The Other Side of Animation 151:How to Train your Dragon: The Hidden World Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com/camseyeview. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

Well, it has happened. I am finally able to review DreamWorks animated movies! Now that they are under Universal’s banner, and not Fox’s banner, I can now talk about today’s film and any of their future projects. It’s fascinating to see the entire history of DreamWorks. The company was founded by Jeffery Katzenberg after a nasty break-up with Disney, and made a name for not really having an identity, making edgier/mostly mediocre films that tried to ape off of what Disney/Pixar were doing at the time. They finally made a name for themselves with hits like Shrek 2, the Kung Fu Panda and How to Train your Dragon films, and then lost so much money after one failed business decision after another, we are now at the current part of the timeline. Once they lost about 500 employees and a couple of double digit millions when their 2014 films failed to bring in the money, they were then bought out by Universal. That’s a fairly rough and compacted history, but this isn’t about the history of DreamWorks, and how they started out to where they are now. I’m not getting paid enough on my Patreon to do something like that (link to my Patreon if you would like to support it). We are here to talk about How to Train your Dragon: The Hidden World. Directed and written by Dean DeBlois, The Hidden World wraps up the entire trilogy of one of DreamWorks’ best franchises. It came out near the end of February to critical acclaim and commercial success. So, how is the actual film? Let’s see what unfolds in this hidden world.

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The third film takes place a year after the second film, as Hiccup, voiced once again by Jay Baruchel, is now officially the leader of his people, and has gone on frequent missions to take down and free dragons from people who capture them. Unfortunately, his home and people are at risk of having to find a new land, and come to the realization about the relationship his people have with the dragons. This doesn’t help things when a group of dragon hunters hire a notoriously dangerous individual known as Grimmel the Grisly, voiced by F. Murray Abraham, who wants to kill all of the dragons, especially the Night Fury and Light Fury species. Hiccup then suggests that they find the Hidden World, a place where all the dragons live. Since this is the third film as well, let’s throw in a mysterious Light Fury, a white version of the franchise’s icon Toothless. Can Hiccup save his people and dragons from annihilation?

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Before I talk about the positives, and there are a lot of positives, I wanted to counter against some of the criticisms that have been thrown at this film. The first criticism I see is that it doesn’t tie into the Netflix series at all. To be frank, I’m happy they didn’t. Sure, the Netflix series was able to expand upon the characters and the world with more villages, villains, and other heroes. However, if push comes to shove, I’d rather it stay exclusively within the film world. It’s not really fair to expect everyone going into this third film to have watched the Netflix series, or the series that came out before the second film. I get that even the slightest little easter eggs or cameos would have been nice for fans of the TV series, but at the same time, most people going into this wouldn’t have seen the entire series. The next criticism I see is aimed at how some of the characters are handled. I have a mixed reaction to this part overall. Again, a lot of people pointed out that the TV series was doing a better job at fleshing out these characters. Well, duh. You have a TV series that has multiple episodes and more time to flesh everything out. I think the writing is strong enough that a good chunk of the characters are still true to them and are still great.

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That’s really all I have to disagree with. Now, we talk about the actual criticisms. To me, the How to Train your Dragon franchise runs parallel with DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda franchise. The first film was a surprise hit, and both have really good first films. The second films arguably are better films expanding the world, the story, the characters, and have a better villain. The third films are not as good as the second ones, but are great closers to the franchise, however, they have weaker villains. Yeah, while being voiced well by F. Murray Abraham, Grimmel the Grisly was not as interesting as a villain as other animated film villains. He had a bit of mystery to him, and was a threat with the other warriors and those dragon killers, but he felt underutilized. While I disagree that all of the side characters suffered from being underdeveloped, both Kung Fu Panda and Dragons sure do not give their side protagonists a lot to do. This is especially true for Jonah Hill’s Snotlout. He is just the worst character in this film. While Fishlegs, voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Ruffnut and Tuffnut, voiced by Kristen Wiig and Justin Rupple, all have some more focus and things to do in the story, Snotlout never has a good scene, is always the butt of the joke, is constantly trying to hit on Hiccup’s mom for some creepy reason, and if that’s not creepy enough, apparently, Snotlout is worse in the original books. It always comes off like DreamWorks puts in so many characters, because they are banking on a TV series. They also don’t let us, the viewers, spend much time in the Hidden World. I kind of wish there was more time spent on Hiccup, Toothless, the Hidden World, America Ferrera’s Astrid, than focusing on the side characters who don’t have much to them.

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So, what’s amazing about this film? Everything! The animation is beautiful. I’m so blown away at how incredible the franchise’s visuals have become, as even the first film from 2010 still looks pretty darn good! I love the details of the textures used, the slightly aged characters, and the immense amount of detail used in every house, island, dragon, human, and you get the idea. Once again, DreamWorks shows that while the overarching plot might not be the best, it makes up for it with some really good character moments. Throughout the entire film, there will be little moments between two characters that bring this film so much life and personality. Many of the best moments in the previous films were the quiet moments as Hiccup interacted with either Toothless or someone else. This film ups those scenes, as we get the final chapter of Hiccup’s coming-of-age tale of becoming the new tribe leader for his people. One of the most memorable scenes for me was when Hiccup was a kid, and he saw his dad mourn the loss of his wife/Hiccup’s mother, and you just get so much out of that one scene alone. Of course, the chemistry between Toothless and his new love interest is also a hugely entertaining scene, as it involves the least amount of dialogue out of any scene in this movie, and is so adorable and funny that you think it would backfire in some possible way, but it doesn’t. There are quite a few scenes of Toothless and his girlfriend that are all just wonderful to watch.  The film tackles plenty of complex themes, like learning to change, how Hiccup comes to terms with doing what’s best for everyone involved, and learning and working on making your own path through life.

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How to Train your Dragon: The Hidden World might have a few flaws under its wings, but it’s another fantastic ride from DreamWorks. I know it’s easy to worry about DreamWorks Animation and their film line-up in the future, but for now, why not enjoy this movie and go see it? I highly recommend that you do so if you haven’t already. It shows that when DreamWorks wants to, they can put out a high quality product. Now then, we shall now move from dragons that you form an emotional bond with, to a film about a magical amusement park that doesn’t quite work. Next time, we shall talk about the notorious and infamous Wonder Park. Thanks for reading! I hope you all enjoyed this review, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Go See It!

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The Other Side of Animation 116: Ferdinand Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

I was talking to my friend the other day about something I never really thought about, do I care about the state of a studio because I’m a critic, and do only the critics and hardcore filmgoers care about the status of studios like Blue Sky Studios and Illumination Entertainment? I ask this question, since while critics are meant to judge a film, and focus more on the finer details, and break it down in a manner that makes sense, and to look beyond the film and at the studio at times. However, casual moviegoers are probably not invested as much with what the studio is doing and if they are evolving their craft or not. I do think that is somewhat changing. While people are still really fine with seeing Illumination Entertainments offerings, franchises like Ice Age, Transformers, and to a lesser degree, The Nut Job, recently bombed at the domestic box office in the states. Even though they sort of picked up traction overseas, there were signs that people were ready to move on, and find something different and more worth their time. I do think both critics and audiences do care about what a studio puts out, but the amount that casual moviegoers will put up with will vary. Hence, why I was curious to see how Ferdinand would do. Directed by Carlos Saldanha, and made by Blue Sky Studios, I thought Ferdinand was going to be an interesting film. I use interesting in the sense that this was the next film right after Ice Age: Collision Course, one of, if not, the worst-reviewed Blue Sky Studios film. I think after Collision Course, people were beginning to get weary and not really trust what the studio had coming next. The film was released December 15th here in the states, and while it got overall pretty solid reviews, its box office numbers were definitely a sluggish climb up past its $111 mil budget. I mean, then again, when you are going against Star Wars: The Last Jedi, your numbers may vary. It isn’t technically bombing, but I think it was obvious people were weary. Did they have a right to be? Well, let’s check it out.

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The story obviously revolves around Ferdinand, voiced by John Cena. Back in the day, he grew up in a bull fighting ranch where bull fighters go to pick the biggest and best bulls to fight. Of course, if you know anything about the source material, Ferdinand would rather smell the flowers and not fight. One night after escaping the ranch when he finds out his dad never came back, Ferdinand ends up being adopted by a flower farmer and his daughter. After spending years with them, Ferdinand grows to be gigantic in size. One day, when he decides to go to the flower festival to see his owners, an accident occurs with him looking like a giant monster. He then gets sent right back to the same bull farm from many years ago. It’s up to Ferdinand, along with his friends, to escape the horrific nature of bull fighting, and be free animals.

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So, I know the trailers for this film didn’t look the best, but if you actually watch it, there is honestly a lot of aspects to like. First up, let’s talk about John Cena as Ferdinand. It was a bit concerning, since while he has acted in films before, this was essentially his first major lead role. You simply don’t hear enough about good acting career stories from wrestlers. Luckily, Cena does a pretty good job as the lead. He’s likable, energetic, has decent comedic timing, and it was never distracting that he was the main character. In fact, a lot of the big downsides to Blue Sky Studios films are the fact that you never see the characters as characters, but as the celebrities who play them. Again, the celebrities are not distracting in this film. Sure, you can recognize a few by the tone of their voices alone, but they actually put in the time to act, and get into their own respected characters. Yes, not all of them are endearing, and some are annoying, but at least more effort was put into these performances than most bad animated films. I think my favorite performances came from the bull characters. Anthony Anderson, Peyton Manning, Bobby Cannavale, David Tennant, and Tim Nordquist were all distinct and fairly memorable. I think my favorite was David Tennant as Angus. He had the funniest delivery of the other bulls, but the rest hold their weight. I found the bulls’ chemistry to be more of the heart of the film, outside of Ferdinand and the family he grew up with.

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I also respect that the story does actually go the distance to a degree about the life of bull fighting and the sad fates of many bulls that either fight or are not up to par. Seriously, it was almost tonal whiplash that they do show what happens when bulls are not up to par, and the fact that for the most part, most bulls will die and never make it back after they fight. It was actually shocking, because much of this film is that pandering kids film vibe that you normally see in a Blue Sky Studios film. From time to time however, they will show off the darker side of bullfighting, and even let Ferdinand and some of the characters have moments of quiet. I think one of my favorite parts was when Ferdinand helped Angus out, and the two got to sit down and look at the beautiful landscape. I adore that this film went the extra mile to show that you don’t need constant comedy or loud noises to keep kids focused. It felt like it was trying to be something on the level of Pixar or Disney. I was honestly emotionally invested throughout a lot of the story. With the exception of the first Ice Age, Robots, and The Peanuts Movie, I’m usually fairly checked out of a lot of Blue Sky films, because they don’t always do a good job with making interesting stories and characters.

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In terms of animation, the film is very beautiful. It has a few faults that I will mention later, but the animation is fluid, it has a good energy to it, and the designs seem very old-school cartoon, exaggerated in terms of their designs and how they move. The backgrounds and field shots are lush, the colors are vibrant, and the human designs are pretty decent. It’s nice to see humans that don’t instantly look like something similar to Disney and Pixar. I even liked the music by John Powell and the obvious original songs by Nick Jonas.

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So, it’s all the more irritating that I have many complaints about Ferdinand as well. It’s so close to being a really good animated film, but it’s only good. Why? Well, because it has a tone problem. The calm and collected tone is constantly shoved to the side for more of the comedy/audience pandering aspects, like multiple side characters that don’t really offer much purpose to the main story, more childish humor, and a dance-off. The dance-off really sums up everything bad about the film. It comes out of nowhere, apparently everyone knows how to dance, and once it is finished, it is never mentioned again by any of the characters. I get that it probably tested well with test audiences that were full of kids, and while I did enjoy it to a degree, it’s distracting to the overall tone. The side characters outside of the bulls are not all that interesting. The hedgehogs, while played well by Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs, and Gabriel Iglesias, don’t do much in the movie. Early footage from the first trailer made it look like they had more to do, but they don’t serve much of a purpose, outside of Ferdinand trying to get out of the bull ranch. The German show horses played by Flula Borg, Boris Kodjoe, and Sally Philips also have the same problem. You never see them after the bulls escape. Yes, I get that they sort of symbolize humans’ need to compete, but as characters that help progress the story, they didn’t do much. And yes, Kate McKinnon isn’t given good enough material to be tolerable. She’s not the worst, and I know she can be funny, but she comes off more annoying than anything else as the goat. Even the villain is not great. You have this bullfighter played by Miguel Angel Silvestre, who is just a boring villain. They had a lot of chances to make him more complex before and after the third act fight between him and Ferdinand, but they don’t do anything. The animation is pretty consistent, but the humans come off as clunky. It’s not a problem with them being snappy in their movements, it’s the fact that they look stiff. By the way, while they are minimal in how much they appear, no one likes twerk, butt, or fart jokes. Stop adding them into your movies, Blue Sky. I know they are not the only studios to do this with animated films, but they do it more often than others.

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In the end, Ferdinand is good, but it had so much lost potential. It succeeds in what it wanted to do, but it’s not a steady ride to the finish, and your experience may vary. There is a reason why this film dragged itself across a month or more due to the success of Coco and then having to deal with Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I see no harm in actually seeing this in theaters, and if you have children that have watched Coco to death in theaters, and can’t find a theater playing Mary and the Witch’s Flower, then definitely go see it or rent it. It’s an ultimately harmless film, and easily one of Blue Sky’s best offerings. Well, that was fun, but we shall now move on to more indie stuff as we look at GKids’ Birdboy: The Forgotten Children. Thanks for reading, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Go see it