Editor, animation critic and researcher (and prior gaming critic). I'm stingy with my stars, so don’t expect a lot of high scores from me, a profile has to really work to earn its balls of fire facsimiles.
Presently, I review animation based on how they bear up to the peers in their respective categories - features-to-features, DTVs-to-DTVs, etc - rather than try to unfairly compare a high budget feature film with a low budget direct-to-video. Call it a category concession if you will.
I hope to never let nostalgia affect my reviews, but then nobody’s perfect. My favourite animated cartoons tend to fall between the original "Golden Era" and the late 80s to early 90s. My interest in animation goes back years. I enjoy playing video games but tend to find their animated adaptations range from awful to okay - I could say a similar thing to game adaptations of many animation licences.
While I may prefer traditional animation to CGI, I can watch almost anything and think that the story and characters are more important to a film, etc, than the medium of animation used in it.
My Star to 10 scale ratio:
4.0 stars = 9-10 - Superb
3.5 stars = 8-9 - Great
3.0 stars = 7-8 - Good
2.5 stars = 5-6 - Mediocre
2.0 stars = 3-4 - Poor
1.5 stars = 2-3 - Terrible
1.0 stars = 1-2 - Abysmal
Animation, Drawing, writing, reading (animal novels, fantasy, sci-fi, animation history), videogames, and radio comedies. Not necessarily in that exact order.
Animation that I love:
Theatrical Shorts, Animaniacs, Astro Boy (all versions), Count Duckula, Lilo & Stitch, WALL•E...
I feel that I got my answer as to whether or not the issues with Bolt where with Sander or Lasseter’s fixing; How to Train Your Dragon is a most entertaining ride.
It has an energetic beginning to be sure, like Cars and Bolt did, with the four-generation strong village under attack from a dragon raid on their sheep with our protagonist narrating some exposition dialogue that compliments the onscreen action rather than detracting from it.
The plot is essentially nothing new, young, inventive, misunderstood Chief’s son Hiccup tries his best to help, but his attempts and inventions cause more problems than they avert. Naturally his father doesn’t listen to him and he is the least popular member of the village amongst his peers, if not the whole village to whom looking after the boy seems to less preferable to a trip towards certain death. It’s a fairly standard trope in animation of the last few decades, but the film manages to stay the course without it venturing into the cliché.
He, of course, is not happy with his lot as the blacksmith’s apprentice, and intends to prove his worth by slaying a dragon. During the opening attack he manages to use his rope cannon to entangle a Night Fury, the most dangerous type of dragon, but when it comes down to the deed itself, his heart falters at the creatures helplessness and he instead sets it loose. He later discovers that it is unable to escape the valley it fell into due to a broken tail fan; broken by Hiccup’s earlier rope cannon device (I forget its real name).
Meanwhile the tribe sail off in search of the dragons’ nest, with the blacksmith left in charge of a group of teens, who are to be trained to fight the dragons in lieu of the fact that it’s probable that many of the tribe won’t come back. The film spends most of the rest of it runtime juxtaposing between the teens efforts in training and Hiccup's befriending of Toothless - he names the dragon this due to seeing him with his teeth hidden via being retracted - and subsequent discoveries of the idiosyncrasies of the creatures; which knowledge he uses to his advantage while coming to the realisation that dragons are far from the blood-thirsty creatures they’ve been painted as being.
In the meantime he also fashions a new prosthetic fan for Toothless’ tail, which both boy and dragon - the latter rather reluctantly - soon realise needs cooperation between the two to work properly, adding strength to the bond the two develop.
In all, sans the fact that here be dragons, the film has what could be said as a fairly standard story awkward teen befriends animal that’s been around in animation - and films in general - for a while, however with the great deal of polish that the crew have given to the production, the fact the story is in it basic form old, never gets given the change to come to mind.
The main comedy is personality and situation based, you know the kind that flows naturally and is maybe not laugh out loud stuff, but is more akin to good film creation than a never-ending barrage of pop-culture.
The most pop-culture reference related thingy I got from the film was that one of the teen trainees reminded me of a young Jack Black and another of the characters – the male twin - reminded me of Jay from Clerks,† although that might be overlooking for pop-culture due to ending up with that mindset, because let’s face it, most of Dreamworks film are pop-culture-a-thons.
The animation is, naturally for a top-tier movie studio outstanding throughout, with meticulous attention to detail. Characters have a sense of individuality in their movements; the dragons are neat designs, although we only get to delve in any depth with Toothless.
Toothless - recreated from the book into the feared Night Fury - in both his design and the sounds he made, reminded me a lot of Sanders other creation Stitch; mixed with the mannerisms of a cat (or is it dog). He acts as the glue that holds the story together, a fair holding given his role in the story. He shifts from defensive, curious, playful to courageous and even pitiful throughout. Outside of animal noises - that sounds like they being made by Chris Sanders - the dragon is a pure animation character and the animation does a fine job convening him as a living sentient being.
Dreamworks has a great, but not perfect film in How to Train Your Dragon, and while it may not be the deepest ever story ever told, it is sincere in it goals and emotions, doesn’t talk down to its audience is dramatic, at times moving and has that intangible polish you get when a film’s production team obviously really enjoyed making it.
Dreamworks now has quite a few films to its name that don’t rely on a barrage of culture references to be entertaining. And here’s to hoping that future Dreamworks projects continue to take heed that your film doesn’t need to be full of baloney faux-humour to sell itself.
*As far as I’m concerned, while the depth of vision that the 3D effect made was in many respects, spectacular and I thankful that the filmmakers kept the depth perception inside the frame, instead of projecting out of it; although saying this, I still confident that I would have enjoyed the film just as much in 2D. I also probably wouldn’t have the eyestrain and subsequent headache that the polarising glasses gave me through most of the movie – and the hours after it.
†specifically Jay, with also made me think that the character who reminded me of Jack Black could’ve been Silent Bob – only without the silent part.
The short starts with Jerry getting Tom thrown out of the house by Mamma Two-Shoes. At first the mouse enjoys himself, but soon boredom sets in and the mouse watches Tom through the window, pining for the excitement that has left his life. A narrator – quite nicely voiced by Hanna – convinces Jerry to get Tom back into the house and his life. Jerry proceeds to wave a white flag and tells his plan to Tom in a rare moment of the two talking semi-intelligibly to each other, meaning that the audience can understand some of the words.
The rest of the cartoon is basically a play act or send-up of the usual Tom and Jerry hi-jinks, as the two put up a nice little pretence which in many ways is a refreshing twist on the old setup.
One of my personal favorite Tom and Jerry cartoons.
The series thankfully also holds true to the personas of Chip and Dale, even fleshing them out a little by exasperating their differences, which are even more pronounced here than they were in their theatrical shorts. To say that Chip is the serious one and Dale is a fun loving goof would be a simplistic generalisation, but it is in essence true.
One thing I cottoned onto quite quickly was the fact that most of – though not all – the episodes were character themed, meaning the episode centred on one of the characters and their quirks. Chip questioning his leadership abilities, Gadget her inventions and so on. I also learnt that my favourite ones where either Dale or Zipper led, or else starred the inept scientist Prof. Nimnul, the former two because they were always, in some ways the underdogs of the team, the later because the cartoon would take a sci-fi route with references to cult horror movies like The Fly as well as classic invasion movies (references which I enjoy even more as an adult).
The animation is, as you would expect from a company like Disney, pretty much as top notch as TV animation got back then, which generally means that it stands up rather well today. The musical themes are rousing and the occasional - usually well written - song breaks up the action in a few episodes. The written is generally highly competent and voiced with flair by the actors. Certainly, you get the impression that the creators enjoyed making the show.
It was one of my Childhood favourites at the time it originally aired and to find that it still stand tall to that which came later speaks of the care that it creators put into it. Like much of the content that came out of the Disney Afternoon, it was definitely worth one’s viewing time back then and is a show that is still very much worth owning on DVD.
First thing, this is a funny animal (or anthropomorphic if you prefer – I know that some might even prefer the term furry) rendition of the tale, with Jim Hawkins portrayed as a dog and the surge of the seas Silver as a fox. Many of the hero characters are canine in general, although Jane looks more vulpine. Outside of that, the Island has been changed into a land of nightmarish dangers and magical trappings. The main points of the story, searching for the treasure and regaining the Hispanola, are present and correct, Silver is a decent threat and sometimes unlikely ally.
Perhaps the greatest departure of all from the story is that of the reinvention of Blind Pew, a one-note, bit player in the novel. In this version he is the demonic overload of the pirates who makes even the normally restraint Silver jittery. His glowing yellow eyes and disembodied raspy voice do make him one of the more creepy villains in cartoon-land. As the series progressed his connections with some kind of occult power became ever more apparent, one character, Jane, noted about how Pew’s impairments were possibly just a façade in the second season when Jim states that they were safe because they wouldn’t be seen by him, she says “I don’t think I believe that anymore”.
The plots can be a bit outlandish and darkish at times, such as the cave that turns Jim into a backward talking piece of Picasso art, but generally come under: a) raids of the pirates to get a hold of the map or b) Jim and co. following the riddle like clues printed on the map, only to be foiled at the end. Both plotlines tend towards both parties strengthening their resolves to achieving their retrospective goals. The storyline is also, mostly chronological, especially the second season. Both seasons have endings, but to say what happens would spoil it for others.
FilmFair’s animation is top notch considering that British animation generally doesn’t have the budgets that other Countries I could mention might; but of course this was a multi-million pound project and so should look the part. Excellent animation – by television standards anyway – combined with a great voice cast and more than competent writing created a series which was memorable in the less than forgiving medium of TV animation.
While it may not be the best animated series that my country has produced, it is certainly a very worthwhile one.
Course, you wouldn’t know it watching Eliot while he’s ‘animating’ a car chase during an episode, complaining all the way, but then as Hart tells him, it was his idea.
Jim Henson and Nelvana prove themselves to be worthy partners in this animation production, which is probably one of the best users of blending animation with live-action that television has to offer. Of course the live-action part utilises muppets, so it may not be the most live-action that live-action can be; seeing that muppets can overact with the best toons around.
The normal everyday annoyances, usually the creation of his neighbours, friends or his wheezing bulldog superintendent/dogsbody(?) Bruno, are the things that inspire the stories of Eilot’s most famous cartoon series: The Adventures of Ace Hart, sort of an art imitating life thing, the old question of where does an artist get their inspiration from – which many of Eilot’s friends themselves ask – answered in a sly way, without shouting it from the rooftops. As well as the situations, many of Eilot’s friends are incorporated into the cartoon, the wheezing bulldog superintendent is a dead ringing – personality wise if not 100 in appearance – for crime boss Bubsy Vile.
In a kind of homage to those old detective pulps and movie serials, the villains tend to place Hart onto elaborate death traps which look like they offer no chance of escape, usually resulted in Hart yelling to Elliot as to how he suppose to save himself and anyone else sharing his fate. Like those old serials of the 1930s (and their common phase “to be continue next week”), the solution were/are usually a slight re-edit/redrawing of the scene, introducing some small element to the mix which offers just enough leeway to allow for Hart to do some implausible stunt, thus becoming free. Probably the most famous one being the one in the opening credits where surrounded by villains, Ace is saved by Elliot painting an elevator around the canine detective before descending into the hard concrete of the road, leaving the villains confused and a bit ticked-off.
For Hart is the only one who knows of the ‘real’ world and is constantly commentating on the story will his creator, usually with the two at odds with each other, or some outside influence. This makes for some fun moments, especially since both characters can be a bit hot-headed and inpatient at times. Arguments about the direction of the plot, or when there is a lack of action and Hart is getting bored, or vice-versa, it helps to make the series that little bit more special and earns it that extra half-star that separates the good from the excellent.
Nelvana is a company that generally is good at the animation side of things,* Dog City is no exception to this heritage. The animation is strong throughout, although by this time that is to be expected, television animation was out of the rut it had suffered through many a year. Yet its those interactions that are the series bread and butter and it uses them to great effect, in some ways its an extension of the concepts of Duck Amuck and the like, but it is a favourable comparison; as it is an extremely well made, entertaining and at time laugh out funny, Dog City is a show I wholeheartedly recommend.
*Of course, they have had their fair share of the bad as well.