Monday, June 16, 2014

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Hello again! I hope you had as awesome a week as I did. I spent a lot of time revising my novel for the contest, and I'm feeling pretty good. I had a plot point that required my protagonist to act in a way that was very much not in his character, but I figured out a way that he could act like himself without ruining the plot point that needed to happen. I am worried that I'm revising this novel to death, as it has changed a lot since I last worked on it. But I have it with readers, and I'll see what they think. Gotta love writing.

So, as the title of this post implies, I saw How to Train Your Dragon 2 this past weekend. Twice. The first time in 3D, the second in regular 2D. And I loved it. Here is my review.

No story is perfect, and neither is every movie. I felt that the ending of HTTYD2 lacked the resonance the first movie's final scene had. But it should tell you something that this is the worst criticism I can level against the film.

Before I go on, I should list out what I want in a story, be it on paper or on screen: I want a story about a person. Epic battles, large-scale destruction, witty banter, etc. are all well and good and I like them all in their place (large-scale destruction to a lesser amount), but what I always want is a story about a character's personal growth and his/her actions and responses to things around him/her. I want to meet and sympathize with a character to the point that I feel what they feel and I want them to succeed, regardless of the circumstances. I once read a story by one of my students about a child who wanted to catch a fallen, red leaf. That's all. Small circumstance, but I have never wanted a kid to catch a leaf so badly because of the way the writer showed me why it mattered to that one child.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 did this very well. Yes, they battles were larger and more intense than those in the first movie, and the animation was beautiful. But what struck me was how good the writers were at making me care about Hiccup and the things he goes through. This happened in the first movie, too, and seems to me to be the first thing that gets lost in a movie sequel. Not here. This movie does a great job of having large stakes for the world of the film, but also for the hero. By the end, I was emotionally absorbed because what mattered to Hiccup mattered to me.

I'm deliberately avoiding spoilers in this review. But I will say that if you are the kind of person who cries at movies, you may cry during this one. I didn't, but I'm not the kind of person who cries at movies. One thing I've learned about writing is that you think of the worst possible thing that could happen to your hero, and then you make it worse. How to Train Your Dragon 2 did it. Bad got worse. But it wasn't gratuitous; that moment (that I will not discuss) pushed the characters to behave in ways that moved the story along.

One of the things I love about this franchise is how active the characters are. They don't sit around and wait for things to happen. They go out and do things, even though those things sometimes are mistakes. I love that. I also love that characters behave in character, and this continues on to the second movie. The characters have changed, but not so drastically that they've stopped being the characters we loved in the first movie.

HTTYD2 avoided the trap many sequels fall into: the plot and jokes and hallmarks of the second film are exactly the same as those of the first. This time, the sequel is its own movie. It builds on the first, but the plot is its own and the characters grow in new ways. It adds to the story, not rehashes what we have already. And all new surprises are, of course, foreshadowed. No shocks that don't feel right, like they belong to the natural flow of the story.

Last note, and then I'm done: HTTYD2 expands Toothless as a character. I love this. Not just because I love Toothless (and who wouldn't? Look at him!)

but because in the sequel you see a lot more of Toothless's personality. He's not just an animal; he's a character. Dreamworks does such an amazing job with the dragon, maintaining and animal feel while making him as intelligent as Hiccup and an equal partner in fighting to save Berk.

Overall, I give this movie an A. Visually lovely, music as good as ever, and an excellent move forward in a larger story. Plot and characters handled so well, making me the viewer emotionally engaged. That last bit is the sign of a good movie to me. If you don't care about the characters enough to root for them, then what does it matter what else happens?

I'm going to buy the DVD when it comes out. You can count on that. But until then, I'm just going to have to reread the books and hope the last one comes out soon.

Monday, June 9, 2014

That X Factor

Sorry for the delay in posting; I had a lot of revision to do and I went on vacation. But I'm back and ready to rant. First, I heard Maleficent wasn't a great movie. I heard it's cliche and weak. I haven't seen it yet, but based on what people with similar tastes as mine have said, I won't be for a while. I just want a real anti-hero, not a villain who's misunderstood and good inside. I liked what Marvel did with Loki; he's evil, no doubt about that, but you sympathize because you see and understand what caused him to be like that.

My personal preferences should be set aside, however, today. This time I want to discuss the "X Factor," as I call it, that seems to separate the award-winning films and books and plays from the rest. This may be a long, rambly post because, frankly, I have no idea what it is. I do know what it looks like when I see it, as I think everyone might, as shown by this trailer for every Oscar-winning movie ever:

This parody video nails it. Every movie that wins an Oscar looks like this. I think the same goes for plays (my family has decided that edgy works win Tonys for Best Play/Musical) and for books. I can't tell you how many times someone has recommended a book to me on the basis that it made someone cry. I don't think that's valid proof that a book is a solid work of literature. I've read books that made me cry too, but I was crying in pain.

This is the part of the post where I allow that one of the definitions of literature is that literature strikes us where we're most human. It discusses what it means to live and love and hurt like human beings. I agree with this. Maybe this is the X Factor. But personally, I've seen plenty of films and read plenty of books that do this but are definitely not award-winner material. For example, Titanic is a movie that wins awards. And it's a stupid story with flat, obnoxious characters. Wreck-It Ralph, on the other hand, has a sold plot and really well-developed characters, as does Tangled. I would be shocked if either won major accolades.

The best literature can find this X Factor without beating it to death (which I think some books and movies do) and explore it in a well-told story with great characters. I thought Wonder by R.J. Palacio did this. I think what made Shakespeare great was that he could do this. He explores in his plays the heights and depths of human nature and the human condition, but the characters feel real and the stories are interesting. There's a lot of murder in Hamlet.

So what are we to do? I still have no idea what the X Factor really is, but I'm going to do my best to analyze it based on some of the more hackneyed, award-scrounging works I've seen and read. The X Factor seems to incorporate:

1. Tragedy. For some reasons, comedies rarely win big awards or get remembered in history. How many times did you read Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet in high school? Did anyone read The Importance of Being Earnest? Anyone? If so, you're lucky. Despite the potential for spectacular characters and creative social critique in comedies, they rarely rise above the ranks. High school English was a depressing 4 years.

2. Edginess. I think we've been trained to think that high art pushes the envelope. So it's no surprise that the works we hail as great are somewhat edgy, dealing with taboos of society and harder characters. WARNING: This element of the X Factor can be a cliche trope. Edginess is fine in aid of plot, characters, and meaning of a work. But throwing it in a story that works just as well without it to look artsy is kind of pathetic. It becomes a "sex sells" thing, when the story alone should have the power to compel based on its ability to connect to humanity. Everything should be in aid of the story and the characters that move it.

3. Current societal trends. Yes, this matters. I swear. Watch the video above for the parody of the social connections. Whatever disease or war or financial scandal is happening today, I promise you will see it reflected in the works that win awards nowadays. On the one hand, this seems like a pandering to mass culture and not the timelessness that classics have. However, awards aren't given by eternity but by a panel of judges right now. Humans also respond more to the things that speak to them right now. Horror stories, the best ones, do a great job of this. Dracula was a monster that directly terrified the Victorians, and Frankenstein's monster was horrific to the Romantics. What made them last was the fact that they still terrify us on a deeper, human level.

I'm going to call it here. If you have other elements you see that I missed, please put them in the comments. I could also add good writing, heavy focus on the characters over plotting, symbolism, etc. But these seem to rise and fall, while the above seem pretty constant. I also want to add that genre (mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, horror) rarely gets the nod. That angers me. The quality of crafting the story should matter more than it does.

Why do I care? Well, the Tonys were last night, and I'm getting sick of the self-congratulatory nature of awards shows in general. Also, I'm entering a writing contest (which me luck) and I spend too much time calculating my chances. I'm not altering my story to fit this formula or ranting about the unfairness of the system, I promise. I'm just thinking about what separates different kinds of stories.

Last, if there is a formula for the kind of books and movies and plays that win awards, we as writers need to know about it. It may give us an insight into the kind of stories that resonate with people most, which can boost the power of our writing. But it can also hinder us if we start using the X Factor's elements as a way to gain cheap recognition. A book isn't good just because it can make you cry. It might just be emotionally manipulative. The more knowledge we have, the better our writing will be because we can make conscious decisions to craft it the way we want it to be.