Flying High with How to Train Your Dragon

16-Apr-10 2:48 PM by
Filed under Reviews; 4 comments.

Currently playing in theaters is How to Train Your Dragon, a CGI film based on the first in Cressida Cowell's series of children's books. Set in a Nordic village, the story is that of Hiccup, the Viking chieftain's son who's more intellectual and sensitive than his brawny, boisterous brethren. Their island is constantly besieged by dragons, which come in dozens of breeds, the most terrifying of which is the mysterious Night Fury. When Hiccup secretly captures one of these creatures of myth, he must decide if his loyalty lies with his family or with his heart.

At its root, the tale is a familiar one, with aspects of everything from Old Yeller to Avatar. The main plot focuses on the developing relationship between a boy and an animal, the latter which behaves in ways very familiar to any dog owner. As each character has or is building a relationship to each other, there are no true villains in this story, which makes for some incredibly tense moments: everyone is simply trying to do what's right based on the information available to him or her, sometimes leading to decisions that hurt others. The audience can hope only that everything turns out for the best.

Any film with dragons perforce features plenty of flying sequences, and How to Train Your Dragon's are to die for. There's excitement as rider and beast learn to coordinate their movements, bliss as they experience sights never before seen by man, and tension as the duo act in harmony to save their loved ones. I dream, both asleep and awake, about being able to fly, and Hiccup's experience are some of the most enviable I've encountered — and that's based on a 2D showing of the film; it's also available (as most CGI films are nowadays) in 3D.

The imagery is accompanied by excellent voice acting. Those I recognized were Gerard Butler (300) as Chief Stoick, with bit parts played by David Tennant (Dr. Who) and Jonah Hill. Most notably, 28-year-old Jay Baruchel plays Hiccup with great zeal, imbuing the character with sarcasm, frustration, and wonder.

How to Train Your Dragon is rated PG and is an appropriate experience for parents to share with their children. Some of Hiccup's tactics defy logic, his flying companion ultimately conveys little of the fear found in Tolkien's dragons, and the final action sequence reminds me of Iron Man's. But the conclusion doesn't uniformly leave the village and its inhabitants better than before — an unexpected twist that can prove a valuable talking point for families.

You Say 'Cute,' I Say 'Special'

On his Facebook page, fantasy author R. A. Salvatore commented about this film, "I'm not a big fan of 3D … but this one gets a big thumbs' up from me. The graphics were simply amazing, and the story was charming." I'll add my own endorsement to that weightier one. Will the remaining seven books be translated to film? We can only hope!

Centennial Special Effects

31-Aug-09 2:39 PM by
Filed under Films; Comments Off on Centennial Special Effects

Relatively new to YouTube is this review of the evolution of special effects. Though I once interviewed ILM's John Knoll on this very topic, our discussion went back only as far as 1982 and the release of TRON. The following montage includes that film, but it more ambitiously covers not just the last quarter, but the entire century:

It's stupefying to consider the mechanics behind what accounted for "special effects" at the dawn of the cinematic medium. I was 24 when I first saw Claude Rains as The Invisible Man, which impressed me immensely. As I wrote in the Showbits of that era: "What baffles my young mind is, how did they do special effects like that before the advent of computers? There were scenes that showed uninhabited apparel moving about a room, beds making themselves, etc. A couple of theories involving dummies or strings played through my mind, but ultimately, none seemed feasible. What sort of 'tricks of the camera' existed back then?"

Eric Shepherd responded: "Back then, effects like that were done by retouching each frame of film by hand. Generally it would be done by painting over the stuff you're not supposed to see to blend into the background. These days, of course, it's done by painting the 'invisible' person blue or green, and/or putting them in a skintight body suit of those colors, and then replacing those colors using the background from a still or from video shot without the actor present in the frame."

Although technology has greatly redefined studios' workflows and options, I would say the greatest change that audiences can see in special effects is not in complexity, but in subtlety. It used to be easy and obvious to distinguish authentic from accentuated; now we can see entire sequences and characters without realizing any of it has been fabricated.

I won't debate whether or not such effects are a deception that precludes legitimate acting, but I do wonder about their limited application. Judging from the above video, it seems the genre that makes the most extensive use of special effects are science fiction and fantasy. That's not altogether surprising, but I wonder why we don't see it more often in, say, comedies. Is there something inherently unfunny about CGI?

Every Panda Was Kung Fu Fighting

28-Jan-09 11:27 AM by
Filed under Reviews; 3 comments.

A good movie should appeal to all ages, and anyone who thinks they're "too old" for a popular film is more likely to be insecure about being caught seeing — and liking! — a "children's movie." Nonetheless, I didn't think last summer's Kung Fu Panda was original or appealing enough to warrant my box office dollars. But the recommendations of friends encouraged me to catch this animated hit on DVD, am I am glad to have heeded these senseis' advice.

The movie's titular panda, Po, is the sort of character you'd expect to be played by Jack Black, who provides the voice: an overweight good-for-nothing who spends his days dreaming of escape, without wanting to do any of the work that would elevate him from the mundane. But fate is a funny thing, and Po soon finds himself a student in the temple of the patient turtle, Master Oogway, and his pupil, the firefox Master Shifu, who is training The Furious Five. Each of the five represent a different animal and art form: tigress, mantis, monkey, viper, and crane. This manifestation is not an original idea; the forgettable video game T'ai Fu demonstrated much of the same culture and plot as this film, and it's no coincidence that both were developed by Dreamworks. But unlike that 1999 PlayStation game, Kung Fu Panda has both style and substance in one memorable package.

The movie makes this mark predominantly through its cast members, the most interesting of which is Master Shifu, played by Dustin Hoffman. It is Shifu, not Po, who faces the greatest challenge, as not only must Shifu confront the external force of the power-hungry leopard Tai Lung, but he must also struggle with his own fears and failures. He is a tragic character akin to Obi-Wan: having raised a young boy of questionable parentage to be a hero, only to have him fall to the dark side, he now must train a young man of similarly unknown background to undo his past sins. As in such martial arts films as The Karate Kid, The Forbidden Kingdom, and The Hunted, the hero must be trained in an unrealistically short time to face the greatest evil. Yes, it's cliché and predictable — but that doesn't stop Kung Fu Panda from being a ton of fun.

My two favorite scenes both feature Master Shifu. The first is a harmless training exercise in which he and Po use chopsticks to battle over their dinner's last dumpling. It's a safe example in which we see that Shifu has grown from a cynical master to a proud parent, and that Po has grown in skill and maturity as well. This sets the stage for a later battle between Shifu and his former disciple, a fast and fierce engagement in which we can sense that something terrible is at stake. It's a great dichotomy that showcases the versatility of the character's and the film's tones — especially compared to the final battle, which requires the gaijin rely on dumb luck to overcome the enemy.

The supporting cast of the Furious Five is voiced by Jackie Chan (The Forbidden Kingdom), David Cross (Arrested Development), Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, and Lucy Liu. It's almost a shame such a talented cast was hired for an action movie, as their characters spend more time moving than talking.

This cadre in its entirety gets as much screen time as their singular villain, Tai Lung. The impossible feats he performs demonstrates him to be a complete master of his environment and his own body — an inner and outer oneness. Even if he is a completely fabricated (and evil) character, I still found myself admiring the control that comes with martial arts.

Dreamworks demonstrates a similar mastery of computer animation with this film. I don't know whether or not to mourn the passing of traditional, hand-drawn animation, but Kung Fu Panda is evidence that movies of this style must no longer be specified to be "CGI" or "computer animated", as was once the case with the rare and groundbreaking Pixar films. But the DVD has some fun live-action extras, including a demonstration of how a master chef makes noodles, and instructions on how to use chopsticks (a skill that defies me to this day!).

Kung Fu Panda is an enjoyable exercise in witty dialogue and frenetic action. Fan of action comedy in the style of Jackie Chan will berate themselves for missing this animated entry.

TRON 2: More Than a Game

08-Oct-08 7:23 PM by
Filed under Trailers; 3 comments.

You don't need to be a dedicated Showbits reader to have observed my passion for TRON. It was upon its 25th anniversary last year that I reflected: "Computers and electronic games were both still new media back [in 1982]… These nascent industries could've been horribly misrepresented to the unwashed masses, and there surely was a degree of artistic license on [TRON's] silver screen, with its AIs, lasers, and whatnot. But the way its digital society was structured and how software interacted with each other and with their users worked on both digital and HCI levels."

It was at that time that rumors started to circulate of a sequel. I was of course hesitant at the prospect of some disrespectful director cashing in on the brand by rehashing the plot using modern technology and context. Fortunately, the last few months have alleviated my concerns, starting with a trailer for TR2N, as its called. The preview seems to contain no actual film footage, but its debut at Comic-Con revealed the cooperation of a key franchise figure. Watch it before Disney's lawyers yank it off YouTube yet again:

Like WarGames 2, TR2N is not a remake, update, or reboot — it is a true sequel. Its awareness of present-day cyberspace harkens back to when I asked visual effects specialist John Knoll "Do you think a Tron movie could succeed nowadays?". He responded:

I don't know! Whatever made [TRON] not successful in the first place would probably still be present in a remake, if they went with the same story. The fundamental plot devices are anachronistic now, so it'd need to be updated to be Internet-aware, with much less emphasis on mainframe computers and a much higher emphasis on personal computers and small portable devices. You could go in the Matrix direction, where some aspect of his personality is transferred over into the computer and they're linked in a way.

Another good sign: IGN recently interviewed Jeff Bridges, who seems genuinely enthusiastic about the project. As Star Trek novelist Dayton Ward told me, "It's neat that he sounds so excited to be doing this. It's not like he needs the money or anything."

The IMDb lists TR2N for a 2011 release. I hope that gives the cast and crew time to produce a final product that we, too, can be excited about.


16-May-07 6:43 PM by
Filed under Television; 2 comments.

Courtesy reader GeneD comes news of a new $23.99 hardcover book: The Art of ReBoot. The book presents the sketches, development, and profiles of the cast of ReBoot, a Saturday morning CGI cartoon produced by Mainframe, an animation studio that went on to create several other well-known shows, including Beast Wars, a spin-off of the classic Transformers series. The book is available from the site and not via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Borders/Waldenbooks, either online or in person.

Regardless, it's encouraging to see a new product from the line of one of my favoritest cartoons ever. Sure, CGI has come a long way since ReBoot premiered in 1994, but it was such a clever and rollicking program that played to the geek in me. In the spirit of TRON (which turns 25 this July), ReBoot is set inside a computer, with anthropomorphic representations of software and hardware: the protagonist is a "Guardian" program, defending the sectors of the hard disk-shaped city of Mainframe from the viruses Megabyte and Hexadecimal. When the unseen "user" inputs a game, the set morphs into the setting for that game, with our heroes fighting the human's avatar for control of the system.


Heroes in a Half Shell

09-Apr-07 3:44 PM by
Filed under Reviews; 6 comments.

I've seen my first movie of 2007 — and that film is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The star of the film is definitely the titular heroes. Though the plot makes Michaelangelo and Donatello extraneous, this bummer is balanced by Raphael, always my favorite reptile, taking the spotlight alongside Leonardo in a battle that is more emotional than physical. The evil Shredder is dead, and without an opposing force to galvanize the turtles, they've drifted apart. When Leonardo returns after a year's pilgramage, he finds a cooler reception than he expected. Old friends April O'Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Casey Jones must help the turtles unite against the machinations of Max Winters (Patrick Stewart). There are some great action sequences, but not as great as the character development — who'd expect that from giant turtles? — and some effective mirroring between the turtle's internal strife and that of the villains — something that Star Trek: Nemesis tried, and failed, to do well.

The directorial team approached this film in a way that lends it both strength and weakness. In the former area, TMNT cuts right to the chase. I've not read any TMNT comic books in the last 15 years; I've not seen the new cartoon or played the video games; I never even got around to seeing the third live-action film. But having grown up with the original cartoon and seeing the first two films, I felt like this latest animated installment was a direct sequel to that older franchise. The film does not dawdle with prelude: there's no flashbacks, setting up, or other time-wasting plot devices. If you don't know how the ninja turtles came to be, or why they listen to a wise old rat, by the end of the movie, you still won't know. Anything that's important can be gleaned.

The downside to this approach is that there is little that makes this film uniquely TMNT. It's a fun martial arts/sci-fi/action film, but I felt like their were too many elements that could've been transplanted into other setting (like Disney's Gargoyles). Not even the classic TMNT theme song is present.

I previously expressed my concern for the animation style, and I agree the humans were a bit too inhuman. But the dark style fit the turtles perfectly. Not once during the film did I think to myself, "This is a CGI cartoon." Its computer-generated nature didn't occur to me, though I think that is reflective more of the prevalance of the medium than of the improved quality (which is admittedly impressive).

Overall, a better film than I was expecting — and with a convenient hook for a sequel. For now, check out the online featurette (may contain spoilers).

Mock Turtle Soup

17-Jan-07 2:06 PM by
Filed under Films, Television; 4 comments.

New trailer for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is up.

I grew up in the Eighties, which this decade of the Naughties is desperate to emulate, with its revivals of He-Man, G. I. Joe, and TMNT. While I think it's great that today's kids have access to the quality programming that taught so many of my peers to venerate Saturday morning, it's also challenging to see these elements of my youth being reinvented in less-than-faithful ways.

In this instance, the TMNT movie doesn't look half bad. I've never seen the new animated series, so I don't know how this CGI film compares to it — but the movie seems to retain the combination of action and comedy that made the original show so captivating. (The tendency among my peers is to see the entertainment from their childhood mature along with them — but if it's a dark TMNT you want, go back to the original comic books.)

I'm worried about the animation style, though. The models all seem too comical, almost Pixar-ish, which I don't feel behooves what they're trying to do. Though "ninja turtles" is far from a plausible concept, I think the absurdity of the situation would be better served by realistic representations. Let the animation be the straight man; otherwise, the over-the-top actions and situations are likely to be dismissed as cartoonish. Juxtaposition — know what I mean?

To Grandma's House We Go

04-Jan-07 3:16 PM by
Filed under Reviews; 2 comments.

I recently saw the CGI animated film Over the Hedge. I'd not read the comic strip upon which it is based, but like any good adaptation, it didn't seem necessary to enjoy the film.

And enjoy it I did! Like most good animated films, it had plenty of content aimed at kids and adults alike. It was fun to pick out the well-known actors' voices, especially those not typically associated with animation, such as Bruce Willis and Avril Lavigne. Of course, one of the dangers of such top-tier talent is the difficulty disassociating them from their images. They played to William Shatner's and Eugene Levy's nicely, but I had a hard time not seeing "The Verminator" character, played by Thomas Haden Church, as akin to Lowell from Wings (or perhaps even Spider-Man 3's Sandman?).

I was a bit disappointed the film didn't have a stronger moral, though. Wikipedia suggests that, unlike the 1994 animated Japanese film Pom Poko, Over the Hedge "does not… develop the themes of environmentalism or anti-urbanization." OTOH, perhaps that's my own political beliefs viewing a missed opportunity; such may've been misplaced in "just a cartoon" (as some felt it was in Happy Feet).

In November, when I expressed a conflict between seeing Casino Royale or Happy Feet, a group of "adults" mocked me for even considering the latter, especially since I have no grandchildren with whom to see it. I'm disappointed that people are willing to judge, and thus limit themselves, art based on the medium. Something being animated does not necessarily make it a "cartoon"; just watch Richard Adams' Watership Down or Plague Dogs — as a friend of mine recently did, commenting, "I can't believe anyone would let their kids watch this!" (which she thought they would, since it's "just a cartoon", right?) Comic books, video games, Dungeons & Dragons — they too have been criticized by outsiders. Until they learn, I'll happily continue enjoying these media, while the critics don't even know what they're missing…