Movie Review: “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” (2010)

Seriously dude, get a haircut.

Title: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) IMDb
Director: Mike Newell
Lead Actors: Jake Gyllenhaal (Dastan), Gemma Arterton (Tamina), Ben Kingsley (Nizan), Alfred Molina (Sheik Amar)
Score Composer: Harry Gregson-Williams
Length: 116 min.
Rating (US): PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “Set in the mystical lands of Persia, a rogue prince and a mysterious princess race against dark forces to safeguard an ancient dagger capable of releasing the Sands of Time — a gift from the gods that can reverse time and allow its possessor to rule the world.” (Written by Walt Disney Pictures, courtesy of IMDb)
Reason for Watching: Firstly, it’s based on the popular Prince of Persia video games, which feature some really neat Arabian-Nights-esque settings and a cool fantasy version of parkour. Secondly, I heard from friends it was actually pretty fun.
Movie Re-watchability: Fun and disposable, this is the kind of adventure I’d watch on a casual movie night with friends, or watch if it was on TV, but that I’m not likely to choose if I really want to set aside a specific time for a movie viewing. It was entertaining the first time, but it doesn’t have much novelty to offer on repeat viewings.
Director Re-watchability: Mike Newell also directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which is my pick for the most boring and disposable Harry Potter film (well, Deathly Hallows Part I may have been more boring, but it at least had greater atmosphere). He’s not a bad director, as far as I can tell – he’s got an eye for pretty images, and in Prince of Persia he does keep the story moving at a brisk, entertaining pace. But he seems competent at best. I wouldn’t be interested in a movie just because his name was attached.
Recommendation: Do you like the video game series? Do you like fantasy adventures even when they are campy and ridiculous, so long as they maintain a sense of fun? Do you not mind if the story and characters exist only to support the pretty pictures and give you something to laugh and snicker about while you and your friends drink beer, eat snacks, chat on a non-work (or non-school) night? Does the reasoning of “Hey, the actors look like they’re having a good time, why shouldn’t I?” make sense to you? If any of these are true, then you will probably find something to enjoy in this movie. If you answered “no” strongly to any of these questions, then it might not be worth your time. I’m glad I saw it, but then, I answered strongly in the positive to all the above questions. +)

Key Thoughts

What else to say about this very straightforward movie? Nothing about the plot, surely. It’s just not important. If you try too hard to follow it, you’ll start falling through all the holes. The many, gaping holes. In fact, I recommend that you smile and wave at the plot holes as you skim over them. It’s the best way to get full enjoyment out of this movie.

Aside from including one or two scenes not in the movie, the official trailer will actually give you a remarkably accurate feel for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. It engages your attention, has some very pretty set pieces and artwork, a variety of stunts that, if not brilliant, are at least energetic, banter between the romantic couple that, if not quite witty, is at least amusing, and doesn’t take itself seriously but indulges in just enough drama that we can sort-of-almost-hey-it’s-Jerry-Bruckheimer-producing-what-do-you-expect buy the characters’ motivations if we don’t think on them too hard. (If you do start thinking, you realize that a few important deaths in this movie could have easily been solved by the magic dagger that rewinds time, but for some reason Dastan doesn’t think to use it for the people he cares for most.) If you’re the kind who can’t help but take a movie too seriously, then this movie will probably annoy the heck out of you.

And this guy will shoot five steel darts into your chest.

While it is somewhat disappointing that the lead actors aren’t even remotely Middle-Easternish, much less Persian, but rather very white Caucasian (with the exception of Ben Kingsley, who is half Indian), this is more or less what we expect of a Hollywood blockbuster. Gyllenhaal is no Errol Flynn, but he’s competent in this roguish role, wading shakily through a script of bad quips and emotions desperately trying to be earnest and emerging with a smile at the end.

My main complaint regarding the role of Dastan (the titular Prince) has nothing to do with the actor, but rather the special effects. I find it’s always more fun when the actors themselves, or convincing stunt doubles, are doing the actual stunts in the action scenes, when there is real human physicality and skill on display. But in this movie, Gyllenhaal doesn’t get to move far before the CGI and lightning-quick cuts jump in. It’s not impressive when you can see a computer doing all the work. Nor when the editing jumps so much that you can’t be sure where things are happening in relation to each other, and the action scenes which should be glorious expressions of the athleticism of the human body instead became a jumble of zoomed-in images of movement that don’t thrill or really amount to much of anything. It’s not quite shaky cam – when there isn’t a fight or chase going on, the camera steadies itself properly – and technically it does the job okay, but it doesn’t inspire you with awe at what the human body can accomplish. And personally, I think that’s one of the great virtues of the action genre, the thing it should properly do besides just entertain.

“Whoa, sand is more slippery than I thought!”
Granted, even with all the gorgeous CGI scenery going on, she’s still the sight easiest on the eyes. I think she’s prettier in this relaxed shot than she is in many of the dramatic, posed ones.

The dialogue he shares with Princess Tamina is the kind of banter formed of one-liners designed to show that the characters are trying hard not to like each other despite their obvious attraction. It’s not very clever dialogue and often crops up at times when the characters really have more important things to do and emotions to feel, and it does substitute for character development, but at a very basic level it gets the job done. If we like these two characters, it’s because we find Gyllenhaal and Arterton to be likable themselves. Tamina is a bland character on paper, as are these all (excepting perhaps Sheik Amar, played by an enthusiastic Alfred Molina), and doesn’t have enough of a sense of humor, but Arterton herself seems to understand the role, and gives it just enough charm and gentleness to get by. I’m not sure she and Gyllenhaal have what is called “screen chemistry,” but at least they seem to be having fun together.

Most of the humor comes not from the dialogue, but from the more over-the-top stunts, Alfred Molina’s enthusiastically selfish Sheik and his love of ostrich-racing, the sheer awful corniness of the romantic arc, and the entire lack of subtlety anywhere in the movie. This all is fun. And as I said, there are some really beautiful fantasy cities and desert landscapes we get to visit. If anything, I wish there were fewer locations, just so that we could spend more time exploring the more spectacular ones, like the holy city of Alamut. I’d welcome a sequel just to revisit these landscapes in greater detail.

“I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.” “I was misinformed.”

And there’s also another element that’s quite interesting: the theme of brotherhood, and the importance of its bonds. See, Dastan is not a prince by blood; rather, he was adopted by the Persian emperor when a young boy, and so became brother to the emperor’s two older sons. Tus, the eldest, is trying his hardest to be worthy of succeeding his father – he’s grave, serious, ambitious, but also desires to learn wisdom and justice. And he likes Dastan, despite the rogue’s general irreverence, lack of manners, and bedraggled appearance. The other brother, Garsiv (WHO THE HECK CAME UP WITH THESE HORRIBLE NAMES? THE WHOLE RICHNESS OF PERSIAN LINGUISTIC CULTURE AND THEY INVENT THIS LAMENESS???), is more arrogant and can’t stand Dastan. We immediately sense he is untrustworthy (his darker hair and eyes are also typical Hollywood symbols), and probably in league with the villain, but things don’t end up being quite that simple. Well, fine, things are still very simple, but the movie affirms the bonds of brotherhood in a way that is satisfying and less cynical than I sort of expected from Hollywood. The treatment of the theme certainly isn’t deep, but the mere presence of brotherly love in this story was actually kind of neat.

I watched the whole movie swearing Tus (the guy on the right) was played by Karl Urban, but apparently it’s some other guy.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time lets you turn off your brain without having to worry too much about what’ll happen to you without your brain’s defense. I spent most of its running time smiling, and sometimes grinning, and I’m grateful for a movie that does that.

Riding off happily into the sandstorm…

Screencaps from here and here.


Movie Review: “Ladyhawke” (1985)

Bueller, Bueller…

Title: Ladyhawke (1985) IMDb
Director: Richard Donner
Lead Actors: Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, John Wood
Score Composer: Andrew Powell
Length: 121 minutes
Rating (US): PG-13
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A young pickpocket joins up with a knight and lady as the lovers try to defeat a curse that was set upon them by a corrupt bishop; a curse that causes the knight to become a wolf at the setting of the sun, and the lady to become a hawk at the sun’s rising, so that they are forever apart despite traveling together.
Reason for Watching: Well, the premise has long intrigued me (specifically, the nature of the curse); also, the 1980s had a peculiar take on fantasy stories that was often really neat (ex. The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, The Princess Bride, Big Trouble in Little China, Clash of the Titans, The Last Unicorn, The Secret of NIMH, to name a few great ones).
Movie Re-watchability: I suspect it’s quite rewatchable. The pacing may have some issues and Broderick can at times be annoying, but the movie looks great, Hauer and Pfeiffer are both magnetic presences, and the concept is intriguing.
Director Re-watchability: Ah, Richard Donner. Director of perhaps the most inspirational superhero movie, the original Superman (1978). Figures he would know a thing or two about romanticism, idealistic characters with fantastic destinies, and how to photograph a good-looking picture. Of course, he also directed The Omen (1976), a horror movie which is well-regarded but does not interest me. I suppose his filmography sort of speaks for him: The Goonies, Lethal Weapon, Scrooged, Radio Flyer. He’s got range, for sure. Perhaps the most important thing is that he treats the fantasy seriously. There is comedy, perhaps a tad too much from Broderick, but the curse of the lovers is never made light of. This isn’t his best or most entertaining movie by a long shot, but it’s still my favorite. Then again, I’m a bit biased towards the subject matter.
Recommendation: Yes! Particularly for those who like fantasy, medieval stuff, and chivalric romance. While it certainly has a number of flaws and some lost potential, I’m going to make the argument that it is still a good movie, unique in its flavor, and generally underrated.

Key Thoughts

I might as well start with Ladyhawke’s most well-known and controversial element: its musical score. My friend Urania calls it “the most beautiful example of ’80s orchestral-rock-synth fantasy soundtrack ever!” For my friend Jubilare it almost renders a good movie unwatchable. As I casually peruse Internet opinion (so educated and dignified it is *cough*), I find viewers similarly divided to extremes, but almost overwhelmingly against it. The accusations tend to run thusly: 1) the synthesized beats are too anachronistic, 2) their modernity jars you out of the stately drama and reverie the movie tries to invoke in the viewer, 3) the synth-pop parts of the score also contrast too jarringly with the more classical orchestral parts, 4) the score is so poorly used that it often evokes emotions opposite to what the dramatic scenes are striving for.

The first objection is irrelevant, since even orchestral and classic music is inherently anachronistic for any story set before, oh, the 16th century at least. It doesn’t matter if the instruments are modern, just how they are used. Now, for my part, I confess I do enjoy the music, both on its own and in conjunction with much of the movie; yet I also acknowledge the legitimacy of many of the complaints against it. When the beat drives a bit too hard, or when an electric guitar suddenly jumps in, the chivalric magic is lost, if only temporarily. When Navarre, in anguish because his lady is near death, takes on a band of enemy soldiers with grim anger and resolve, and then synthesized pop happiness kicks, you half expect the Breakfast Club to start grooving sideways into the picture in their flannel shirts, backpacks, and big hair. It can be distracting, to say the least.

I love this picture. But it doesn’t exactly scream “touching chivalric romance.”

Yet there is no denying that the main theme is beautiful and fully appropriate to the lovers’ plight. And the more successful blendings of the two musical styles do yield some strong emotional moments; when we’re getting excited because Navarre is preparing to lay the beatdown on some annoying baddies, the synth-rock only makes him seem more badass. Not quite “Rock into Mordor” levels, but close. Even the melodramatic pop ballad parts can be oddly suited to the deeply passionate, and somewhat illogical, emotions and honor at play in chivalric romances like this. So in the end, I enjoy the score of the music and find it enhances some of the emotions and much of the fun I have with the movie, but I do wish that more care had been put into the integration of the classical and synth-pop-rock elements with each other, and with the content of the movie.

Rutger Hauer as Captain Navarre makes one of the best movie knights I’ve ever seen, even with his American accent (which is an odd choice, considering he’s Dutch and the setting is clearly France). Steely-eyed, dangerous yet honorable to his core, he is determined to break the curse on him and Isabeau by slaying the evil Bishop, or die in the attempt. For him, there are no other options. It’s not just his own pain that is too much for him, but that Isabeau should be forever condemned to this “half-life.” This determination at times veers close to vengeful obsession, which is all the more frightening for Mouse (Broderick) because Isabeau cannot be present in her human form as a soothing presence. When she is present, though, it’s easy to see why Navarre loves her. She is gentle in all forms of the word: noble, elegant, soft-hearted, kind, affectionate, considerate of others. Their love is genuinely touching, and there’s never a moment you aren’t willing Navarre to bash down the gates of the bishop’s castle, slay that demon-worshipping heretic, and ride off happily with his lady.

Sweet sunrise, she is beautiful! (and has kind of a modern haircut, but no matter)

If only the knight and his lady had more screentime, with less of it being stolen by Broderick’s teenage pickpocket, Mouse. Mouse is really the movie’s main character, with a fairly clear character arc and the more dialogue than all the other characters put together. The story is mostly about Mouse becoming so dedicated to the lovers that he grows out of his selfish cowardice and begins to sacrifice himself willingly, eagerly for their good. But he’s an awkward representative for the story. He’s too much Ferris Bueller, too far removed from the fairy story setting, and there are numerous times when his ironic asides and flat American accent took me out of the story.

He probably just misses Sloane.

It’s not that Mouse is a horrible character or that Broderick is particularly bad in the role—the real surprise was actually how often the character worked, when I didn’t expect him to. Even with his amusing (if very corny) asides to God and himself, it’s clear that Mouse comes to care deeply for Navarre and Isabeau. His manner is often irreverent, but his earnestness, when it appears, feels genuine. The best use of him is when he begins to carry messages between the two lovers. Since at any given time one of them is an animal and the other cannot remember their animal life, it is nearly impossible for them to communicate, but the presence of Mouse emends that. Unfortunately, the lovers oddly don’t give him any messages to send to each other, leaving Mouse to lie and invent love poetry and the like that is supposedly from the other lover. I get how it fits Mouse’s character to do so, but it doesn’t fit that Navarre and Isabeau wouldn’t save him the trouble of lying by giving him truthful things to say. They just smile and gaze into the distance, leaving Mouse the next morning or evening to put words in their mouths. It’s a frustrating missed opportunity, all the drama and romance that could be got from how the lovers make use of this newfound method of communication. Because even while Mouse doesn’t invent things that Navarre and Isabeau probably wouldn’t say, he’s still making assumptions, and his messages are still lies, and that bugs me. What worth is love if not built on truth, even an unspoken truth?

Mostly the film looks great. Frequent wide shots show off the beautiful countryside, with its crumbling castles, dark forests, and icebound lakes, and the costumes and sets manage to look reasonably lived-in without getting so “gritty” as to lose their storybook charm. Navarre’s family sword is awesome, and his steed Goliath, a mighty black Frisian, is one cool chivalric horse. The only oddity I noticed was that in certain scenes, the camera seems to have a filter over it that makes the top third of the picture a saturated reddish; it’s almost like the director of photography is trying to over-emphasize Magic Hour. This is only distracting when it looks obviously faked in post-production; otherwise, the film is beautiful for being shot so often at sunrise and sunset (or made to look as if it were).


One scene about halfway through perfectly captures everything that is excellent about Ladyhawke. If you’ve seen the movie, you probably know what I’m about to say. Sunrise on the frozen lake, the lovers seeing each other as man and woman for a slow, golden moment, in agonizing silence but for the tenderest of music, gasping in surprise and desire, their fingers about to entwine, until the fuzzy morning light washes her away into hawk form, and Navarre roars in heartbreak at the sky. You could watch just those three minutes, without knowing much of the movie, and it’d be just as powerful. In fact, if you want to, here it is. I won’t stop you. It’s that good.

It’s true that no other point in the movie matches that one for raw emotion and movie magic. There are other good moments, and some weak ones. The pacing is a bit slow at times, not always focusing on the lovers as much as it should. Navarre and Isabeau don’t get very much character development; rather, they seem to be powerful embodiments of the Knight and Lady archetypes. But due to their actors’ charisma and skill, they feel almost real and almost dreamlike, in a beautiful paradox. The climax, when they confront the evil bishop, and Navarre engages in a long and fairly realistic swordfight with the corrupt Captain of the Guard, is exciting and truly moving. The lovers’ final embrace, their joyous laughter, their inability to speak because of their bliss at holding each other, is rejuvenating and satisfying. They earn their happy ending, their eucatastrophe, and I was darned glad to see it.

Never go in against a wolf-knight when death…er, love…is on the line.
Because the man is epic.

Credits: Screencaps beginning in pdvd from angelfish_icons
All others from fanpop

Movie Review: “Dragon Hunters” (2008)

Title: Dragon Hunters (2008) (IMDb) (Chasseurs de dragons in its original French)
Director: Guillaume Ivernel and Arthur Qwak
Voice Actors (US dub): Forest Whitaker, Rob Paulsen, Mary Mouser
Score Composer: Klaus Badelt (of Pirates of the Caribbean fame)
Length: about 80 minutes, but it sure feels longer
Rating (US): PG for “scary images, fantasy action, and language”
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A pair of oddball conmen who pretend to be dragon hunters are guilt-tripped by a little princess into going on a quest to the End of the World to kill the mighty World-Gobbler, a great dragon that periodically wakes up to rampage and…well, just to rampage, I guess.
Reason for Watching: It was free On-Demand, I was bored, and I like to explore lesser known movies every once in awhile.
Movie Re-watchability: Bleh, low. Kids might like it and the art design is very interesting, but it disappoints in pretty much every other category.
Director Re-watchability: According to IMDb, Ivernel hasn’t directed anything else, and Qwak only has a little bit of French TV directing under his belt. I will be very surprised if this movie leads to any other decent gigs for them.
Recommendation: Nope, not worth your time. Oh, it’s harmless enough, I suppose. The background art is pretty neat, even surreal. But the story’s a mess of clichés ill-handled, pointless action sequences that aren’t very well-edited, a potentially interesting world that is poorly developed, and slapstick humor that ranges from mildly amusing to annoying. And the ending is bungled awkwardly. A better animated kids movie about dragons is How to Train Your Dragon.

Key Thoughts

There is one reasonably effective sequence in Dragon Hunters. Gwizdo, normally the comic relief, has been humiliated by his own cowardice (he was too scared to even try to help save the young princess Zoe while they were being chased by a swarm of tiny dragons) and had an argument with his best friend, Lian-chu, about the probably-fatal nature of their quest. Depressed and feeling worthless, he walks away through an apocalyptic landscape of floating rocks and little islands with abandoned ruins on them, the whole gray world seeming to fall apart around him, while an emotional, evocative song plays over the striking imagery. Then two talking creatures appear, the music jerks to a stop, Gwizdo opens his grating mouth again, and we’re back to normal. But for about 30 seconds, I could almost take the character’s emotions seriously.

Not the actual scene I'm talking about, but the one I meant looks similar.

Ah, characters. If your movie spends 90% of its time with just three characters (and burbling blue rabbit-thing), those characters should be interesting and likable. Our main duo is Lian-chu and Gwizdo, the former a slow-witted gentle giant who does all the hard work, and the latter his shrimpy wise-cracking “friend” who is constantly trying to sell their services as dragon-slayers to needy townsfolk, only to repeatedly get cheated after defeating the monsters because the townsfolks don’t think they are “credible” warriors. Lian-chu is a nice fellow, but he’s not given any depth beyond his love of knitting, which his mother taught him before she died in an attack by the World Gobbler when he was a kid. Otherwise, he’s the standard big guy with muscles who would rather just own a sheep farm and knit sweaters for people. (Is that a standard? I’m sure it is, somewhere.) Gwizdo, however, is as annoying and nonsensical as his name. He’s one of those pipsqueaks who never stop talking even though they have nothing to say. His character arc supposedly ends with him learning to love the little girl Zoe and be brave enough to support Lian-chu in the final fight, but it’s all pretty dumb and forced. And Zoe herself? She’s the spunky little girl who wants to be a “girl knight” and can’t stop bouncing in spasms of joy how “unreal” it is that Gwizdo and Lian-chu are willing to take her on their quest and away from her boring, blind old uncle, Lord Arnold. I greatly sympathized with Gwizdo when he grew so annoyed with her he wanted to wring her twig of a neck. we *have* to spend 80 minutes with these guys? Their bodily proportions weird me out.

Oh yeah, this is also one of those movies where an annoying kid gets to tag along on an extremely dangerous, suicidal mission, despite all logic and attempts to the contrary on the part of the adults. Does anyone realize how bad this message is? I want my niece and nephews to grow up to be brave and active, too, but no kid should think it’s okay for them to run away from home and go on a deadly quest because “the power of belief” will give them victory. And if they join up with two strangers who lie, are incompetent, and won’t immediately take them home (regardless of the little kid’s protests), they shouldn’t believe that their innocence and joie de vivre will turn those schmucks into heroes. What rot.

But why spend digital ink taking something seriously when it doesn’t even view itself with much respect? Let’s look at the movie’s biggest virtue, its visuals. They’re pretty neat. The whole world is full of gray and silver clouds in which float rocky islands of various sizes, some barely small enough for a dog to sit on, others able to support massive castles and sprawling landscapes. Like the Hallelujah Mountains of Avatar taken to an extreme, and lacking any sort of explanation. And some of the islands are actually just balls of dirt and grass that appear to have their own subjective gravity. Characters hop onto them and can run on every side of these house-sized spheres, even upside down, and then leap off onto a flat-topped island when they please. Gravity goes out of its way to accommodate the whims of the characters, which is probably why they never seem to care that they are often mere feet away from sheer drops into an endless cloudy abyss. The islands drift often and break into pieces without warning, meaning you could wake up one morning to find your campsite (and friends) many miles away. This danger never seems to register with our heroes, but oh well. It looks cool.

More of this. The movie needed more of this. The background, that is, not Gwizdo. Dear me, not Gwizdo!

So the design of the world is bold and neat, but I found too many scenes were dark and dingy in appearance, obscuring details and preventing me from really enjoying the full artistry on display. The scenes in broad daylight show pleasingly bright colors, but an alarming amount of the movie takes place at night, in dimly shadowed areas (like the castle and the forest), and in a gray wasteland of ruins under an overcast sky. For me, the occasional moody look was not worth the feeling of details obscured and lost animated potential. The contrast between the colorful daylight scenes and the depressing grayness that saturates most of the film is also too drastic – it feels like two different art styles were crammed together. Likewise the more realistic, almost gritty design of the buildings contrasts too much with the extremely goofy, stylized look of the characters. The blue rabbit-thing, while amusing and less annoying than Gwizdo and Zoe, nonetheless feels like he comes from a completely different movie; maybe Despicable Me (another superior adventure to this).

The whole aesthetic is confused. Sometimes it wants to be a surreal take on European fairy tales, sometimes it wants to be sort of Chinese, and then it just goes all bubbly modern kiddy-movie kitsch (again, the blue rabbit-thing, which I actually sort of liked). Look at the names: Arnold, Zoe, Gwizdo, and Lian-chu – all belonging to humans living in the same culture and kingdom! And the music, too. Sometimes it’s got a neat Celtic flair, other times it shifts into a very far-Eastern melody, but most of the time it’s the basic bombastic action epic stuff that hits our pulses but is instantly forgettable. And the frustrating thing is that this mix could be really inventive and fun if the movie would have gone far enough with its inspirations. Instead, it just toys with them before falling back into tired clichés and stylistic choices that lack meaning.

Mostly very cool, but the World Gobbler's exaggerated round snout really ruins his menace. He's like a reject from "How to Train Your Dragon" rather than a fearsome monster in his own right.

The ending is bungled, too. For a minute after the climax, it’s the standard happy ending, which is fine. It should have ended there. But then the trio goes back to Lord Arnold’s castle (he gave Lian-chu and Gwizdo the quest to kill the World-Gobbler) and he inexplicably acts like a big jerk, refusing to pay the heroes their promised reward and sending Zoe to her room (a mild punishment for disobeying orders by running off on a suicidal quest with strangers, actually). He gets told off, and then Zoe escapes from her room to go live with the two men on the sheep farm they are going to start. Then it ends. More than a little unsettling, if you ask me. Sure, we’re supposed to believe that Lian-chu and Gwizdo are super innocent happy dudes, but the idea that this little girl is going to live with two immature men she barely knows while abandoning her one living blood relative who, while a jerk, stills seems to care for her wellbeing and provide for her pretty decently just seems wrong. And a tad bit creepy.

Plus, the pacing of that ending is way off. Instead of ending on an emotional high (of whatever emotion is present in the movie), we’re jerked back into a slightly melancholy and irritated state by Lord Arnold’s bizarrely jerkish behavior and our heroes’ inability to get any respect (I mean, Gwizdo is still a loser, but at least Lian-chu deserves some respect). So we’ve got a creepy, family-unfriendly message paired with bad pacing – two horrible cinematic sins!

Dragon Hunters had a shot at being something special, I think, but it goes out of its way to attempt stale Disney-ish formulas, with little wit or imagination to compensate. It doesn’t explore its unique world, it fails to surprise or delight, its characters are uninspired and sometimes aggravating, and it can’t make up its mind about its art style or its story. I give the makers praise for trying, but they didn’t quite succeed this time. I didn’t hate the movie, but I can’t say my time was well spent seeing it.

Screencaps from

And Sir Lensflare. The movie could have used more of Sir Lensflare. (Seriously, that's his name.)

Movie Review: “How To Train Your Dragon” (2010)

Title: How To Train Your Dragon (2010) (IMDb)
Company: DreamWorks Animation
Director: Dean Deblois and Chris Sanders
Voice Actors: Jay Baruchel (Hiccup), Gerard Butler (Stoick), Craig Ferguson (Gobber), America Ferrera (Astrid), Jonah Hill (Snotlout), David Tennant (Spitelout)
Score Composer: John Powell
Length: 98 minutes
Rating (US): “Rated PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language.”
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “A hapless young Viking who aspires to hunt dragons becomes the unlikely friend of a young dragon himself, and learns there may be more to the creatures than he assumed.” (IMDb)
Reason for Watching: It’s about dragons and I had heard some trusted people call it one of the best animated movies in recent years.
Movie Re-watchability: Sure I could watch it again, perhaps with kids who like it or with someone who hasn’t seen it before, but I wouldn’t seek it out.
Director Re-watchability: Deblois and Sanders, aside from being frequent writers for Disney, together directed 2002’s Lilo & Stitch. As I remember, that was a really fun and inventive little film with a lively artistic style and some believable and touching characters. While How To Train Your Dragon isn’t quite so inventive, it still has many of those positive traits. These two men might not be masters at the Pixar level, but they do have a nice storytelling touch, and I’d be interested to see what future projects they work on.
Recommendation: This is a fun movie. Not spectacular or exceptionally moving, but lively and kind of sweet. Those interested in kids’ movies and animation are most likely to enjoy it.

Key Thoughts


My favorite aspect of How To Train Your Dragon—and the only thing to keep my interest for repeated viewings—is the main dragon himself, ignominiously named Toothless by our young Viking hero (himself ignominiously named Hiccup). While most of the other dragons are designed to be fairly goofy and stylized, Toothless looks slightly more real and moves with something approaching actual weight. He still is overly rounded and cartoonish, but the animators have envisioned him as an actual character, not just a mere monster, pet, or animal comic-relief as every other dragon is. He does provide the movie’s funniest and most touching moments, but is also allowed a considerable degree of pathos. He is also, I was pleased to see, allowed to be genuinely dangerous and wild. The flight scenes are exciting and also seem to play by the rules of gravity and physics, with some understandable adjustments to allow for more action and less falling-to-one’s-death.

Epic dust!

The landscapes are quite beautiful, having an element of realism not present in the design of the humans. My favorite is the Scandinavian forest where Hiccup finds and trains Toothless. Mist is used to give depth to the layers of trees, and the colors are only slightly exaggerated. There is some very good composition going on with the colors and lighting, and a few scenes even manage a genuinely epic look.

The music by John Powell is also excellent. It hits the right emotional notes and is not overly bombastic (a lá Hans Zimmer) or too pandering to pop culture. Listen to samples here and here.

Legs = twigs.

The designs of the human characters are not my favorite, but the voice acting is generally excellent, the standouts being Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson. Ferguson should really do more voice acting in kids’ films like this, because it’s so nice to see his comedic talent applied to something family friendly. Unfortunately, the only voice I did not like was that of Jay Baruchel as Hiccup himself, our hero. It was just too whiny and nasally, and seemed a bit too old for the teenage character (Baruchel was about 27 when he did the voice). Every time Hiccup opened his mouth, which was frequently, I winced. In Baruchel’s defense, he does a good job bringing sardonic wit and a basic level of emotional depth to the character; I just think he was miscast.

The story itself was blander and more straightforward than I had hoped. Overly-choreographed action sequences are sprinkled throughout in a way that makes me question the place of such extended, stylized violence in kids’ movies (Kung Fu Panda, a movie I really like, also provokes this question). And the other teenage characters, while competently voiced, are also the usual procession of high school movie clichés that I am tired of. It’s nothing horrible, but for me it robs the movie of much interest. The only character I care about is Toothless. And maybe Gobber, because Ferguson manages to hint at some depth and maturity for the hilarious Viking blacksmith. I will give one high compliment to the story, though: the decision to let Hiccup lose his leg at the end is a very good one. It gives a little weight to the proceedings because, though he is victorious, he does not come out unscathed. This was the only story point that impressed me.

In a time when dreck like Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Alvin and the Chipmunks get sequels, we should be glad for a movie like How To Train Your Dragon. I wouldn’t call it a classic, but it’s a fun, solid kids’ adventure movie with several elements that are a cut above average.

Flying. Flying is what works.