The Croods

March 22, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Nicholas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds
Directed by: Kirk De Micco (“Space Chimps”) and Chris Sanders (“How to Train Your Dragon”)
Written by: Kirk De Micco (“Space Chimps”) and Chris Sanders (“How to Train Your Dragon”)

They may not be the modern-Stone Age family most are familiar with in the cartoon caveman world, but “The Croods” is just as satisfying as any brontosaurus burger you’re likely to find at a prehistoric drive-thru. Sure, the characterizations can sway into familiar territory, but with some overall rock-solid voice acting and directors/writers Kirk De Micco (“Space Chimps”) and Chris Sanders (“How to Train Your Dragon”) digging deep into their imaginations for some fun storytelling, “The Croods” is a family-friendly winner in any era.

While the title of the film isn’t a great way to introduce us to the family (they might as well have called them The Uncooths or The Roughinskys), “The Croods” makes up for it in entertaining albeit recognizable characters. Grug (Nicholas Cage) is the overly-protective patriarch of the family, who uses fear-mongering to get his family to always stay safe in the confines of their cave. Monstrous cat-like creatures roam the terrain, after all. His rebellious teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone), however, is curious to know what she is missing in a world so full of wonder (“Little Mermaid” anyone?). Rounding out the family tree is Eep’s mother Ugga (Catherine Keener), the logical thinker of the family who understands where her daughter is coming from; Eep’s dopey brother Thunk (Clark Duke), who is basically Chris Griffin (“Family Guy”) in woolly mammoth clothing; Gran (Cloris Leachman), who technically isn’t a Crood since she’s Grugs’s mother-in-law, but still delivers some old-lady laughs; and Sandy (Randy Thom), a toddler that acts more like a Gremlin than baby.

When the family meet Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a more civilized version their Neanderthal selves, Ugg is skeptical of all the fancy inventions he introduces them to like fire and shoes. Driven from their home after a natural disaster, the Croods are forced to journey through strange lands to find a new place to inhabit. During their barefoot road trip, the family learns that experiencing new things is all part of life and doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be eaten whole by a Sabre-Toothed Tiger.

It’s a wonderful message for kids and stops short before rubbing their faces in it. The colorful and incredibly striking animation and funny sight gags and slapstick are what will keep children under the age of eight the most fascinated anyway. Parents, too, shouldn’t find themselves bored with a collection of exotic animals and settings. The creativity makes the Croods’ cave-hunting all the more exciting. The deeper family story also never slow the narrative down in any way. In fact, “The Croods” says a lot more about the father/daughter relationship than Pixar’s “Brave” said about mothers and daughters last year.

Like in some animated films, there is a scene-stealing secondary character like the Minions in “Despicable Me” or the sly penguins in the “Madagascar” franchise. So take heed parents because Belt, Guy’s loveable sloth who he keeps around his waist, will keep everyone laughing with his cliffhanger-inspired crooning. If you’re lucky, the plush version (and not the stinky alive version) will be on your kids’ Christmas lists this year.

Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders – How to Train Your Dragon

March 26, 2010 by  
Filed under Interviews

If filmmaker Dean DeBlois had his own dragon to do as he pleased, he admits he might do a little damage midair.

“That’s every kid’s dream,” said DeBlois, whose animated movie “How to Train Your Dragon” opens March 26. “To get on the back of something that could take flight like that would be unbelievable. I would crush every mountain I could find!”

Co-director/co-writer Chris Sanders interjects with his plans as if he had thought about it many times before.

“I would bypass traffic,” Sanders said gleefully, “and torment my enemies!”

As veterans in the animation industry, there hasn’t been much time for destruction as there has for creating new and fantastic worlds and characters. The last time DeBlois, 39, and Sanders, 50, directed and wrote the same movie was for 2002’s “Lilo & Stitch,” a film that also featured Sanders as the voice of the troublesome title alien.

In late 2008, the duo reunited for “Dragon,” a story about scrawny Viking named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) who captures and befriends a rare dragon he calls Toothless. As he becomes familiar with the mysterious beast, Hiccup realizes they are not the destructive creatures everyone thought they were. The film is based on a British children’s novel by Cressida Cowell.

During an interview with me, DeBlois and Sanders talked about why they were brought onto the project, how much input they had on the design of the dragons, and how they were able to put a unique twist on a mythological subject that has been featured on the big screen before.

I read the two of you were named as directors late into the process. How was your role explained to you coming onto a film that was already in production?

Dean DeBlois: When I first came onto the movie in 2008, they had already spent a couple of years adapting the book rather faithfully. They discovered the story didn’t really lend itself to a 90-minute feature film. We were in charge of aging up the project a little, bringing it to an epic scale, and trying to make more of a fantasy adventure out of the elements.

Did that mean you had to start from scratch?

Chris Sanders: We took the story back to scratch. The environments and the characters almost all had been built already. It became a little bit of a puzzle because we had to use those existing elements. It was more about getting back to the basis of the story. We make some very big editorial decisions. In the book there are elements of dragons and Vikings at war. There are also elements of dragons and Vikings being cooperative with each other. We had to decide and go one way or the other. We went with Vikings and dragons as mortal enemies. That was good for Hiccup’s character because that meant when he befriended the dragon he was taking the greatest risk he could take.

Were any of the characters changed once you came on board?

DD: Our character designer gave us a diverse range of different breeds of dragons and we were able to give them very specific personality traits. Toothless was redesigned so he could be a larger, more powerful, and more menacing.

Explain what directors do on the set of an animated film aside from working with the voice actors.

CS: It’s all about staying in touch with the story. As directors on this film we attended to the story. Whether it was working with someone who is lighting a scene or producing effects for the scene, it’s all about seeing that those things are contributing to the story in the right way. Because the story is constantly evolving it’s important that we are there for all the critical story moments.

There is some great voice work in this film. Talk about the talent you had and how you got those performances out of them.

DD: In this particular film, not only did we have the great ad lib talents of Jay Baruchel and Jonah Hill, we had the opportunity to get some of the actors to work together in the sound booth at the same time, which is sort of a rarity in animation. It didn’t feel cobbled together.

CS: We always encourage every actor to ad lib and build on what we’ve written. All of them were fantastic. It was critical to have them riff off one another. They just need to be as flavorful and as funny as possible.

How to Train Your Dragon

March 26, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler
Directed by: Dean DeBlois (“Lilo & Stich”) and Chris Sanders (“Lilo & Stitch”)
Written by: Dean DeBlois (“Lilo & Stich”) and Chris Sanders (“Lilo & Stitch”)

While most animation studios will probably be restless until June when Pixar unleashes the goliath that is “Toy Story 3,” that doesn’t mean any of them should raise their white flag just yet.

Sure, Pixar might still be considered the leader in its field (it’s picked up the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature the last three years in a row), but over the last few years other animation studios are getting the hint: no matter how spellbinding the computer-generated characters are, the narrative also has to be first-rate.

While DreamWorks Animation has had its ups and downs since branching off as its own entity in 2004,  the studio proved to have the talent necessary to deliver something as invigorating as 2008’s “Kung Fu Panda.” Of course, the “Shrek” franchise is still the studio’s moneymaker, so when something comes along like “How to Train Your Dragon,” a series of British children’s books that could possibly spawn a new string of movies, it’s not surprising that DreamWorks heads wanted to make sure they got the first one just right.

And to be quite honest, these fire-breathers definitely have some bite.

In “Dragon,” one of the books in a series written by Cressida Cowell, geek-for-hire Jay Baruchel (“She’s Out of My League”) lends his voice to the lead character, Hiccup, a scrawny little Viking who doesn’t look like his burly father Stoic (Gerard Butler) or any of the other savage warriors that make up his colony.

Hiccup might dream to one day slay a dragon (they’re apparently as rampant as roaches and destroy everything) but without the upper body strength to lift a sledgehammer or do anything else that makes a Viking a conquering force in medieval times, Hiccup is better left to tinker with his brainy inventions and teenage self-consciousness. He is, however, able to prove that enthusiasm is just as important as talent when he does the impossible and captures his own dragon.

Despite doing it in an unconventional way (and without anyone noticing his feat), Hiccup has done more that just bring down the beast; he has netted the most feared and mysterious dragons in all of the land: the Night Fury. This is one of the treats in “Dragon.” Not all of the dragons are designed in the same mold. Adapting Cowell’s story, directors/writers Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders give each breed of dragon their own distinct traits and personalities.

As Hiccup bonds with his new friend, who he names Toothless, he realizes dragon are not the horrible creatures Vikings thought they were. When the colony decides they should allow Hiccup his chance to demonstrate his warrior spirit by going through dragon training, which will later lead to making his first kill, he finds himself at a crossroad.

Now, with a deeper understanding of the species, Hiccup must find a way to make his father proud without bringing harm to the misunderstood dragons. With a team of misfit Viking peers training beside him, including love interest Astrid (America Ferrera), it’s only a matter of time before Hiccup’s secret becomes far too massive for him to keep silent.

While many of the elements are familiar, “Dragon” is a lively family action-comedy that shines especially when both Vikings and dragons share the screen. Whether it’s Hiccup and Toothless creating a friendship or the “Gladiator”-like sequences of fire-breathing dragons and risk-taking teenage Vikings fight it out on the battleground, “Dragon” is a neat adventure.

The 3-D animation also works in “Dragon” especially for those exhilarating scenes where Hiccup and his pet dragon sail across the infinite sky like the protagonists in “Avatar.” It’s a sight to behold for children and adults alike who are tired of unoriginal animation that barely flutters off the ground.