Sunday, 18 April 2010

How To Train Your Dragon

Believe it or not, I was once quite a cineaste. I studied film at uni for two years. When I lived in Wellington in New Zealand in my twenties, I was a member of the film society and a film festival regular, and in London I used spend a lot of time in the cinemas at the NFT, the ICA and those live soundtrack events at the Royal Festival Hall (John Cale doing The Hidden, Kronos Quartet on Dracula, Faust on obscure silent horror Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages). God, I had an opinion on everyone and everything, and if I'm drunk enough I can still dredge up some of the fragments, but everything I ever thought or knew about the great art of cinema has been kicked to death by a parade of children's movies.

People tell us that we're living in a golden age of kids movies – don't believe them! If this is the golden age, then I can only assume that previous generations of children's films were long lectures where kids were called idiots and instructed to go outside and murderously toxic fast food and deadening imagination-free toys.

Look what's happened to Disney! It's a crime what they've done to one of cinema's great pioneers. Say what you like about Walt, he was driven to create movies that stand the test of time. Snow White, Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty have become iconic representations of the tales with good reason – both are filled with dark and light, with all them menace and redemptive power of folklore. Things started coming unstuck with the insipid Cinderella, and the fifties ushered in a period of less interesting films occasionally saved – as in The Jungle Book – by a great soundtrack. Nowadays they shit out inexplicable horrors like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid with the instinctual robot cynicism of Skinner's pigeon.

But Walt wasn't in the movie business anymore. He'd set his sights on something else, and his ambitions took him away from film making down a path that led to a creepy ersatz multiculturalism and utopian futurism that was just a Hubbard away from being a mind-controlling puritanical religion. By the time of One hundred and One Dalmations and The Aristocats, they couldn't seem to create a movie that didn't seem cheap, lifeless and oddly creepy. I mean, while Phil Harris is great as Baloo, he sounds like a drunk in Robin Hood and a child molester in The Aristocats.

I didn't go to the movies a lot as a small kid, before I was ten or so, but I can remember stuff like Escape to Witch Mountain, Herbie, Charlotte's Web, Benji, Bugsy Malone, Pete's Dragon – yeah, okay, the seventies was pretty thin, but in those days movies were feeling the bite from TV. When I think of my early media education it's all Sesame Street, Vision On, Playaway, Dr Who, Bagpuss, The Clangers and shows of that kind of vintage. It was a great era for children's TV, but for movies, it was an uphill battle.

That changed in 1977, when Star Wars began the cross-marketed licensing juggernaut that forms the basis of the film industry strategy today, but the technology they were really waiting for was CGI. As soon as Toy Story showed it could be done, it opened the flood gates for a new generation of movie franchises that could hide their creative vacuity behind pin-sharp CGI and, now, 3D. As a parent, I have bravely sat through a steady run of witless crap like Monsters Vs Aliens, Kung Fu Panda, Ice Age (1,2 &3!), Antz (with Woody Allen!), The Bee Movie (Jerry Seinfeld!) and the Satanically repulsive Cars.

I suppose I shouldn't complain too much, though. Toy Story 1 & 2 are both genuinely great films (I am dubious about a third outing), Monsters Inc is saved by terrific performances from John Goodman and Billy Crystal, and there's a lot of inoffensive stuff, no worse than Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, for example, a movie I still love while recognising it's limitations. I'm thinking movies like Desperaux, Spiderwick Chronicles, Madagascar (another one saved by great comic performances) and, the subject of today's non-review, How To Train Your Dragon.

I mean, I am thankful that there aren't shitty toys, McDonald's tie-ins and a trailer for How To Train Your Dragon 2, but this film didn't have much going for it outside the production design, which was extremely imaginative and evocative. The kids get a typical believe-in-yourself story, a lot of lines that have the size and shape of jokes without having any witty content and some really dreadful voice acting. In particular, I have no idea why they wanted to have the grwon-up Vikings have Scottish accents and the young kids be voiced by horrible American stand-up comedy voices. It was like the whole thing was cutting between Terry Jones's Erik the Viking and Bob Saget providing the voice over for America's Funniest Home Videos.

Oh well, the kids enjoyed it well enough and at least I got out of seeing Nanny Mc-shitting-Phee.

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