How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019) – On Growing Up and Letting Go

      “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” is a really good film. It isn’t as good as the first 2 films, but this is a solid end to the franchise. If you’ve come this far I’d say it is worth finishing. The ending is one of the most heart touching things you’ll see this year and the animation and action are the best this series has ever been. Also I am biased in that I am glad this is the ending.  A trilogy is a a great way to end any series and when you go beyond that it is easy for studios to mess up.

The film was directed, produced and written by Dean DeBlois, with Brad Lewis being the other producer.

The story involves Hiccup and his dragon-riders continuing to rescue dragons and bringing them to Berk. This leads to overcrowding leading Hiccup to call upon his dad’s dream of finding the “Hidden World” where dragons and humans can live and peace. All doesn’t go according to plan when an old dragon hunter enters the scene. Grimmel who hunted the Night Fury to near extinction. With the warlords at his back he brings war to Hiccup and Berk.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Action – The action in this film is great. Grimmel (the main baddy) and his Deathgrippers (venom-fire spitting dragons) cause some great action sequences when they are escaping, capturing dragons or fighting against Hiccup. Visually the action sequences are a lot of fun. The fact that Hiccup and his main crew now use dragon armor and Hiccup has a burning swords adds to the visual appeal of it all.

The Animation – The animation is the best it is has ever been. It must have been difficult to animate the Hidden World when they finally reach it. There are such a variety of dragons and mirage of colors that it simply draws you in. Same goes for when Hiccup moves the Vikings to find a new land. The sheer amount of characters and creatures in motion is seamless, as well as the reveal of the new forest island they choose to call home. This is a movie animated on an epic scale and it loves it up to that. Every scene has so much detail to it, while still focusing in on the characters who drive the action.

Astrid and Hiccup – This is the core relationship that drives the series. Astrid and Hiccup are the heroes of the film. Astrid is the one who sees the big picture and sees the people, while everything Hiccup does is to protect the dragons. It is a wonderful dynamic and we see how they compliment one another. Hiccup is the idealist while Astrid is much more down to earth. I do wish Astrid had got more development as so much of her development is tied to Hiccup as chief, but it still shows they are partners. This is really them growing as leaders and in regards to Hiccup, him accepting that the dragons should be free and not domesticated.

Toothless and the Light Fury – This relationship is a relationship between two cats. Like Astrid and Hiccup they compliment one another as the Light Fury shows Toothless that he can lead all dragons and be their guardian. The Light Fury is also being used to her getting revenge is a mini-arc that I appreciated, as well as her coming to trust humans when she saves Hiccup after he frees Toothless from Grimmel’s control. This relationship was adorable and was just as core as the main relationship that drove the film.

The Ending – The ending is a reunion of friends. Astrid and Hiccup take their kids to the Hidden World where the dragons are living and meet the Light Fury and Toothless’s babies. It is really sweet and for any fan of the series you will feel. This gave the series a sense of finality too, which “Kung Fu Panda 3” didn’t give in the same way. This was smart and if the studio does go greedy, they’ll have to be really smart to give this trilogy a worthy epilogue.

Okay:

Grimmel the Grisley – F. Murray Abraham is good at giving us a threatening feeling character in Grimmel. His introduction is killing a dragon without reacting and escaping Burk, even with it being full of dragons. He also has the Light Fury that he uses to bait Toothless, which is clever. Traps are his game and they could have been used so much more. He has a trap that nearly works that should have killed at least one of the characters (Hiccup’s dad was killed last film, raise the stakes). But in the end it doesn’t work. This doesn’t help as from here on in he never feels like a threat. Our heroes beat him without their dragons after Grimmel takes control of them when he captures Toothless, and though we are given good visuals it is nothing more. He needed to truly hurt our heroes or have a real personal reason we saw to want to end all dragons. We don’t get either, which makes him the weakest enemy in the Trilogy. Still a decent villain but he deserved so much more lore and development.

The Cons:

The Villain Warlords – There are 4 warlords who clearly have different looking armor so should have had differing personalities and goals, but they don’t. Instead we have 4 people who hate Berk, want to kill dragons but not use them in anyway we ever see (resources, etc.) and are all just stupid fighters. The only thing that sets them apart is their armor sets and the fact that 3 are men and 1 is a woman. This isn’t good. They should have been in a more adversarial relationship against Grimmel (or split between them in loyalties) or at least have different expressed goals at what they’d do with the killed dragons. They served no purpose beyond paying Grimmel to take on Berk. David Tennant voiced one of the warlords, and I couldn’t even tell. He’s one of my favorite actors so it was such a horrible use of such great talent.

If you’ve come this far, you deserve to finish. The film itself is solidly good with a great ending and it does give a bit more lore. Where it fails is in the minor characters, which is a shame is that is the only thing keeping the film from greatness. I wanted more time with Hiccup’s mom Valka and his Uncle, or any of the Warlords. They deserved better development. I would still recommend to any who love the series and great animation. This film knows that this is the end and it goes all in on the operatic fights and the core relationships. This is a film that knows how to say good-bye.

Final Score: 8.6 / 10

“Voltron: Legendary Defender” Season 2 – Fantastic Rising Action and Climax With a Few Missed Opportunities

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     “Voltron” is an amazing show and the level of quality continues in Season 2. Dreamworks and Netflix have really created something rather amazing with this show and with Season 2  they get deeper into the world and characters, though there are some missed opportunities that keep it from being the perfect show.

  SPOILERS if you haven’t watched the first season.

The story picks up with the Paladins seperated leading to them finding each other again while Emperor Zarkin hunts them across the Galaxy as they build a team and seek out allies to fight back.

The Pros: The World – The world is amazing! We meet new planets, species and get the history behind the Black Lion. Each episode enriches this world further and it is the world that has me the most excited for future seasons.

The Animation – The animation is beautiful. Dreamworks really has a fantastic animation team and I love the anime aspects to how they’ve designed the heroes and villains. The forming of Voltron is great too, I really like how it has it’s own animation sequence of the Lions coming together.

The Action – The action is fantastic, especially with the last battle as the Lions and Castle assault Zarkon and his fleet directly. There are great challenges too with some challenging Beasts that Haggar creates.

The Blade of Marmora – The Blade of Marmora is a secret Galra organization that is fighting against Emperor Zarkon. They are so cool and really force the Paladins, specifically Keith to earn their help.

The Characters – The characters drive the story and most of them continue to grow over the course of this season. It is only a few who really don’t have an arc of any kind.

Coran – Coran is annoying sometimes as they overplay his loud personality a few times, but he gets better…especially when we see him in action as a soldier and his intelligence comes into play for helping them.

Emperor Zarkon – Zarkon is obsessed this season and it is because of this fact that he becomes vulnerable. If he had listened to Witch Haggar he wouldn’t have ended up on life support. His obsession was his downfall and after how unstoppable he was last season it was great to see his flaws. He also has an awesome Mech that is a giant version of himself.

Witch Haggar- Haggar is Altean (same race as Allura) and is the anti-Allura as we see her obsession with dark and control and willingness to do anything for the Empire makes her the greatest threat. It is after Zarkon’s fall that she calls for his son, she is down but not out and is the real power behind the throne. I wonder why she betrayed her people…

Hunk – Hunk is comedic relief for a lot of it but still manages to grow, such as his mini-arc with Keith where he gets over his prejudice towards the Galra. In this we find out he is a great cook and is the glue of the team.

Pidge – Pidge has a predictable arc and discovers her power…she can control vines and roots and finds that nature and tech are connected. She is also the one who helps the Paladins find one another. The arc with the vines I thought was fine but it was her finding the Team and her skills as a tech that really make her invaluable.

Shiro – Shiro is the leader and advocate for finding allies among the Galra as it was a Galra who rescued him and tells him about the Blade of Marmora. He is the calm and collected to Allura’s anger and together they are pretty much the parents of the team. His arc is breaking Zarkon’s connection to the Black Lion and learning about the past when the Altean’s and Galra were at peace and Zarkon was friend’s with Allura’s father. It is powerful and I’m really curious how he went missing.

Keith – Keith has a fantastic arc as he learns that he is half-Galra and must get over his self-hatred and earn his place among his people in the trials of the Blade with the Blade he inherited. He steps up to be the leader this season as even Shiro knows his time is coming.

Princess Allura – Allura continues to be a fantastic character as we get to see her fight in the final fight and risk all of herself to save them from the Galra fleet that is pursuing them. Her arc is getting over her prejudice towards the Galra as the Blade of Marmora show that good Galra exist as well as her feelings for Keith, who she learns is half-Galra.

Okay: Lance – Lance is horny and a jokester and contributes nothing beyond being a body part on the Lion. I’m not putting him as a con…yet, as he wasn’t totally awful.

The Point of the Final Fight – Shiro goes missing and Zarkon is on life support and the Capital Ship of the Galra seems to be fine. It feels unfinished.

Tonal Shifts – Coran is the most guilty of this but some of the creatures the Paladins find are also overly cute and it takes away the threat of the Galra whenever there are too many of them.

This was another great season for a great show that you should really go and check out if you like animes or animated shows. This season really showed that the different species are more complicated, which I am always a fan of. Most places go black and white and make simple good and bad like Elves and Orcs of Middle Earth. This show is so much more than that and gives us wonderfully complicated characters who have to grow as they overcome their prejudices. Once more, this show is well worth checking out.

Final Score: 9 / 10

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

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     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.

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

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“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