave. This is revealed when he talks to Drago who believes the only way to live with others is to dominate them through fear. He realizes that he was wrong after fear is used to dominate Toothless to kill someone close to him.

The Battles – Are really good in this. The fight at the sanctuary is especially given we see nature and technology used in unison in different ways as the two factions (Stoick verses Drago) takes place.

The Loss – I love bittersweet stories, and this one was. Stoick dies…killed by Toothless when Drago uses the Alpha to control Toothless to kill Hiccup which leads to Stoick jumping in the way. It was sad and I’m glad they didn’t bring him back…it motivated Hiccup to become the Hero and also the reason he casts Toothless away until he comes to the understanding that “Good Dragons are being used by Bad Dragons,” and devotes the climax to rescuing Toothless and his people.

Okay: Drago – Isn’t super memorable in this. He is a one not baddie just like the Alpha Dragon in the first movie. They attempt to give him motivation but he spends most of the film just screaming and hurting people. Like the Alpha Dragon in the first film he only exists as a force of nature. There also is a con associated with him.

Cons: Racism – Drago is the only dark skinned character seen in this entire universe…and he is the bad guy. This could have easily been avoided by making him like the other vikings or even having people from his people joining the vikings. It is this factor (poor planning, don’t know if this was purposeful or not, it could just be stupidity like “Resident Evil 5,” but this factor keeps it from being a perfect film). It could have easily been avoided which is a shame. Hopefully we see more dark skinned heroes in future animated films.

The Director and co-writer DeBlois has done it again and I have to say I look forward to the 3rd film. Hopefully with the world opening up from Valka and Hiccup exploring it we can see the wrongs of this one (racism) dealt with. Let’s see a diversity of people just as we see a diversity of dragons and from that a diversity of heroes from this amazing world. I highly recommend this film to anyone, Hiccup’s story and the relationships are the driving factor and the movie achieves these relationships perfectly.

My Score for this film is 9.7 / 10.