How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Dreamworks closes out an impressively consistent trilogy with How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, another stunningly animated adventure that serves as a fitting conclusion for fans of the series. While the story is a bit more conventional than those of the previous two films, this entry still has all of the elements that made its predecessors successful and adds notes of finality that distinguish it from the rest. Dean DeBlois has returned as the sole writer and director and his commitment to spearheading these projects has resulted in a trio of films that has bypassed the dips in quality that accompany even the most well regarded trilogies.

We return to the Viking village of Berk as the efforts of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his pet dragon Toothless to rescue captured dragons has resulted in their town becoming increasingly overpopulated. As Berk’s head chief, Hiccup makes it his mission to seek out the fabled “Hidden World,” a far away land that could serve as a safe haven for their fire-breathing compatriots. During his journey, Hiccup encounters the treacherous and cunning dragon hunter Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham) as well as a brightly colored dragon nicknamed “Light Fury,” with whom Toothless becomes hopelessly infatuated.

The How To Train Your Dragon series has stood apart from its animated peers mainly due to the quality of its visual sensibility and The Hidden World is no exception to this. The film’s opening, in which Hiccup and his friends ambush a dragon raider’s cove, gets things off to a dazzling start as fire and fog battle in the background while swords clash in the foreground. The growing number of dragons on-screen also allows for creature design that grows richer the more time we spend in this world. But the high point is undoubtedly our first glances of the Hidden World, a bright and vivid landscape that calls back to the groundbreaking CG work of Avatar in the best ways possible.

As stunning as the animation is, the storytelling this time around is not quite up to the standard set by the previous two entries. Despite some deliciously devious voice work from Abraham, it’s difficult to disguise the fact that the villain and his motivations are hardly dissimilar from those of the previous film’s antagonist. Still, the introduction of romantic subplots for both Hiccup and Toothless create opportunities to take the story in both humorous and heartfelt directions. Toothless’ efforts to impress Light Fury with a mating dance result in the film’s biggest laughs while their synchronized movements across the night sky recall the affectionate space dance from Pixar’s WALL-E.

Returning to contribute music to the film, composer John Powell brings back some of the series’ most memorable musical motifs while adding new themes that augment the emotion underneath each of their accompanying scenes. The film also has sonic delights in its accomplished sound design as well, which brings to life the flapping of dozens of dragons’ wings as they maneuver through the air. As a satisfying ending to a family-friendly entertainment that has always had its sights set higher, How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World passes with flying colors.

Score – 3.5/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Fighting with My Family, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Florence Pugh, tells the real life story of professional wrestler Paige as she rises up the ranks of World Wrestling Entertainment.
Run The Race, starring Mykelti Williamson and Frances Fisher, is a faith-based feature co-produced by Tim Tebow about two brothers who overcome hardship both on and off the football field.
Opening at Cinema Center is Academy Award nominee Cold War, a historical period drama from Poland about a musical director who discovers and subsequently falls in love with a young singer.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Palace

Screening this weekend only at Cinema Center, the new drama Palace is the remarkable feature debut from Taylor University graduate Andrew Paul Davis about the strength of communal bonds among turbulent times. Shot entirely in Indiana (Grant County, specifically) with a $10,000 budget, the film has a clean and professional look that maintains a grounded aesthetic while also finding the unexpected beauty in its surroundings. With a tapestry of richly realized characters, Davis creates an authentic and vivid portrait of Hoosier life that is rarely seen clearly in either independent or mainstream cinema.

The narrative circulates around numerous locals with whom we spend varying amounts of time but the story predominantly centers around three central figures. We first meet Chris (Todd Bruno), an aimless auto mechanic trying to overcome the hang-ups of everyday life by creating a political movement within his community. Then we spend time with Chuck (Joe Martyn Ricke), a lonely retiree who drowns the sorrow of insurmountable medical bills with nightly beer pitchers at his local bar. We’re also introduced to Alexa (Emily Sweet), a music education major at a local college who has trouble finding an audience for her up-and-coming hip-hop trio.

What I appreciated most about Palace is the way that Davis uses his ensemble cast to place characters in settings where we may only see them once but the possibility of seeing them again is always in play. For instance, we first meet a character who is rude to Chris at his job but when that same character is the only person to attend Chris’ political meeting, their relationship is completely recontextualized. Much like the work of Terrence Malick, Davis lets the trajectory of the story ebb and flow with the feelings and mood of the characters, which can take things into territory that is darker at times and more light-hearted in others.

The screenplay, also written by Davis, investigates the ways that all of these characters with differing backgrounds and circumstances are trying, often desperately, to form connections with one another. Whether it’s Chris posting videos online trying to convey his political affiliations or Chuck sitting down with a table of strangers in a bar to start conversation, there is an inescapable loneliness that permeates most of the film. Amid this heartbreak, however, there are notes of humor that balance the tone, as can be found in the back-and-forth banter between Chris and his co-worker as they shoot a game of HORSE during sunset.

The use of music, both diegetic and non-diegetic, is varied in terms of the genres that it invokes but this mixture allows for different insights into whichever character is in focus at the moment. Though their musical performance styles couldn’t be more different, both Chuck and Alexa have found comfort in expressing themselves through their music and their passion gives the film an extra layer of soulfulness. With plenty of heart and compassion at its core, Palace is a bittersweet love letter to rural Indiana from a promising young filmmaker who will no doubt have a prolific career ahead of him.

Score – 4/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Alita: Battle Angel, starring Rosa Salazar and Christoph Waltz, is the latest special effects spectacle from Spy Kids director Robert Rodriguez about a scientist who brings a human cyborg hybrid to life.
Isn’t It Romantic, starring Rebel Wilson and Liam Hemsworth, follows a young woman who is hit in the head and wakes up in a world that mimics the tropes of a PG-13 rated romantic comedy.
Happy Death Day 2U, starring Jessica Rothe and Israel Broussard, revisits the Groundhog Day-esque slasher in which a young girl keeps reliving the same day repeatedly after being killed by a masked assailant.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

When The Lego Movie was released in 2014, it was an overwhelming success with both audiences and critics which used the popular toy line as a jumping off point to tell an amusing and visually inventive story. 5 years and 2 spin-offs later, a direct sequel is now upon us but unfortunately, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part does not recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle success of its predecessor. Despite investigating childlike concepts of creativity and playtime, the first film felt relatively mature in its ideas and execution. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the sequel’s attempt to cater more to younger audiences, it’s a creative decision that undoubtedly weakens the film’s comedic thrust.

Set 5 years after our hero Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) saves Bricksburg from the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell), the Duplo invaders have since turned their idyllic city into a post-apocalyptic wasteland renamed Apocalypseburg. A new alien threat emerges as General Sweet Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) kidnaps Emmet’s girlfriend Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) along with other citizens of their town and takes them far away to the Systar System. After Emmet crosses paths with intergalactic hero Rex Dangervest (also voiced by Pratt) and his crew of talking velociraptors, they launch a rescue mission to recover their friends from the shape-shifting Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish).

The Lego Movie‘s directing duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have returned to write this follow-up but in the director’s chair this time around is Mike Mitchell, who helmed the Dreamworks hit Trolls a few years back. This change might seem inconsequential but the impact is evident, as the overbearingly bright color palette and more juvenile tone of that film seems to be on full display for The Lego Movie 2. The story is generally one-dimensional until the third act, during which its message about altruism amid trying circumstances is laid on so thick that I felt like I was getting sprayed with a pathos fire hose.

With their work on the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Jump Street films, Lord and Miller have established their own brand of meta humor that pokes fun at the tropes of their respective franchises. They use the same approach with the screenplay this time around, as when Rex Dangervest unveils his heroic tools like the CPD (Convenient Plot Device) and the Implausitron. While they do occasionally land some nice one-liners in the process, the jokes on a whole just don’t seem as fresh as in Lord and Miller’s previous work. Perhaps I’ve grown a bit weary of self-aware humor as of late but it’s also possible that the writing duo just didn’t put quite as much effort in this time around.

The film also relies more heavily on pop music and musical numbers to keep the energy high but nothing quite matches the infectious exuberance of The Lego Movie‘s “Everything Is Awesome.” There is an attempt to recreate the first film’s earworm in the appropriately titled “Catchy Song” but its claim that “this song is gonna get stuck inside your head” feels like more a threat than an invitation. Beck and the comedy trio The Lonely Island fare better on an end credits song that may be the film’s peak in terms of comedic innovation. Sadly, it’s a reminder of the lost opportunities that precede it which make The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part a mild disappointment.

Score – 2.5/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Cold Pursuit, starring Liam Neeson and Laura Dern, tells the tale of a vengeful snowplow driver up against a drug cartel after his son is murdered in their Rocky Mountains hometown.
The Prodigy, starring Taylor Schilling and Jackson Robert Scott, centers around a mother who begins to suspect that her brilliant young son may be possessed by supernatural forces.
What Men Want, starring Taraji P. Henson and Tracy Morgan, is a gender-swapped remake of the Mel Gibson film What Women Want that follows a woman who is able to hear men’s inner thoughts.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup