Oh how Pixar has spoiled us. After a decade and a half of the studio releasing one classic after another from 1995’s Toy Story to last year’s Up! we’ve grown accustomed to animated films both visually stunning and emotionally captivating. And when another studio’s animated offering however solidly-crafted falls short of these impossibly high expectations it’s inevitably damned with the faint praise of “It’s not Pixar but...” Such is the plight of Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon a movie only superior to say 65% of live-action films as opposed to 99% of them.
Based on the children’s novel by Cressida Cowell How to Train Your Dragon is set on the mythical island of Berk home to a tribe of macho stubborn Vikings who refuse to relocate despite near-constant attacks from fire-breathing dragons. The most macho and stubborn of the tribe is the their chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) a brave and burly ginger beast whose teenage son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) inherited virtually none of his father’s traits. Scrawny self-effacing and intellectually curious — making him pretty much the anti-Viking — he’s a constant source of shame to his mighty father.
Eager to win his dad’s approval — and by extension the respect of his tribe — he enrolls in Dragon Training where young Vikings learn to slay the winged demons that prey upon Berk. But Hiccup is ultimately a pacifist at heart and when he manages to wound a highly-prized Night Fury dragon he can’t bring himself to finish off the injured creature choosing instead to nurse it back to health. He names the creature Toothless develops a tight bond with it and evolves into a sort of Jane Goodall of dragons learning how to subdue and eventually domesticate them.
As 3D-animated experiences go How to Train Your Dragon ranks among the best of them surpassing recent entries like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and even Pixar’s last Oscar-winning release in its exploitation of the burgeoning format. An airborne sequence in which Hiccup pilots Toothless on their first test run together is truly exhilarating as is the film’s chaotic opening battle sequence between the Vikings and their dragon nemeses. But its story lacks the same energy its humor the same punch and its pace too often drags — a fatal flaw for a movie tasked with occupying the minds of fidgety pre-teens for 98 minutes.
Oh and don’t bother trying to figure out why all the child Vikings in How to Train Your Dragon have American accents while the adults have Scottish ones. Remember this is the same studio that gave us Shrek featuring another inexplicable Scottish brogue. The artists at Dreamworks just have a weird Scot fetish.
If animals could indeed view their surroundings intellectually and talk to each other it’s entirely possible they’d discuss how screwed up human beings are especially in the ridiculous way we waste food. But hey to RJ (Bruce Willis) a wily raccoon what we throw away today becomes lunch tomorrow. He tries to impart some of this wisdom to his newfound friends--a motley crew lead by Verne the turtle (Garry Shandling)--after they wake up after a long winter’s nap and discover most of their natural habitat has been turned into a housing development separated by a very tall hedge. Yep these woodsy folk are sure in for an eye-opening adventure as the manipulative RJ convinces the gang to start collecting boxes of cheese doodles Girl Scout cookies and marshmallows telling them there is little to fear and everything to gain from their over-indulgent new neighbors. Now if they can only get rid of that cat... If you’re an actor these days the chances to play a serious Oscar-worthy role are just as great as playing a squirrel. Or a hedgehog. Or a guy called the Verminator. Over the Hedge has a fine slate of voices starting with Willis as RJ the raconteur raccoon whose pretty savvy to the ways of the paved and pre-packaged world of suburbia. Shandling is the heart of the film as the mild-mannered Verne who just wants to take care of his little woodland family. They include a couple of married-with-kids hedgehogs (pitch perfect Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara); a hyperactive but tender-hearted squirrel (a hilarious Steve Carell); an overdramatic possum (William Shatner playing it to the hilt) and his embarrassed teenage daughter (pop star Avril Lavigne); and a snarky skunk with attitude (Wanda Sykes who else?). As far as the humans Allison Janney voices a shrieking but vindictive homeowner while the Thomas Haden Church is said Verminator a fat balding but ruthless pest exterminator. What fun! Over the Hedge keeps to the spirit of the popular comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis on which the film is based. The strip focuses on the travails of friends RJ and Verne as they exploit the human world for their own personal gain while sardonically commenting on how messed up it is. Hedge sort of shows how these two might have met and is just a hoot from beginning to end. The images of woodland animal-meets-modern-day people are spot on: RJ’s spiel on how humans get food (“That’s the receptacle to get the food [a phone]...and that’s the tone when the food comes [the doorbell]”); SUVs (“Humans are slowly phasing out walking all together”); the skunk seducing the stupid cat (“I like your smell.”). The best is when Hammy the squirrel getting so hopped up on caffeinated soda the whole world comes to a stand still for him. Side-splitting stuff. Again success in animation comes when you stick with a simple story and create characters everyone can relate to. Plus hilarious dialogue. It’ll work every time.
Although it's modern day there's a distinct Raymond Chandler-esque feel to this story about a petty thief named Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) who lucks into a movie audition and finds himself heading to Hollywood. Harry is replacing Colin Farrell as a detective in a film and to get the realism of the part he's shown the detecting ropes by Det. Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer) also known as Gay Perry--because he's gay. Then Harry runs into his old high school sweetie Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) at a Hollywood party. She believes Harry is a real detective and begs him to help her. That's when the bodies begin coming out of the woodwork. Greed torture and mayhem ensue. If there's any way to prove that Downey is back in true form this is it. He's glib charming deep and truly becomes a modern-day Chaplin in this very trampy role. Kilmer avoids some of the stereotypes of playing gay but as he points out "we're not good cop bad cop we're fag and New Yorker." Both deserve awards. Monaghan holds her own as a feisty red-head. Even Downey's real-life son Indio--who plays his character in the early flashback scenes--shows incredible promise as an actor. This is the Shane Black’s directorial debut the same guy who wrote Lethal Weapon and Long Kiss Goodnight. He knows violence that’s for sure but he also has a keen sense of humor. In Kiss Kiss he mixes them well. Black sets the mood with Downey--giving his best Bogie-like voiceover-- narrating the action along the way. This is better than Get Shorty as far as a dark look into the entertainment industry and far more entertaining. And as Harry's character promises "I've seen Lord of the Rings and we're not going to end this 17 times."