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Listen, it is pretty much impossible to have every studio make films on the level of the top-tier giants like Chizu, Science Saru, Disney, Pixar, and you get the idea. Not every studio all around the world is going to throw down the money for the tools, the talent needed, or will have the smoothest production cycle to make films on par with what’s coming out these days. That’s okay for the most part. Not everything needs to look like the most polished animated film from the bigger studios. With that said, with so many smaller studios making animated features, you have to do something that stands out. If your film makes viewers remind them of much better films, then you are in trouble as a studio. It’s always going to be disappointing when you see a small film from a studio that wants to make an impression, and then come off as something that was made because someone wanted to make an animated film due to how profitable they can be. This is where most people will fall with Dragon Rider aka Firedrake the Silver Dragon.
Directed by Tomer Eshed, the director behind the incredible CGI short Our Incredible Nature: The Common Chameleon, Firedrake was written by Cornelia Funke, John R. Smith, and was just released on Netflix. The story follows a silver dragon named Firedrake. He can’t breathe fire, the other dragons treat him like some odd individual, and his only friend is a creature called a Brownie. He talks to the elder dragon of his kind to learn about the Rim of the World, a location where dragons live freely and away from humans. One day, they find out that the humans are creeping ever so close to where the dragons live. It’s up to Silverdrake and his friend to find the famed dragon rider to help find this location and avoid the evil grasp of Nettlebrand, a mechanical dragon that wants to eat the dragons of the world.
It’s very difficult to come up with a compelling story that feels refreshing and constantly keeps your attention. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t do a stellar job at keeping the audience’s attention. If you have seen any kind of fantasy film with dragons as the focus, then you will have seen this film. It has a few good lines and morals, but when you are struggling to remember the characters that said it, or when they said it, that’s a problem! The fantastical elements mixed with modern-day human civilization feel undercooked. The humans don’t seem to care that giants, sea serpents, and other mystical beings exist in this world, when the opening of the film explains that humans and dragons used to live together. Okay, well, why should I care? Viewers will find it hard to feel engrossed in this bog-standard world with a mediocre story attached. There are themes of moving on past a tragic event in your life, and how everyone is flawed, but can do good things. To give the film credit, those are decent points.
Getting to those points is what makes the film such a struggle to watch. It feels too childish for adults, and not engaging enough for kids. It makes references to much better films you would rather be watching, and those references can come off as both cute and very desperate. The two references by the way are for Ice Age and the obvious comparison point for this film, How to Train Your Dragon. To be fair, the film is based on a book,and could have been simply a bad adaptation of the story. To be even fairer, most viewers won’t care if it’s based on something, because the film needs to be good on its own, and no one wants to see fantastical creatures reference stuff like the internet, Skype, and you get the idea. It feels insulting that this film thought it needed to take place in the modern-day when if you change the time period, it wouldn’t matter. Sure, you would have to change a few scene executions around, but you wouldn’t have to change the overarching story.
The characters fall flat. Firedrake is your typical dorky outcast who wants to be a powerful dragon but doesn’t know how. Sorrel is the snarky one who doesn’t trust humans. Ben had the potential to be an interesting human character, but viewers will have seen much better orphaned characters with shows like Kid Cosmic that came out this year. The villains and side characters that help flesh out the world don’t offer too much, which is shocking since you would think a giant mechanical dragon voiced by Patrick Stewart would be more entertaining than it actually is. The film’s story is a real crushing case of going in one ear and out the other.
The animation for Firedrake and the Silver Dragon looks like those videos you see on YouTube, where they take a game that has colorful cartoony graphics and run it through the hyper-realistic textures and graphics of the Unreal Engine, but then don’t translate the cartoonish character designs. The animation looks clunky and stiff. They also do a lot of repeated character models and looping animations. The overall vibe that I personally took away from this film is an animation school graduate project. Patrick Stewart’s character Nettlebrand has the best character animation on him, but it makes you wonder whether making him metal had a reason for it. A different team would focus more on his robotic elements than it looking like an alternate costume/skin from a video game. The human designs are unappealing to look at, and another sign of either the talent not being there or the talent not having time to go over a few sequences to make them look less horrifying at points. The film also feels like the CGI characters are at times flying against a flat background.
Since it wants to be like How to Train Your Dragon, it does have a few moments of action and flying, but they feel unimaginative. How to Train Your Dragon felt like you were there while the flying was happening. The overall film lacks that cinematic edge, and whether it was due to time or resources not being handled well, the action and flying sequences don’t have that spark and magic to them. Yes, for the most part, you can judge this film on its own merits without having to compare it to films that were obviously made by large teams of talented animators and directors. With that said, when a film like this is making references and wants to be like that more popular film, well, it’s open season on the comparisons.
The voice cast does have a few big names including Thomas Brodie Sangster, Felicity Jones, Patrick Stewart, Freddie Highmore, Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhasker, Nonso Anozie, Alex Norton, and Jimmy Hibbert to name a few. The performances range from annoying to some of them trying their hardest to work with the mediocre material, and some of them are completely forgettable. Patrick Stewart seems to be putting in most of the legwork to leave an impression, and even the weakest Patrick Stewart performance is better than most actors in this film.
Netflix is an odd beast when it comes to animation. They have all of this money and they have put out a lot of incredible work, but then you see them buy films from overseas that would look at home on the film rack in a grocery store next to direct-to-video animated fare. If I wanted to see a company bring over direct-to-video films, I would have gone to Lionsgate. Firedrake the Silver Dragon is not the worst of the year, but it’s definitely a bottom-tier animated film for 2021. Maybe if this film came out in a weaker year I would have liked it more, but since the films are so strong this year, it’s going to end up near the bottom. There are so many better animated films with dragons in them right now that you would have to use a map to find a reason to watch this one. If you do want to watch it, then go ahead. Watch the film at your own leisure and see how you come out of the experience. Well, next time, we will be looking at yet another CGI animated film coming to Netflix, but you will have to wait and see what it is.
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