The Boxtrolls

I keep hoping for more animated films that break away from the Disney tradition, that are more artistic and profound than cute and funny. I envision films like those from Studio Ghibli, animated so beautifully whose stories make you expand your mind. And then there’s The Boxtrolls, which I admit does break away from the Disney tradition, because it is far from cute…and oftentimes far from funny. Be careful what you wish for.

The Boxtrolls means well. In a bourgeois town, there is a huge divide between the aristocrats and the boxtrolls, little ogres who wear boxes around their torsos and live underground. While being strange and borderline disgusting, they are endearing and live their own lives, decorating their lair with garbage and eating bugs. The entire town thinks, though, that they are flesh-eating monsters who will come into their homes in the night and kill them. You can guess that by the end of the movie, they will realize that the boxtrolls are friendly and harmless.

The movie starts off slowly. It introduces the Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), who is a wretched man with misaligned teeth. His biggest desire is to be part of the white-hat club, the most respected of men in the town. He strives to exterminate all boxtrolls, so he can earn a place in that prestigious club. The film introduces this despicable character, and then spends a long time showing the boxtrolls’ domain. They don’t speak English, so they just grunt at each other. They do become endearing, but it is a test of patience more than pleasant film-watching to break through the exposition.

The action does pick up later, but the grotesquerie of the film is too overbearing for the film’s overall charm. While I want for animated films that are not necessarily made for children, this film may end up scaring or disturbing children…and it may disturb their parents, too. The animation is beautifully made. It’s a stop-animation film, and the credits show a little insight into the creation of the animation, but it isn’t all that pleasant to watch. It has all the oddities of a Tim Burton film without any of the charm.

After seeing The Boxtrolls, I’m very surprised that The Lego Movie was not nominated for the Academy Award. They were certainly robbed. Even though The Boxtrolls boasts intricate skills in its animation, The Lego Movie, overall, is sharp, clever, and most importantly: fun!

How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2 came out when I got my tonsils removed. My mom was in town, and I thought it’d be a great idea to rewatch the first and then see the sequel (I’m all about chronology). Unfortunately, we couldn’t find it at any Redbox kiosks, so I decided to introduce her to the Hunger Games series. Somehow, over time, How to Train Your Dragon 2 lost a substantial amount of excitement for me, and before I knew it, it was awards season and I never saw it. I entirely counted it out of the running, and — BAM! It won the Golden Globe for Best Animated Film. Then, it received an Academy Award nomination while The Lego Movie got entirely left out. Either it was really good or something was going on. Tonight I walked by a Redbox kiosk, and I thought: well, let’s find out!

As you may well understand, sequels — especially animated sequels — attract a lot of skepticism. For the most part, they never build on anything meaningful; they primarily just give the same characters a round two on what happened in the first film. Well, not so with How to Train Your Dragon 2. Turns out that director Dean DeBlois took on the sequel only if he could do it his way, which involved making a second installment in an trilogy. He didn’t want to make a film that regurgitated the same kind of conflicts and resolutions that the first film did. He wanted to make something larger than that, a trajectory that emulates trilogies like Star Wars. For that, this film is a pleasant surprise — and a success. We find lovable Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) 5 years older (and 5 years stud-lier), past his self-conscious issues. He’s a grown man, respected by his father and his tribe, loved by the lovely Astrid (America Ferrera), and companion to the equally adorable Toothless. The village is completely changed, fully accepting of dragons and living harmoniously together. While life seems to be pretty great for him, he’s not dealing with some heavy thoughts: his father wants make him the chief of the village. With that comes thoughts of legacy, competency — and whether he actually wants to do it. These are issues that are more mature than there were in the first film, establishing a more adult tone to the film.

It’s this tone that separates this film from what it is from what it could have been: which was hallow and foolish. From the get-go, Hiccup is older, exploring the world around him — which expands the cinematic world for the audience. It’s not just fun and games at home, there’s a whole world out there. As the movie continues, while many delightful qualities present themselves — like the myriad of darling and unique dragons, the quirky characters, and the gorgeous settings — a darker tone takes hold. Like most second installments of trilogies, things get serious. Hiccup is trying to feel out the duties of his impending role as chief, he tries to grasp diplomacy versus aggression, counsel versus intuition. Personally, he is reunited with his presumed dead mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett) — who creates this Nordic empress of a character, as a dragon shepherdess with an engaging and crafted accent. He gains and loses family members, and has to save his village and scores of dragons from a twisted dragon-hater. Everything is stepped up many degrees in the sequel, and it works quite well.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is thoughtful. It’s aware of its potential shortcomings, and it makes the effort to soar above. Everything is presented on a higher level, from the cute stuff to the serious stuff. Dragons get smaller and bigger, hotter and colder. The world is expanded, potentially even bigger in the third installment. It’s not that everything is bigger and better, but that the scope of this series is focused and concentrated — which is much more meaningful. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, there are dragons in this for goodness sake!

The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie (2014) is an animated film from Warner Bros. Pictures, directed and co-written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. It follows the story of an ordinary construction worker Emmett (Chris Pratt) who is thrust with the responsibility of saving the various Lego worlds from evil President Business (Will Ferrell).

The film is a testament to the evolution of the Lego legacy and where it stands now. Historically, Lego started off as a simple building block for mostly boys. Over the years, Lego has had to adapt its attitude about the various sub-groups that wanted to use Legos, primarily girls, as well as imaginative minds who wanted to go beyond the instructions and build other types sets and structures. That was a major conflict between the consumers and the company over the years, and that very conflict is a huge component in the film, illustrated by the live-action scene with the father/Big Man Upstairs (Ferrell), who is resistant to change, and his son (Jaden Sand), who has endless ideas on how to use the grandiose Lego city his father has built in his basement. Similarly, the master builders also fight the good fight by building vehicles and structures without any rules, much to the chagrin of President Business and Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neesom). As evidenced by the increasing creativity with Legos, including Lego retail stores, Lego video games, and now The Lego Movie, the company has firmly planted its feet in the innovative camp, willing to break down the rigid walls it originally built up, and, with open arms, welcoming a broad yet enthusiastic consumer base.

The film boasts an ingenuity and sense of humor just as sharp and forward-thinking as the present day image of the Lego company. The film’s time is quite serious amidst cascading jokes. The movie starts off making fun of the fascist utopian idea, brandishing a wickedly catchy parody song “Everything is Awesome!!” and a step-by-step rule book for how to live a happy (yet identical) life. They poke fun at the Lego civilization as they mispronounce the various “artifacts” that humans use on a daily basis, like Krazy Glue (Kragle) and X-Acto knives (the sword of Exact 0). The film’s sense of humor is a celebration of the fun and accessible works that Lego has assumed. When the master builders see Legos with corresponding part numbers, those are actual parts to actual Legos. With the exception of very unique character parts, all the Legos seen in the film are actual Legos consumers can buy and use. Even flowing water, roaring fire, and laser beams are created with Legos, to demonstrate a universe created entirely by Lego pieces. It’s a Lego fanatic’s dream, yet an experience that everyone can appreciate.

Along with the fantastic visuals and the fresh humor, the casting and voice-acting is perfect. Pratt brings some of his Parks and Recreation character’s vapid delivery to the ordinary Emmett, but adds layers of depth as the character breaks through the mundane. Elizabeth Banks plays the mysterious and formidable Wyldstyle/Lucy, who helps guide Emmett to be all that he can be. Morgan Freeman appears for the first time in an animated film, as a wizened Vitruvius, the prophet who predicts the coming of “The Special”. Will Arnett’s portrayal of Batman received so much praise that a spin-off film for Lego Batman will come to theatres in 2017, one year before the sequel to The Lego Movie releases in 2018.

The Lego Movie is a perfect storm of innovation, talent, finesse, and heart. The film has two important messages, the first learned by Enmett: you are not special merely because someone said so, you are special because of you. The second lesson is learned by the father/The Big Man Upstairs: it’s far more important to bond and connect with your son than stifle the relationship with a pristine toy model. Though, that second lesson may backfire for the son as his father says that if he gets to play with the Legos, his little sister gets to play, too — leading to some characters that may come up in the sequel.

The Lego Movie swept the nation with a sharp sense of humor, star-studded cast, and impressive visuals. They’ve set the bar very high; hopefully they can match those standards with the sequels.