“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”: Ride or Die

Train Your Dragon 3!

We gather today for a Toothless farewell.

Time was, I used to see a lot more animated films per year — partly because my son was once a youngster with lower standards, and partly because good animated films used to come out more frequently. Or maybe that’s the middle-aged fogey in me talking.

To this day the original How to Train Your Dragon — an imaginative, action-packed flight of fantasy with a gut-punch of a climax — remains my favorite Dreamworks Animation project to date. The first sequel wasn’t bad, but never addressed the deadbeat-mom issue at its center to my satisfaction. Five years after How to Train Your Dragon 2 the trilogy concludes with How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World — a definitive ending to the saga of Jay Baruchel’s awkward young Viking Hiccup and his fierce, loyal dragon partner Toothless. I nearly typed “pet”, but that descriptor is a bit reductive and and refuted by this very movie itself.

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“Kung Fu Panda 3”: Eats Yaks & Leaves

Kung Fu Panda 3!

“Dad, do you think they’ll let me present an award at next year’s Oscars? Or at least the Kids Choice Awards?”

It’s post-Oscar season movie time! That inevitable season when the major studios helpfully fill up theaters with numerous counterprogramming choices, by which I mean flicks that will never, ever win quality-based awards but might just make a buck or two off those moviegoers who couldn’t care less about the overwrought film-award pomposity. Usually when you see an animated release on the post-Christmas slate, it’s one that was made overseas for twenty bucks that would’ve gone to straight-to-video if the studio weren’t desperate for some first-quarter earnings on their P&L sheets.

So I was surprised to see Kung Fu Panda 3 dumped into a wintertime slot. I barely remember anything about the second one except an impressive ship crash and Gary Oldman’s lame evil peacock, but the original was an eye-popping martial-arts spectacular that proved to be one of Jack Black’s best-ever vehicles and one of my top five Dreamworks Animation films to date. I was hoping the third would be more like the first.

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My 2014 at the Movies, Part 1 of 2: the Year’s Least Best


Harry was pretty sure he’d gone terribly wrong somewhere on his Defense Against the Dark Arts homework.

Once again January is National List Month, that left-brained time of year when everyone’s last twelve months of existence must be removed from their mental filing cabinets, reexamined, and refiled in specific pecking order from Greatest to Most Grating. Here on Midlife Crisis Crossover, we enjoy our annual tradition of spending at least two posts looking back at our year in movies, trying to remember what we thought about them at the time and ultimately deciding which films can beat up which other films. When I reach that realization that my opinions sometimes change over time upon further reflection or second viewings, that’s when the process turns messy and I end up hating my own list. But internet bylaws insist it must be done. And I like lists more than I like internet bylaws.

The final tabulations reveal I saw 19 films in theaters in 2014 (tying with 2007 and 2010 as worst moviegoing years ever) and four via On Demand while they were still in limited release. This count doesn’t include seven 2013 films I attended in 2014 for Oscar-chasing purposes, or any films I watched on home video long after their theatrical run. As one sad example, this harsh rule of mine disqualifies Boyhood from the list since I just watched it via Redbox rental two nights ago. If I’d gotten out of the house for a three-hour theater visit just one more time last summer, it would’ve made my Top 3. Consider this paragraph my version of a Very Honorable Mention.

Links to past reviews and thoughts are provided for historical reference. On with the reverse countdown, then:

Right this way for the weakest of the herd!

“How to Train Your Dragon 2”: Training Day is Over

Hiccup and Toothless!

My son and I were part of the Dragon Training 101 graduating class that considers How to Train Your Dragon the Greatest DreamWorks Animated Film of All Time. In those basic studies we learned that dragons respond well to a combination of generosity and teamwork, that even the scrawniest Viking can surprise you, that Scottish Viking fathers are stubborn but negotiable, that Old World prosthetics were surprisingly advanced, and that cinematic dragons have come a long way since Dragonslayer, Dragonheart, Dungeons & Dragons, Eragon, Dragon Wars, and even Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where those mighty beasts received fifty-eighth billing, ranking well below CG mermen, nameless wizard henchmen, and a guy who turns into a rat. So How to Train Your Dragon was a tremendous PR boost to a once-honored race of monsters that deserve better than Hollywood usually gives them.

The How to Train Your Dragon 2 intermediate course had much to live up to in our minds, both as a sequel and as the next rung on the ladder of dragon-training success. We feared whether this would be a worthwhile study or one of those unaccredited, fly-by-night scams that hopes you won’t be able to tell their “dragons” are just really ugly dogs with paper wings taped to their fur.

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“Mr. Peabody & Sherman”: Wibbly Wobbly Timey-Wimey Ruff

Mr. Peabody and Sherman, DreamWorks

Midlife Crisis Crossover calls Mr. Peabody & Sherman the greatest adaptation of a Jay Ward Productions cartoon in cinematic history!

Seriously, consider the competition: 2000’s live-action The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, which had precisely one (1) funny joke that I recall with traumatized clarity to this day; Brendan Fraser as Disney’s George of the Jungle, which was a merchandising showcase disguised as kiddie slapstick farce; and Brendan Fraser again in Dudley Do-Right, which had no reason to live. Thankfully Hollywood came to its senses and refrained from giving us Brendan Fraser as Tom Slick, Aesop’s annoying son, and Super-Chicken’s sidekick Fred.

DreamWorks neatly sidestepped any more Fraser pain by taking the CG-animation route and barring him from participation. In another risky deviation from the formula of the other three films, director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) and his crew also chose to make their film funny. I applaud this bold, non-conformist stratagem.

This way for another Wayback adventure!

“Turbo”: Routine Underdog Learns Lessons about Perseverance, Self-Promotion

Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Turbo, DreamWorks

Reynolds. Giamatti. Turbo.

Midlife Crisis Crossover calls Turbo the Best Indianapolis Tourism Ad of the Year!

That was my first impression, anyway. It’s rare that Hollywood sets a big-budget motion picture in my hometown. The last film to use us, Eagle Eye for a single action scene, couldn’t be bothered to research our geography on Google Maps and pretended that 72 West 56th Street is a crowded financial district like downtown Boston. Local pro tip for future filmmakers: 72 West 56th puts you in a highly tree-filled residential area between the wooded Butler University campus and the trendy bars of Broad Ripple.

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Yes, There’s a Scene After “The Croods” End Credits

Dreamworks, The CroodsAs unimpressed as I was with the trailer, The Croods turned out to be an unexpected delight, with a sincere message for parents who want to protect their children from the world, but struggle with the knowledge that someday that job won’t be theirs anymore. (Says the nervous guy counting down the days until his son begins college.)

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Yes, There’s a Scene During the “Rise of the Guardians” End Credits

For anyone who ever pined for a children’s version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Dreamworks has answered your odd prayer with Rise of the Guardians, an adaptation of an ongoing book series by Rolie Polie Olie creator and Academy Award-winning author/animator William Joyce, whose WikiPedia entry names a surprising number of other works in which he had a hand.

I don’t know how closely the movie hews to the books’ original premise, but the big-screen version is an all-star supergroup featuring the world’s most popular public-domain holiday icons — Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman (not, alas, the Neil Gaiman version), and impudent new recruit Jack Frost. Under the guiding light of the mysterious Man in the Moon, Our Heroes are tasked with preserving the precious beliefs of children worldwide who lend each icon their powers and make their respective holidays possible. The foe that unites them is the Boogeyman, who plots to dispel all that belief, render the Guardians moot, and divert the world’s thoughts unto himself so that he might rule with terror and nightmares. Presumably this radical shift in the status quo would leave the Gregorian calendar depressingly blank except for Halloween and Tax Day.

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Questioning My Reality after Preferring “Madagascar 3” to “Brave”

After seeing Brave and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted within a week of each other, I was surprised to conclude that this is the second year in a row in which I’ve liked a DreamWorks CG-animated film more than a same-year Pixar release. Last year’s narrow victory of Kung Fu Panda 2 over Cars 2 was…well, a paltry competition, but still.

For the most part, Brave was still very good for what it was. I could appreciate the uneasy conflict between a mother and daughter who fail to see eye-to-eye, but who eventually learn to accept each other’s differences through a series of intense situations. However, swap their gender and you find yourself with the same uneasy conflict last seen in How to Train Your Dragon. Whereas the latter was more epic in scope, Brave by comparison was a more intimate struggle whose own four-legged antagonist was a bit smaller. Both were also set in long-ago Scotland, had characters with limbs amputated by beasts, and beefed up their supporting cast with a healthy dose of Craig Ferguson. I didn’t want to keep comparing the two so unfairly, especially since Dragon is presently my favorite DreamWorks CG film, but my mind wouldn’t stop.

Madagascar 3, on the other hand, benefited tremendously from how forgettable I found the first two. I remember the main and supporting characters, and a few flourishes from the original that are referenced in this one for effective callback resonance, but not my actual overall opinions of them. It was a pleasure hearing Ben Stiller and Chris Rock riffing to their heart’s content for a general audience. I was practically giddy from overdosing on the manic wit that propels the film forward at breakneck speed. I’m enamored of the moral of the story, that nostalgia can prevent us from seeing how confining our former boundaries were until we confront them and realize the power of moving on to wider stages. I also enjoyed turns from incoming performers such as Bryan Cranston (a Siberian tiger with a tragic story), Martin Short (a fawning, barely talented sealion), Academy Award Winner Frances McDormand (an unstoppable French animal control specialist on a vendetta), and X-Men 3‘s Juggernaut as a miniature circus dog with a ‘tude. This may also feature the best performance by a mute circus bear in cinema history. I entered the theater expecting no effect on my apathy; I exited with a smile on my face and the very few lyrics to “Afro Circus” stuck on Repeat in my head.

I’m having a very hard time reconciling these two opinions. In pondering my blasphemous imaginings of a world where Pixar is no longer the automatic king of everything, I wondered if any statistical comparisons have been drawn between the two. As luck would have it, such comparisons have been done and overdone. I decided to compile figures anyway for my own amusement, chronologically for all CG releases from each of the two companies — not of American box office grosses, but of ratings on the world-famous Tomatometer™.

Those results to date:

1995: No Dreamworks CG department to speak of; 100% for Toy Story, the grand pioneer of the medium.

1996-1997: No entrants. Each studio lay dormant, making plans and revving up their engines.

1998: 95% for Antz; 92% for A Bug’s Life. This flawed comparison is a prime example of how the Tomatometer fresh/rotten binary system lacks nuance. I didn’t hate Antz, but I’d be surprised if anyone favors or even remembers it to this day. I’m also mystified as to why Pixar hasn’t allowed an encore yet for Flik and friends. Were their merchandise sales really that anemic?

1999: No Dreamworks CG releases; a rightful 100% for Toy Story 2.

2000: No entrants. Remember when each studio used to craft one film at a time, no matter how long it took? Pixar has obviously expanded their staff and resources to sufficient capacity to maintain a steady pace of one new film per year as productions overlap. Meanwhile at DreamWorks, their WikiPedia page lists an alleged, ambitious overkill slate of twenty-two projects in various stages between ideation and completion. That either speaks to their success, foreshadows an animation glut in our future, or includes direct-to-DVD fodder to be distributed by DreamWorks but created by other, smaller animation houses.

2001: 89% for Shrek; 95% for Monsters Inc. I enjoyed the cleverness and performances in Shrek up until the exact moment where the plot pivoted because of a Three’s Company-style stupid misunderstanding because of ill-timed eavesdropping. Those are an automatic fail in my book. While that meant a forfeit in favor of Pixar, I thought some of Billy Crystal’s ad-libs weren’t exactly among his best. Given the choice, I’d rather watch clips of his past Oscar-hosting gigs.

2002: the last mutual skip year. Going forward, the mission statement for both studios was to crank out new movies every year or die trying.

2003: Still no new Dreamworks CG releases; 98% for Finding Nemo, the greatest Ellen DeGeneres film of all time.

2004: 89% for Shrek 2, which I thought was the best of the series; 36% for Shark Tale, which seemed like a case of casting famous faces first, then writing a script around them later. DreamWorks thankfully took notes from Pixar’s methodology and has relied on this poor creative formula a lot less than they used to. Meanwhile, The Incredibles, my all-time favorite Pixar film sans Woody or Buzz, impressed with 97%.

2005: 55% for the first Madagascar, whatever it was like. I do remember it looking crudely drawn. Cars was originally scheduled this year but delayed to 2006 for any number of rumored reasons, from quality control to internecine corporate shenanigans.

2006: 74% for Over the Hedge, shrewder and funnier than I expected in its barbed consumer-culture satire. 74% for Cars, which I thought was just fine. I suspect some negative reactions were Mater’s fault. He didn’t bother me. I know people here in Indiana not too different from him.

2007: 41% for Shrek the Third (no argument here); 51% for Bee Movie, proof that not everyone loved Seinfeld as much as some entertainment magazines did; and 96% for Ratatouille, Pixar’s first attempt at something besides an epic adventure, and a blessedly successful one at that.

2008: 88% for Kung Fu Panda, which I tried to tell everyone around me was seriously awesome (especially in super-sized all-powerful IMAX), but no one would listen to me because of either Jack Black or disdain for kung-fu flicks. Their loss. The 64% for Madagasacar 2: Something Something Animals improved on its predecessor in ways I no longer recall. 96% for WALL-E, which I really liked but didn’t fall head-over-heels in love with, as some of my peers did. Can’t really put my finger on why. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing about environmental lectures.

2009: 72% for Monsters vs. Aliens, which was quite a nifty League of Extraordinary B-Movie Creatures; 98% for Up, which made me bawl before the end of the first half-hour, but knocked itself down from an A+ to a mere A because of doggie biplanes. No one steals Snoopy’s shtick and gets away with it, not even Pixar.

2010: 98% for How to Train Your Dragon (thank you, critics, for validating me); 58% for Shrek Forever After (which I avoided after hating the third one); 73% for Megamind (not a fan of Will Ferrell movies, but was pretty happy with this despite sad reliance on AC/DC); and naturally 99% for Toy Story 3, weakest of the trilogy but hardly a weak film.

2011: 81% for Kung Fu Panda 2, okay but not nearly as seriously awesome as the first; 83% for Puss in Boots, which I also avoided because of Shrek the Third (my loss, perhaps); and 38% for Cars 2, certifiably the Worst Pixar Film of All Time. If you think of it as three back-to-back episodes of Cars: the TV Series, it’s really not so disappointing in those terms. If this had been released direct-to-DVD, it might have attained the same kind of regard that Disney fans hold for The Lion King 1½. Again I blame the Mater-haters.

2012: As of this evening, 76% apiece for Madagascar 3 and for Brave. It’s a tie!

On average, the DreamWorks track record has improved in the years since its Shark Tale nadir. Pixar isn’t exactly churning out third-rate filler just to pad the Disney release schedule, but no longer seems bulletproof, either. I look forward to future works from both, as long as none of them is Flik vs. Antz, which I would view as a sign of creative bankruptcy, unless Flik wins.

Additional notes:

1. List does not include Aardman productions released through DreamWorks, as much as I recommend the majority of them.

2. List excludes non-Pixar Disney CG fare because it is presumed inferior due to lack of Pixar authorship, with the exception of Tangled. The jury can’t wait to deliberate on Wreck-It Ralph.

3. List obviously excludes productions from other well-known studios such as Blue Sky and Robert Zemeckis’ ImageMovers because my free time for late-night writing is not unlimited. Their inclusion would also distract from the whole two-sided rap-rivalry vibe of the competition.

4. I lament that the list excludes traditional animated films, just as movie executives do nowadays. Recent works in this medium have been flawed in ways that could not necessarily be blamed on said medium (e.g. mediocre stories; unfunny jokes; reliance on star power over creativity); and yet, when those flaws hurt them at the box office, the medium was blamed and practically scuttled as a whole in America. This, in my mind, is an even greater shame than Shark Tale.

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