Batman: The Killing Joke (2016, dir. Sam Liu, Bruce Timm)

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Batman: The Killing Joke is an adaptation of the 1988 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The original text tells the story of a possible final showdown between Batman and his arch-nemesis, The Joker. The battle hinges on the sanity of police commissioner Jim Gordon after The Joker shoots his daughter Barbara and tries to drive Gordon mad by taunting him over the randomness of the act. As this battle of ideologies rages on, we get distorted memories from the Joker about what his origin as a horrific villain could have been. The emphasis is on the idea that one bad day can destroy a normal person. Due to the short length of the comic, the writer of the film added an additional thirty minutes of content to flesh out Barbara Gordon’s career as Batgirl.

I first read The Killing Joke as a freshman in college in 1999. I had never encountered writer Alan Moore up until that point and I did find it a captivating read. This is mainly due to the way it turns the Joker into a tragically pathetic figure. The book also leaves the final moments up in the air as to what Batman does to the Joker. I’ve probably read it a half dozen times in total over the years. A valid point has been made in recent years about its treatment of Barbara Gordon. She is shot early on in the comic and pops up one more time for a doctor to declare her paralyzed. Essentially, Barbara is treated as a plot device to motivate Batman and torture her father. There’s no humanity in what happened to her and it took a few years before other writers redeemed the character. In retrospect, Alan Moore even views the comic as too violent and cynical. I can’t help but retain some love for the text due in part to what I find an interesting exploration of the Joker’s psyche, but I still recognize the mistreatment of Barbara Gordon.

The film has some huge problems in its attempts to “fix” this slight of Ms. Gordon. The thirty additional minutes of story focus on Batgirl pursuing the nephew of a Gotham City crime boss. Francesco is attracted to Batgirl despite her attempts to take him down and attempts to drug and force himself on her, which she dodges by locking herself in a vault. There’s also a subplot where she talks about her relationship with Batman, describing him as a yoga instructor, to a coworker while commiserating on her love life. This eventually escalates to Batman and Batgirl having sex on a rooftop. This is not something I was expecting to see happen as in the comics there has never been a relationship between the two. She’s closer to Robin’s age and has been more involved with him when they were adults. But here, Barbara is in her early 20s so it’s not illegal, but still cringey. Later in the film, she reaches out to Batman and he brushes her off and she realizes it’s connected to their sexual encounter. I understood Batman’s motivation of not wanting to become too close to anyone lest them become compromised, but the only sequence read very awkward and completely unnecessary.

The added Barbara material works even less in the final two-thirds of the film after she is shot. Just like the original graphic novel she fades into the background and it becomes a Batman/Joker story. The Joker doesn’t appear until about 40 minutes into the film which is another odd structure piece. The Joker’s dialogue is lifted straight from the original text and while, for the most part, it doesn’t play awkward there is one moment where he puts Gordon on a hellish ghost house ride and it is way too wordy and overbearing with philosophical content. It doesn’t feel like the Joker would say this out loud, particularly the voice of Mark Hamill as the Joker. On the page, it’s not bad, but page to film translations of comics are never a great idea.

The animation is a very mixed bag. There is a concerted effort to make the iconic moments from the original text pop on screen and it looks alright. The rest of the animation comes across as very cheap and continues the trend with so many of DC’s animated feature films looking subpar. There was a featurette released a few months ago where the creators explained that original artist Brian Bolland’s style was too hard to emulate in animation so they looked at other artists, including Kevin Nowlan. I didn’t see much of Bolland or Nowlan in any of this animation. It just looked very poorly done.

I can’t really recommend Batman: The Killing Joke animated film. There are just so many technical and narrative missteps that add up to make a mess of a film. I had high hopes for this one. DC Animated had surprised me with its Dark Knight Returns and Year One adaptations but really missed the mark here. I would still say the graphic novel is worth reading if you haven’t, but the philosophical study of the Joker has been covered elsewhere, particularly The Dark Knight Returns in a much more interesting way than this animated film.

Zootopia (2016, dir. Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush)

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Zootopia is the story of Judy Hopps, a bunny who travels from the farm to the big city with one dream: to become a police officer and make the world a better place. The force is made up of much larger beasts (lions, tigers, bears, etc.) and Judy is put on meter maid duty. This innocuous job leads her into the path of con-fox Nick Wilde and on the trail of a missing otter. The duo explore the various boroughs of Zootopia and travel deeper and deeper down a winding trail of mystery and political intrigue. Along the way, they discover the harmful power of stereotypes and work to recognize each other as unique animals.

The world of Zootopia, a place where predators and prey live in harmony, is well built. A lot of time was spent on worldbuilding and it shows. Much like Pixar films where every frame is filled with details, Zootopia gives us a city that is populated to the gills. I started to think about how much fun it would be to explore this world in a well made video game and see all the corners the film didn’t have the time to reveal to us. We spend most of our time in Savanna Central, the most diverse borough. However, we also visit Tundratown (hope to an homage to the Godfather), the Rainforest District (which features one of the most thrilling action sequences of the film), and Little Rodentia (a miniaturized version of Greenwich Village, home to mice, shrews, and voles).

About halfway through the film, I immediately began to think about Black Lives Matters. The main plot of the film is touching upon current events: Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, the continuing violence and racial profiling of police against black people. The film does this in an unexpected way. Traditionally, predators have been presented, not just in Disney productions but all media,  as bloodthirsty villains (Shere Khan, Scar, The Big Bad Wolf, the list goes on). Zootopia clearly wants to challenge that assumption as a way to talk to adults and kids about the destructive effects they have on individuals. All Foxes are crafty and liars, right? Lions just want to tear apart the closest gazelle. It would have been so easy for the film to become heavy handed and obvious with its themes, but the screenplay handles them masterfully. You’re not being preached at, you’re being told a well developed story about two individuals whose perspectives are changing.

Disney Animation doesn’t seem to have the prolific output of Pixar, but when they do release a film it’s of the highest quality (Tangled, Frozen). Zootopia is definitely one of the best and fully realized films that have released to to date. The film never panders to its audience and adheres to presenting a well developed narrative with a rich cast of characters. While the film isn’t art house animation, it never backs down from dealing with difficult and complex ideas.

Ghost in the Shell (1995, dir. Mamoru Oshii)

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I have a complicated history with anime. First off, I am not an anime fan. There are specific works that I have enjoyed, but as a genre I rarely seek it out. In childhood, I got caught up in the super sentai (think Power Rangers) cartoon serial Ronin Warriors when it aired in syndication one summer. In college I saw the standards (Akira, Vampire Hunter D, lots of Miyazaki). It was in college that one of my roommates rented Ghost in the Shell, but decided to watch it at 3am in the morning and I only remembered faint images. With the upcoming Scarlett Johanssen adaptation I thought it would be good to sit down and watch this now classic anime film.

Motoko Kusanagi is a team leader in Section 9, a paramilitary police organization in an unnamed urban sprawl of the future. Kusanagi is a full body cybernetic being, meaning she was once a human with an organic body who went through a process to transfer her consciousness into a Shell, a la she is the Ghost in the Shell (words are fun). The main case that our protagonist is pursuing is to track down the Puppet Master, a notorious terrorist hacker who has caused deadly trouble across the globe. This leads her into an exploration of her understanding of what makes her human and in turn what she will become.

There’s no argument that Ghost in the Shell is visually stunning. There is minimal computer generated animation, used in the internet and map visualizations. For the most part this is gorgeous hand drawn cel animation and reminds us what a glorious craft and art that style of animation still is. At the halfway mark, there is a famous break in the action for a tour of this future cityscape. This sequence could be cut and out and used as complete short film. As a piece of animation the film stands as a work that transcends the idea of animation as a exclusively children’s genre or something that is schlock.

When we get the themes of the film I start to get less enthusiastic. There is no way you can miss the themes of the film because they are wielded like a sledgehammer. Characters regularly talk in a hyper-philosophical manner, not as terrible as The Architect monologue from Matrix Reloaded, but in the same vein. The film was based on a manga so I suspect, as I found when I read Akira after seeing the film, volumes of content had to be cut to make the run-time. The brevity of the film also left me feeling little connection to the characters. I understood who the Puppet Master was and what happens to Kusanagi but it felt like it all happened so fast I had little time to connect with them.

I am able to see why Ghost in the Shell is such an important work, it builds upon groundwork laid by Philip K Dick and William Gibson in positing not just the technical conceits of our future, but in the philosophical and psychological future of humanity. It also has obviously inspired directors like the Wachowskis and James Cameron in the way they explore notions of human consciousness and altering our forms. I can see revisiting this film in the future to glean more and I am even inclined to delve into the manga to see this world fleshed out further.

Anomalisa (2015, dir. Charlie Kaufman)

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My first encounter with Charlie Kaufman, like most who know his work, came in the film Being John Malkovich. Kaufman wrote the screenplay and it was a truly off kilter, intriguing film. It seemed that more of his work came in quick succession via Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. After a brief lull he released his directorial debut: Synecdoche, New York. And now is his strangest visual work, Anomalisa.

Anomalisa is the story of Michael Stone (the voice of David Thewlis), the author of books on effective customer service. He’s come to Cincinnati, Ohio to promote his latest book at some sort of convention (the film keeps those details vague). Michael has a problem when it comes to other people, something I won’t spoil here, that causes him to never fully connect or interact in a meaningful way. He eventually meets Lisa (the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh) and he begins to think things are turning around for him.

Like all of Kaufman’s work, this film has already burrowed itself into my mind and I know it will stay with me for a long time. His greatest talent is his ability to mine such unpleasant and neurotic landscape of our psyche in ways that make it difficult to look away. Synecdoche examined a man’s yearning to find a deeper connection with others, but Michael doesn’t seem to desire a means to overcome his personal issues. He wants the connection, he knows vaguely what is wrong with him, but he inevitably gives up. Everyone around Michael is very pleasant, even when they get angry they sound soothing. This lack of emotion seems drive Michael deeper into need to be separate, while frustratingly want to communicate. It is intentional that the only scenes in the film that don’t have an annoying level of background noise are when Michael escapes to his hotel room.

The choice to make Anomalisa a stop motion animated film might seem like a bit of visual vanity if you’ve just seen the trailers. The filmmakers strive for realism out of the characters, which they truly achieve. It is the context of Michael’s disorder when he views others that makes the animated elements essential. There is no way the film could have been done in live action and get across the alienation that the animation choices provide. A crucial scene between Michael and Lisa in the film’s third act is the ultimate realization of why stop motion was essential to the film.

This is not a “fun” movie to watch, much of Kaufman’s work is not. There was a backlash as the film made its way through the film festival circuit about the unsavory aspects of the Michael character and speculation as to what moral judgments Kaufman was attempting to convey. In my own viewing, I never felt that it was communicated to the audience that Michael was a positive character and I do not believe Kaufman was attempting to make him sympathetic. The director simply wanted to make him a “true” character. What Michael does is what hundreds if not thousands of despondent, aimless, middle aged men do every day. It doesn’t make them right, but the film is not intending to promote an idealized view of the world. At it’s core, this is anti-indie film. When you look at works that exemplify the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” genre you find an absence of real emotion. Kaufman’s response in Anomalisa is to show the truth of those scenarios playing themselves out. Your life will not be saved through a fateful meeting with a spirited young woman who will awaken something in you. Young women are not thresholds through which middle aged men pass to rediscover themselves.

If you allow yourself to view Anomalisa on Kaufman’s terms you will end up with a film experience that will not leave you easily. If you are uncomfortable, then that is good because that was the intent of the film. Anomalisa is about the narcissistic malaise most privileged people find themselves in after achieving a certain level of success. It is about the struggle humanity continually has in forging real connections with others that don’t focus on what emotional energy you can take from them.

Shadows in the Cave: A Town Called Panic



A Town Called Panic (2009, dir. Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar)

This is a singularly unique French language animated feature that highlights something I have always loved in French animated movies. They are able to construct an elaborate and rich universe in a little over an hour. A Town Called Panic is a surreal and bizarre picture that is using a style of stop motion animation that is hard to describe. The characters are designed to look like toy figurines of cowboys, Indians, farmers, and other people. There are no moving mouths and no facial animations, simply very frenetic body movement and voice acting that nails the weirdness of this world.

The appropriately named Town Called Panic is a place where crisis is an everyday occurrence. In one large house lives Cowboy, Indian, and Horse. Horse is the level headed of the trio and in love with a fellow equine who teaches music as the conservatory in town. Its Horse’s birthday, so Cowboy and Indian order 500 bricks to build a barbecue, however, a typing error makes that 5 million. The result is that their house is crushed by bricks. Every day they rebuild, but every night the entire house disappears. They stakeout one night and discover the weird truth behind things.

These are all hyperactive and manic characters, save Horse who keeps a level head. Part of the humor are Cowboy and Indian’s sudden leaps from passivity to complete and utter chaos. They scramble about trying to cover their errors but inevitably make things worse. There’s also a lot of humor from moments where you would expect characters to panic, that Cowboy and Indian are surprisingly unphased. Its comedy that doesn’t have any profound message or point, its akin to early Looney Toons where stories were given over to chaos and insanity.

The jokes never become vulgar or profane, so its a suitable substitute for typical maudlin family fare. In many ways I saw similarities to The Triplets of Belleville, both films created very specific characters that are richly detailed while using broad strokes. It’s also a statement against the current domination of CG animated features. At the end of the day, its not the bells and whistles an animated film can lay claim too but the creativity and inventiveness working behind the scenes.

Newbie Wednesdays – The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender (2010, dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

M. Night and I have a long history together. The first film I saw my freshman year of college was The Sixth Sense. It terrified me. Now, with a decade of film obsession behind me, it takes a lot to creep me out that badly, and I look at The Sixth Sense as a very sad atmospheric film, still good though. His next film, Unbreakable, is still one of my favorite comic book films, in that is captures a certain idea of superheroes that I’ve never seen another film come close to. About there is where my love for the director ended. I’ve seen every film he’s made in the theater, the only other director who I have done that with is Christopher Nolan, sort of the antithesis of Shyamalan. While Nolan produces better and better films, Shyamalan only gives diminishing returns. This latest, his first foray into adapting an already established property, is an utter disaster.

If you haven’t seen the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender (I’ve only seen the first five episodes) here’s the premise. In a fantasy world, the planet is ruled by the four elemental nations: Fire Nation, Air Nation, Earth Nation, and Water Nation. A hundred years before the start, the Air Nation was wiped out and the Fire Nation began its quest to spread its empire across the globe. Two Water Nation children, Katara and Sokka, discover a little boy frozen in ice. Once thawed, they learn he is Aang, the last of the airbenders and the one destined be the Avatar, meaning control over all four elements. Searching for the Avatar is Prince Zuko, the exiled son of the Fire Nation king. He sails the world, hoping to prove his might to his father by bringing him the Avatar. Zuko’s forces become aware of Aang and epic battles ensue.

The concept here is ready made for a film franchise, and it has the potential to be as popular and well loved as Harry Potter. It’s a rich, complex universe that doesn’t pander to kids. It treats them like intelligent beings who can handle more than stand alone episodes. The film however, creates a narrative mess. One of the elements of screenwriting that you’ll find is seen as a no-no is voice over exposition. Its passable at the beginning of the film, just to set up the story, but when large chunks of the movie are rushed over and explained with voice over you have a major problem. The sort of things being summed up in a sentence by Katara, the narrator, are romantic relationships, something that you have to earn from your audience, make us care that these two people get together. Not so, and Shyamalan has never been too good with romantic relationships.

This is an incredibly faithful adaptation in terms of story elements, hence the rushed exposition as Shymalan tried to condense 20 episodes of the first season into 90 minutes. Motivations are cast out the window for the sake of hitting plot points. The most glaring omission from the the series though, is the sense of humor. In the cartoon Aang is a mischievous klutz who is both the hero and the comic relief. Katara and Sokka are also not great warriors and don’t master their abilities in the series near as quickly as their movie counterparts did. To delete the humor and sense of growing into these powers sort of turns the film into something that an unfamiliar audience member won’t enjoy and neither will a die hard fan of the cartoon. There really is no audience for this type of film, and its sad because the failure of this picture probably dooms the chances of a different director coming onboard and correcting things. And once again, we have to wonder how many chances does Shyamalan get before they revoke that DGA card?

Newbie Wednesdays – Toy Story 3



Toy Story (2010, dir. Lee Unkrich)
Starring Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton, Jodi Benson, Estelle Harris

In 1970, Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term “The Uncanny Valley”. Basically, it refers to the point when a robot or human facsimile (CG animated character) resemble real humans so closely it evokes a sense of revulsion in the viewer. CG animation walks that very fine line, and in the case of Robert Zemeckis’ animated works (The Polar Express, Beowulf) it reaches the revolting atmosphere. This is where Pixar gets it right, in that it never tries to make its humans look like exact copies of humans. Instead, the real humanity in the film is infused in the inanimate who have a larger ability to express emotion than ever before. For me, Toy Story 3 marks a clear point in history where, in the right hands, CG animation is a clear challenger to live action cinema.

Andy is eighteen and about to head off to college. The time to cast out his toys, which have been long ignored anyway, has come. All but Woody end up in a trash bag destined for the attic, while the cowboy ends up in Andy college-bound boxes. With the fear of being separated from his pals, Woody makes a daring escape and goes to save Buzz and company who have accidentally been put out for the trash. They all avoid the landfill but end up in Sunnyside Daycare, which is ruled over by Losto Hugs Bear, a 80s relic. They also meet a host of other toys, more generic than specific products and engage in what is essential a prison break movie, with some very strong themes about aging and obsolescence threaded throughout.

The situation the toys are placed in is one that speaks across generations. The children, whom most assume the film is squarely marketed at, will see their own feelings of powerlessness reflected in the plight of the toys. When faced with the circumstances of simply moving to a new town all the way to dealing with the divorce of parents, children are without any say in where they go. The same theme is applied to children transitioning into adulthood, like Andy, who are pressured by society to abandon toys and play. The issues Andy is grappling with reflect a lot of those who were children when the first Toy Story came out. Bumping up another generation, the themes of a child leaving home are very palpable and those wistful feelings as days when your child was little and playful. Laurie Metcalf and the animators behind her character deliver a very short, but beautiful performance in the moment where she enters Andy’s now empty bedroom. Finally, through Lotso we have the resentment of elderly and those who are left behind. Lotso has taken the moment he realized he was no longer wanted by his owner, and has allowed those feelings to become anger and rage, which is merely a form of hurt.

Pixar is a company that makes perfect films (I refuse to acknowledge Cars). They are writing scripts that are light years (no pun intended) richer and more complex than the majority of those shopped around Hollywood. The production staff also has a strong sense of creating rich worlds, they fill their universes with so many details that we want to inhabit them just a little bit longer. The Toy Story trilogy now stands a perfect trilogy, with themes that develop and mature just like Andy. The technical side of the animation has also evolved in a similar fashion. While buzz of Toy Story 4 has recently hit after the current release’s box office success, but I hope the Pixar crew treads carefully in adding on to an already complete masterpiece.

Asian Cinema Month – My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro (1988, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s answer to Walt Disney, is mainly concerned with the rural and natural settings of Japan, rather than bustling metropolises. He can go very dark with this message (Princess Mononoke) or light (Ponyo), but he always returns to the ideas of children in an environment populated with copious vegetation and mystic animals. Once again, the children of the story need the help of a being from the forest to overcome the troubles of their lives and its all told in the type of lush animation you expect from Miyazaki.

Satsuki and Mei have just moved to a country house with their father to be close to the hospital their mother is staying in. The first day in the new home they are enthusiastic to explore, and encounter soot spirits, ashy ghosts that skitter away into holes in the wall when light enters. Little Mei explores further while her older sister is at school and follows a couple of magical rabbit-like creatures into the forest where she meets a gigantic sleeping furry beast. The creature identifies himself with a series of yawns which Mei hears as “Totoro”, the name she assigns him. The two girls eventually deal with a crisis moment involving their mother’s health and Totoro comes to the rescue to help diffuse the pain they feel with some lighthearted fun.

What I liked about the film was its rejection of the American fantasy formula. The drama here is kept very minimal and in the background. An adult audience is going to understand the mother’s condition as being a dark point in the picture, but it is presented in such a way that it won’t upset younger viewers. Miyazaki is able to tell stories for children, and adults not yet swallowed up by cynicism, in a way better than Disney ever has. The Disney films never feel like a real world, merely a construct and complete fantasy. Miyazaki infuses his worlds with details that make it feel like a place that could really be out there. They are the type of simple fantasies a child would truly dream up.

There is no need for princesses in Totoro. These are real little girls, captivated with simple things and vulnerable when it comes to the idea they might lose a parent. The creatures are never frightening and the children rush into the unknown without a sense of fear. It’s incredibly refreshing to see this kind of animated film, a style we see little of in the States.

Asian Cinema Month – Ponyo



Ponyo (2009, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
Starring (English dub) Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, Betty White, Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin, Carlos Alazraqui

It was freshman year of college and it was a Friday night. We decided to see a movie. We let Clint pick, usually a bad choice…however, he decided on a Japanese animated feature called Princess Mononoke. I make no bones about the fact that I pretty much detest anime. I’ve tried to watch multiple series and can barely make it past the first episodes. Anime films, however, I have been able to tolerate fairly well. Well, that evening as we settled in to the barely occupied theater, I was overcome with amazement at the lush imagery before me. This blew anything Disney made right out of the water. The themes were complex and aimed more at adults than children. After that I would go to see Nausicca of the Valley, Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Howl’s Moving Castle. All of these are the work of master animator Hayao Miyazaki.

Deep beneath the ocean lives Fujimoto (Neeson), an wizard who has abandoned the surface world and raises his fish daughters to fear humanity. The eldest of these guppy-like creatures escapes and is found by Sosuke, the young son of a navy officer and a nursing home attendant. Sosuke names the fish girl Ponyo and has to avoid her being taken away by a number of human forces. Eventually, Fujimoto surfaces and wants his daughter back while Ponyo has come to enjoy the surface and wants to become human. Some of these elements sound familiar? Yes, this is a Japanese re-imagining of The Little Mermaid.

The plot of the film is incredibly simple and I was reminded of the lighter Kiki’s Delivery Service. There’s never any real peril or chance anyone might actually die. You would think with the stakes being so low the picture would be a bore, but it most definitely isn’t. What pulls you in is the seemingly infinite imagination of Hayao Miyazaki and epic skill of his animators. Every film Miyazaki releases reveals why CG animation will never trump the power of high quality cel animation. It might not be as quick, but when given the proper time and skill you have unparalleled works of art. The wordless opening sequence of the picture is breathtaking, featuring the nighttime migration of jellyfish then transitioning to a panorama of sea life.

The adventures of Ponyo and Sosuke are pure wish fulfillment. I was particularly enamored with their excursion of a tiny steamboat through a flooded village. It felt like that exact thing so many kids would imagine while playing on the couch or in the backyard, the idea of freedom to travel and explore. Ponyo is a delightful character, she is constantly discovering the surface world and find joy in such simple things. Her first sip of hot cocoa drives her wild, her first warm meal puts her into a sleepy coma, and there’s never an adult admonishing for such exuberance. While you may think this is a film made for children, its just as much for adults, tapping into that time of discovery and play I think many of us miss.

Newbie Wednesday – How To Train Your Dragon



How To Train Your Dragon (2010, dir. Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders)
Starring Jay Baruchel, America Ferrara, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig

In 1981 we got Dragonslayer, which was a step up in the medieval film genre in terms of effects. In 1996 Dragonheart was released, and while its hard to dislike a film with both David Thewlis and Sean Connery, the picture never stuck with me as a re-watchable one. In 2002, the movie was Reign of Fire…and well, lets try to forget that one. The latest dragon-centric film is Pixar Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon, from the writer/director team behind Lilo and Stitch and Mulan. And how does this flick stack up against its fire-breathing brethren?

Hiccup (Baruchel) is the son of a gruff Viking king (Butler) whose village is regularly attacked by a variety of diverse dragons. During one of these attacks, Hiccup witnesses an elusive go down in the forest outside of his village and ventures into the wilderness to find it. The two are confrontational at first, but grow on each other. Simultaneously, Hiccup is being pressured by his father into being a dragonslayer. What is he to do as he begins to understand this creatures better than anyone in his village?

What this movie does best is put you on the back of a dragon. The flying scenes are far and away the best aspect of the picture, many times done from the POV of Hiccup. There’s also an interesting variety of dragons presented in the film, each with quirk that makes them unique and different. The look of the flick is thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men”, and pretty much every other Cohen Brothers film ever). I also liked that the film focused on thinking your way through a problem over just rushing into battle. Hiccup’s tendencies to go to books and conduct scientific study pay off and save his father and the entire village.

I liked that the film shied away from previous Dreamworks ventures, which seem to rely so heavily on modern pop culture references. It felt more like a Pixar film in establishing its own universe. However, every character except for Hiccup feels underdeveloped. It would have been nice to get some backstory on the village and how their conflict with the dragons developed. Despite these hiccups (pun intended) in the story, its still one of the better and more intelligent films marketed towards kids.