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Marvels, Bricks, and Dragons, oh my!

March 21, 2019

A trio of weekends, a trio of movies, and now a trio of capsule reviews!  Got a chance to catch The Lego Movie 2, How To Train Your Dragon 3, and Captain Marvel…

Potential Spoilers Ahead!

The first Lego Movie was one of those genuine movie surprises.  For a film that could have been a cheap-cash-in movie based on a popular toy, it instead had some smarts to it, was witty, proceeded with fine storytelling, and was carried through with wonderful heart and growth.  Not bad at all.  And now, after five years, comes the sequel (the two other Lego films preceding this one were stand-alones, and hewed much more closely to the cheap-cash-in variety).  To answer the most immediate (and inevitable) question, no, it isn’t as splendiferous as the first.   That would have been tough to do, though, and even so it still is a fine and solid movie.

With the veil between the fantasy world and the real pierced and revealed at the end of the first movie, this one wastes no time explicitly showing how the two are intertwined, and that’s a good thing.  They also don’t try to have another surprise reveal, which also was a good choice.  That said, unlike the original the two worlds are less directly related, and the Lego characters seem to inhabit a true, distinct universe (with an alternate timeframe?)  that is tangentially influenced by the real world rather than being the direct storytelling imagination of Finn.  It still works, but it nudges up against enough world-building questions that it lacks the same poignancy and smoothness.

I do think we’ve hit peak self-awareness in movies now (and this does cross the line a few times)*.  I also wish they’d hewed less to a gendered style for the two “factions” (or made more of a point in the mixing of the two at the end).   But, like the first, the key to this movie lies in its balance of humour, subtle and not-so-subtle subversiveness, action, self-referentialness, reflection, and the non-stop-yet-somehow-not-tiring rapid cycling between them all.  It seems like so much of a recipe for disaster, but save for a few “you really wanted to include this gag in here, didn’t you?” moments (like the mom stepping on a Lego brick), somehow it still all works.  Yes, not to the same level of interconnected cleverness and even brilliance as the first, but it still works.  I rate this a Solid Minus.

~~

The first How To Train Your Dragon movie was also a surprise, mainly for being a Dreamworks film that didn’t rely solely on pop culture references and poop jokes, instead offering up a good story that beat strongly at its core (with enough gumption to stick with it that I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if Hiccup had died from the fall at the end of it).  While the second upped the ante in some great ways, it unfortunately employed enough overused tropes and story beat clichés that overall it turned me off.

And now the third and… well… perfunctory is how I would describe it.  The plot, jokes, visual design (though exuberant it also often borders on the silly), character interactions, it’s all rote and often nonsensical.  We have another guy who hates dragons just because, we see another hidden area with a billion dragons, and we are treated to more caricature-ish secondary characters.

Which is too bad, as its core notion has the potential of being something powerful:  the ideas of growing up (and an opportunity to draw an arc from the first movie to the third, with Hiccup growing in age and in stature/leadership), of starting new homes and new lives, and the heartbreak yet love of letting go.  It could have been very moving if they hadn’t given it short shrift by stuffing the movie with unending clichés, be it about being manly men (does anyone really buy that hair/beard routine?), secret dating advice, hitting on your friend’s Mom (I mean, what?  A generous reading is that he wants her recognition as a parental figure, but that’s not how it comes across), tons of convenient turns, and numerous action scenes against some recycled villains while using a flaming sword that somehow manages to not be all frightening or effective.  All wrapped up in underwhelming storytelling such that the otherwise engaging idea of letting the dragons go – for now – is for the best because the world is encroaching and will always be gunning for them is there, but other than being directly told by talking heads the feeling isn’t there with it.

There do exist some beautiful moments, with flying scenes and the lost world especially being most lovely.  And while it is predictable the epilogue does remains quite sweet.  But overall the movie just does not soar.  I rate this Poor.

~~

Captain Marvel.  It’s a Marvel movie, and one that doesn’t really break the mold all that much.  The plusses:  I like the theme of how emotions do not make you weak, but rather by fully embracing all your humanity (including emotions) is what makes you both you and strong.  I liked how much fun Carol has with her powers at the end (including punching planes).  I like the twist of the Skrull being the persecuted ones just seeking a peaceful home, I like that Vers/Carol has to confront that all she knew was a lie, I like how she/we get to see through the ordinary propaganda so often fed to us.  I like the concept behind the supreme intelligence.  I enjoyed some of the banter, and how Fury goes agaaa over cats.  Powered up, Captain Marvel looks awesome.  And for the most part I found the de-aging special effects for Jackson and Gregg quite successful; only a few times did I think “Yikes, that looked fake”.

On the minuses, well, big Marvel action sequences abound.  But really where things really fall down is in the storytelling.  For a movie that demands to be personal it’s quite lifeless, with little sense of flow, predictability, odd character shifts, worldbuilding headscratchers, and clunky exposition.  Things don’t flow from the characters as much as they flow from the, obvious, script.  Veers/Carol may “need” to confront the lie she’s been living and re-integrate her past and who she is, but little of that struggle or process is given any screen time, so we don’t get pulled in and feel her.

Distant, I guess is the word here.  Stuff happens and there’s some good characters to be explored, but the storytelling quality leaves us feeling distant, alas.  I’m going to rate this Poor (if perhaps edging towards Poor Plus);  still it was enjoyable and worth seeing as part of the greater Marvel pantheon.

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