Beginning and Ending with Vikings

Posted by on April 15th, 2010 at 9:40 PM

What have I been doing when I was supposed to be blogging?  Well, I went to the movies . . .

If you’re like me the trailers for How to Train Your Dragon did an excellent job of convincing you that you didn’t want to see it.  I would have stuck to that resolution too if I hadn’t heard that it was co-directed by Chris Sanders, who did Lilo and Stitch, a great favorite of mine.  Given the movie’s success those who follow the inside baseball of these things might think of it as Sanders’ Revenge.  (One of John Lasseter’s first acts on taking over all of Disney feature animation was to remove Sanders from the movie that eventually became Bolt, which Sanders had originally developed as American Dog.)  To be honest, the human character designs are every bit as unappealing and the teen movie cliches are every bit as annoying as the trailers promise, but once it gets its full head of steam it becomes one of the best aerial dogfight movies ever made.  (You will note that the dragon of the title above looks like Stitch if he’d been designed by Fokker.)  It’s little wonder that despite a below-estimates opening weekend the movie has had excellent legs, or should I say wings.  Perhaps because it’s based on a book it’s got a stronger plotline than we’ve come to expect from animated features lately.  Those immune to the attractions of 3D Imaxed thrill power will likely want to maintain their resolution to ignore it, but if you’ve been on the fence will find it’s much better than you might have thought.

Back in the 1990s Disney restored the old time Hollywood Boulevard movie palace the El Capitan to a Disneyfied version of its movie palacehood and took to premiering their big animated features accompanied by a live stage show at the beginning of the run, like they used to do in the old days.  Agnostalgic that I am I made a point of attending these, and it wasn’t until being exhorted by rubber headed Disney characters for the second or third time to “Celebrate the Magic of Disney” that I realized that I really and truly hated this show.  It was a perfect example of Disney’s obsession with self-hagiography, an irrational need to oversell itself to people who have already bought a ticket.  Waking Sleeping Beauty (apparently done with its brief theatrical run and more the kind of thing you put in your Netflix queue than leave the house for anyway) is in this sense an utterly un-Disney kind of production.  It’s an unembellished, matter-of-fact account of how Disney feature animation rose from its deathbed – saved apparently only by Roy Disney wielding the magic family name –and staged a revival that no one on Earth expected.  Even if you’re not interested in animation, it’s both an inspiring story of how an organization can recognize its failings and reinvent itself and a mordant fable of how this success was undone through a paternity struggle among its several fathers.  (Pictured above not at each other’s throats are three of them, Peter Schneider, Roy Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg.)

The Secret of Kells is a plucky little Irish-Franco-Euro animated feature in the spirit if not the accomplishment level of the old UPA studio.  Sentiment carried it to an Academy Award nomination and I can sympathize with the yearning for originality in a form rapidly being smothered in a blanket of formula.  Unfortunately beneath a veneer of stylization Kells is beset the hoariest clichés of the idiom.  Once again we find the dutiful-in-his-dissent rebellious youth in conflict with the essentially good hearted but misguided forbidding father figure, who must Learn a Lesson from the youngster.  In this instance the Abbot of Kells Abbey has become so obsessed with building defenses against the marauding Vikings that he’s lost sight abbey’s purpose, while his young nephew defies him and leaves the walls of the abbey (during a Viking raid – it’s an idiot plot, too) to find the magical McGuffin that will allow him to complete the Book of Kells.  The trouble is that the movie doesn’t have any more of a sense of the abbey’s purpose either.  If you’re going to tell a story about a religious community creating a sacred work of art and you don’t address the substance of the religion in question then it’s inevitably going to be superficial.  While the movie is clearly more comfortable the various pagan entities that help and hinder the boy on his quest, it doesn’t really have a point of view about them, either.  In the end you’re left with the same kind of tourist shop Celtiquery you’d get from Riverdance or an Enya album.

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