Friday, 16 April 2010
There was a period in Disney animation, just after The Lion King was released, where you thought that somebody had finally cracked it. Some talented boffin had finally discovered the formula to regularly produce glorious mainstream entertainment that wasn’t predicated on a single individual’s talent. That a large, soulless corporation had figured out how to orientate its massive resources to make something of value that people wanted to see in their millions. The Little Mermaid. Beauty and the Beast. Aladdin. The Lion King. Fantastic family entertainment one and all.
And then it all started to go wrong. Pocahontas was the first indication that the formula was being corrupted. Despite the animation growing in skill and beauty, the script, stories and characters became horribly dull. Disney lost its ability to create truly iconic characters. Sometimes, in films like Mulan, you saw glimpses of that magic touch. But with the ascendancy of Pixar (who really do seem to have found and perfected that formula), Disney continued to diminish.
The one unadulterated bright spot of that period was Lilo and Stitch, an oddball film that imbued the careworn Disney aesthetic with a funky, modern sensibility. It combined the brilliantly funny Warners-esque humour of Emperor’s New Grove with an emotional clarity and appreciation for the weird and tangential which you see regularly in shows like Spongebob Squarepants and Fairly Odd Parents. Its sort of an overlooked classic, one that seems to revel in its inability to be classified.
I mention all this because the director of Lilo have given Dreamworks Animation its first really Pixar-level CGI film. How to Train Your Dragon is something of a minor triumph – a film that manages to balance action, humour, heart and even a deft political undertow while still being hugely entertaining. For Dreamworks in particular, this borders on a revelation.
Dreamworks has always been the bridesmaid to Pixar. Its first CGI film, Antz, pretty much set the template for all further animation. A big celebrity voice cast. Colourful, if slightly plastic CGI. Endless pop cultural riffs strung together masquerading as a plot. In almost every way, their films have strived and failed to provide the same level of technical and artistic success, and the particular emotional resonance that the greatest of Pixar films seem to have as a stock in trade.
This finally seemed like it might be beginning to change with Kung Fu Panda. That film worked on a completely different level to other Dreamworks films. The animation was certainly a major step forward, with some of those most lyrical and breathtaking sequences that the company has ever put together. The script had its share of pop culture jokes but also created proper characters and cast them with performance in mind, not celebrity. While I think Pixar would ultimately have done more with the film (the Furious Five are particularly under-developed) it felt like a genuine effort to up their game.
So it’s a real pleasure to say that Dragon is proof that Dreamworks is finally finding its feet. For the first time, they have put pressure on Pixar. Toy Story 3 better be damn good.
Technically, the film is just as good as Panda, with the flying sequences offering some of the most awe-inspiring and emotional moments of 3D rapture in any film. The feeling of joy and release is palpable and they are incredibly important to the emotional core of the film. Imagine them akin to dance sequences in a musical film. They are the visual shorthand for a developing emotional bond and the film executes them with effortless grace.
So much of the film’s value is not necessarily in its plot (which is fast-paced and well worked through) nor in its characters (who are memorable, nicely written and brilliantly performed) but in the film’s spirit and moral. Like the very best of Pixar, Dragon is really about something and manages to weave its message with nuance and power. Like Avatar, it’s actually incredibly bold in its liberal, inclusive outlook. It is a spirited defence of empathy, of understanding and healing cultural differences. And it is a forthright defense of the value of questioning the wisdom of your elders.
That’s even before we get in to Dragon’s portrayal of disability. One of the value’s of Lilo and Stitch was that it wasn’t a film where the central emotional dynamic rev0olved around searching for a romantic relationship. Lilo was an awkward girl who longed for a family. Any kind of family. And the way that film complicated her desire with both fantastical and mundanely real-world concerns (ie intergalactic aliens and social service employees) felt like a breath of fresh air. Lilo eventually finds her family but it is about as far from the nuclear ‘ideal’ as you could imagine. Dragon has a similar somewhat radical spirit, There is a narrative turn in the final moments which required real delicacy to pull off. Not only do the filmmakers, performers and animators pitch it perfectly but the film leaves you soaring and giddy. I think Dragon will have real value to children who find themselves in a challenging emotional and physical situation. I think it will help to give them hope and strength and will do so while still being hugely entertaining.
Part of the reason that I am so excited by this film is because it was such a surprise. I had read some admiring reviews but nothing had quite prepared me for how beautiful, exciting and emotional the film actually turned out to be. This is about as perfect a piece of family entertainment as you could ask for.
Pixar… you’re on notice!
Its rare that a film is graced with a titile that is also a perfect encapsulation of an emotional reaction. I guess you could argue Crash would come pretty close, if they put Car before it. But even that doesn’t adequately describe the shit and horror of that piece of Hollywood blah-gasm. No, unlike Crash, Kick Ass does exactly that – gleefully, efficiently and with kinky abandon.
I was a big fan of Matthew Vaughan’s last film Stardust. I thought it did a first rate job of selling its world and concept. He had an excellent eye for actors (with one glaring exception) and proved surprisingly adept at hitting the story’s emotional and romantic beats. These skills prove essential to making Kick Ass work as well as it does.
I’m going to start with the script. Vaughan and Jane Goldman had a similar challenge with Kick Ass as they did with Stardust. Both films have very specific worlds and attitudes that need to be established to allow the viewers to suspend disbelief. They are outlandish but also oddly rooted in reality, especially when it comes to emotions and character motivations. Both also straddle some quite diverse and potentially conflicting tonal elements. With Stardust, these changes sometimes tripped up the film. But its obvious that Vaughan and Goldman have progressed and largely learned their lessons. Kick Ass is a supremely assured piece of mainstream writing, one what leaps genres with ease and constantly tickles and teases the audience.
While the film is episodic, and seems to sag slightly about 2/3 of the way through, it delivers a final run of sequences which are astonishing both viscerally and oddly emotionally. When you read the changes that went in to the film from the comic book, you also appreciate the talent that Goldman and Vaughan brought to re-shaping the material, teasing out the elements which worked and allowing the story to find its own shape onscreen.
Vaughan as director has also upped his game in every way. The action scenes in Kick-Ass reminded me a great deal of Kill Bill – hyper-real fighting within a vaguely real-world construct. The character of Hit Girl, an 11 year old assassin should imbalance the entire film as she is the one utterly fantastical element but it somehow remains consistent. I believed that both Hit Girl and Kick Ass could inhabit the same world and that is down to the skill of Vaughan, Goldman and the actors. The actions scenes are visceral, varied and kinetic but punctuates them with moments and scenes of romance, comedy and tragey which add texture to the film. This may also be one of the funniest films I have seen in a long time, and much of that laughter is seeing how ballsy and committed the film is from scene to scene. Kick Ass is the type of film where plot points which should annoy the shit out of me (the ‘pretending to be gay’ romance plot for example) actually turn out to be oddly sweet and endearing.
Then there’s the cast. With Stardust, Vaughan assembled a real hodge-podge of Hollywood-stars, up and comers and complete unknowns. Except for Robert DeNiro (who was completely, if understandably miscast) it worked perfectly. In Kick Ass, I don’t need to make any concessions. Even Nic Cage, who I have grown to loathe, is perfect as Big Daddy, a character that allows him to channel his more eccentric inclinations to serve character first. Crucially, he has excellent chemistry with Chloe Moretz who plays Hit Girl. Their bond is weird, very unhealthy and yet has a significant emotional pay-off late in the film. Moretz is astonishing in this role. Again, I make the comparison to Kill Bill because she feels just as iconic as Uma Thurman’s Bride. And like Thurman, Moretz finds the grace notes to make her seem both childishly naïve and frighteningly determined.
Holding the whole thing together as the titular Kick Ass is Aaron Johnson. I didn’t see Nowhere Boy so I was unprepared for the confidence with which he acts in this film. It’s a performance at least on the level of Tobey Maguire’s work in Spiderman - he gets the same balance of goofy teen humour and romance while still hitting the right dramatic notes. It’s a real testament to his skill that in a film stuffed with scene stealers (and Chrisopher Mintz-Plasse and Mark Strong are both good enough to stroll away with the film) he consistently manages to focus the attention back on him. This is also a mark of Vaughan and Goldman who understand the emotional spine of the film and how to make their protagonist as engaging and interesting as everything else. This is not a skill which should be underrated. The Batman films have never quite been able to achieve this.
I guess I should probably say something about Chris Tookey’s now infamous Daily Mail review. I can understand him not liking the film, but his charges of paedophilia can stand to have another person point and laugh. One of the tricky tonal points that the film handles is how remarkably unsexualised Hit Girl is. Its quite impressive, especially in this day and age that neither character nor actress feel exploited. This is achieved not only through deft costuming (in fact the costumes throughout are absolutely superb) but also through deploying humour to deflect any moments that might tip the film into more problematic territory. That Tookey not only read such malign intentions on the part of the filmmakers but then compounded it by the crass sensationalism of dragging James Bulger and Damiola Taylor into it says a lot more about his own pathetic and reactionary morals than anything else.
I don’t think Kick Ass is the greatest movie ever made. I still think that honour should go to Spiderman 2 but Kick Ass works much better than almost anything else. If nothing else, its an indication that Vaughan and Goldman are a formidable duo, the equal of anything that Hollywood is producing right now.