There are instructional guides for everything nowadays. Bright sparks and academics compile recipes for far more than just food. Type the word “instruction” into Amazon and you get back motivational guides, martial arts handbooks, “Traditional Patchwork Quilt Patterns” and even “The Baby Owner’s Manual”.
Personally, I’ve never owned a pet. As a child I would recoil at bounding dogs, repulsed by their drooling eagerness. I’d love a canine companion now, my very own incarnation of man’s best friend to walk and pamper and pat, but I wouldn’t know the first thing about caring for an animal. Well I’d like to think I wouldn’t kill it too swiftly, but it would be handy to avoid charges of animal cruelty or worse, incur the brutal intimidation and mudslinging of animal rights activists. So another scan of Amazon and perhaps “The Dog Owner’s Maintenance Log” is for me or “Dog Grooming for Dummies”.
I can’t help but think that, given my inept fondness for dogs, I’d be even more out of my depth with a creature that’s much harder to love. A tarantula or iguana for example. I know for a fact that should I bump into a dragon in a dark alley or atop a windswept cliff, a pocket sized book entitled “How To Train Your Dragon” would be of considerable use.
There are countless books and “must have” guides to the film industry as well, with everything from screenwriting to lighting covered somewhere in print. I’m willing to bet that somewhere there’s a section on the importance of a title for your Hollywood Blockbuster. Get that name wrong and nothing else will matter. The title of your story should be an instant hook, with an air of mystery and definitely not so dull as to repulse potential viewers before they’ve so much as glanced at the rest of your poster. At first How To Train Your Dragon seemed a poor idea for a film title to me, despite the inevitable quirky interest around that last word. It’s a name for a user’s guide not an all conquering family movie phenomenon.
How To Train Your Dragon became something of a surprise hit though last Easter, and had not only sizeable audiences but unanimous critical praise. Rotten Tomatoes carries a 98% critic rating and 90% audience satisfaction for the film. For me this was initially surprising, given that How To Train Your Dragon contains hearty helpings of a foul smelling ingredient most recipes for good films would advise strongly against.
How To Train Your Dragon is completely predictable. And predictability, it’s easy to learn watching, writing and reading about films, is often just another word for bad. Samey storylines you’ve seen before, nine times out of ten stir up nothing but annoyance in the mind of an audience, and if not audiences then almost certainly reviewers. If the trajectory of a film is obvious and its ending plain from the opening scene, it doesn’t usually make for engaging entertainment.
But How To Train Your Dragon has flagged up an important truth for me. Some films thrive on the predictable, namely family films. There has to be a certain satisfactory happy ending, a particular sense of bonding and struggle, a recognisable group of relationships between characters. And I was wrong to say that How To Train Your Dragon is completely predictable. It’s got a refreshingly non-American setting for a start and a reasonably original twist on a familiar premise.
There’s something of a 3D trend in films at the moment, specifically in animation. I get the feeling that a handful of moments in this film, spectacular flying sequences and fluid fire, would be as good as anything yet seen in 3D. But as it was I made do with the small screen, DVD experience. And How To Train Your Dragon is still a pretty little film.
It kicks off with a funny and adrenalin pumping action sequence, with a Viking village under attack from marauding dragons swooping from above. Buildings explode and burn vividly in the night, illuminating the dark coastal scenery. We’re swiftly and efficiently introduced to all the main players with considerable humour and the set-up of age old conflict between two races is established. For an animated film it’s a surprisingly impressive start. And best of all the ending trumps this memorable beginning.
We meet Hiccup, voiced by Jay Baruchel, working out of the way in a Blacksmiths. He’s the weak son of Viking leader Stoick the Vast, voiced by Gerard Butler as an essentially family friendly version of his Spartan king in 300. Hiccup’s a disappointment and an outsider. But as the film progresses he finds he has a strange affinity with the dragons and begins to uncover the reality of their nature. He’s guided along the way by sympathetic Gobber (Craig Ferguson), a Viking trainer, and finds a love interest in Astrid, voiced by America Ferrera. Astrid is cleverly and amusingly introduced in the opening action scene, walking away from an explosion in a satire of typical action films, to the sarcastic, smitten voiceover of Jay Baruchel.
In my opinion How To Train Your Dragon, a Dreamworks production, lacks the heart wrenching sentimentality and visual wow factor and beauty of a Pixar film. But as other films like the Shrek franchise show, Dreamworks do funny, tongue in cheek, successful animation, with good characters, really well.
Two interesting DVD extras delve into the casting process behind the film and its technical processes respectively. I find the process of characterisation and casting when there’s only a voice to work with extremely interesting and it’s intriguing to hear the filmmakers’ thoughts on how they got that right. In the visual production segment of the extras there’s a wonderful explanation of the various types of dazzling fire used to help distinguish between the wide varieties of dragons on show.
In short How To Train Your Dragon is a perfectly cooked family meal. It’s hardly dining at the Ritz but no one likes a snob and sometimes there’s nothing more fun than well executed comfort.
DVD Review: As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me
Last year Peter Weir made his directorial return with The Way Back, a star studded and old fashioned tale about the possibly true and possibly grossly exaggerated escape of a group of Polish prisoners of war from a Siberian gulag. Its critical reception was mixed, with some praising the film’s ambition and visuals, whilst others bemoaned its fatal lack of emotional engagement. However a German film, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, beat Weir’s epic to the broad concept by nine years.
Released in 2001 As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, now available on DVD, follows a German officer fleeing from imprisonment on Siberia’s easternmost shore. And for this reason its ethical foundations are considerably flimsier and more controversial than The Way Back’s.
This is saying something because The Way Back was based on a bestseller by Slavomir Rawicz, which since publication, has been disputed and branded a fake from a number of sources. And yet Weir’s film is unlikely to be attacked for historical bias of any kind. The story of Poles and Jews getting one over on their persecutors, be they German or Russian, is a common and acceptable one. Make your hero a German who has fought for a Nazi controlled state and buying into the character becomes far more complex.
Some might say that the way in which As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is told twists and distorts historical fact. We see Bernhard Betterman’s Clemens Forell hug his wife and young daughter goodbye on the platform in 1944 Germany. Then we cut swiftly to Forell being sentenced to 25 years forced labour in Siberia. He is charged with war crimes but the implication is that Forell is being unfairly condemned by corrupt and vengeful Communists. Then there is a long and grim train journey across the cold expanse of Russia, with glimpses of the grim hardships to come. Finally, exhausted from malnutrition and a hike through the snow, they are thrust into life at a camp.
Throughout all of this we discover nothing about Forell’s war record and his potential sins and little too about his political sympathies. He is shown to be a compassionate and brave man though; in other words a typical hero. He treasures the picture of his family and uses it for galvanising motivation that replaces the sustenance of food and drink. It is never explicitly mentioned during the camp scenes and moments of inhumane, cruel punishment but the shadow hanging over the story the whole time is that of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. You can’t help but feel uneasy as your sympathies inevitably gather around Forell in his struggle.
Of course the debate about the moralities of the Second World War and the balance of its sins can hardly be squeezed into a film review. Indeed the sensible view is probably to admit that it’s an unsolvable problem; evil was committed on both sides on an unimaginable scale. Stalin’s Russia was carrying out atrocities throughout the 1930s, long before the worst of Hitler’s cruelties were inflicted and on a larger scale than the Holocaust. It’s impossible to reason with or categorize such statistics of death and horrific eyewitness anecdotes. But this is a film that unavoidably makes the viewer think about such issues and not necessarily in the best of ways.
I don’t object to a story from a German soldier’s perspective. In fact I find it refreshing and necessary to witness an often overlooked point of view. But As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me glosses over too much at times, so that it becomes ethically dubious, compromising and limiting your investment in the narrative. The filmmakers will probably argue they are simply telling the story from Forell’s viewpoint alone. I think this argument falls down because of the film’s other weaknesses in plausibility though.
As Forell slowly makes his way back, first through Siberian snow, then Siberian summers and on through other outposts of the USSR, in a muddled route elongated by the help and hindrance of kind (and not so kind) strangers, we are continually shown glimpses of his waiting family in Germany. These scenes are so unconvincing that they spark the questions about the rest of the film.
The lives of his family are completely unaffected by the war, with only two exceptions; one is his ever present absence and the other a throwaway remark by the son Forell has never met, which his mother labels “Yankee talk”. Presumably they have therefore encountered American occupiers in some way. Forell’s daughter is only ever shown getting upset or dreaming about her lost father. I’m not being callous but the girl was young when her father left and her reaction is so simplistic that it punctures the believability of the entire story. I’m not saying she wouldn’t be absolutely devastated by her father’s absence but she would perhaps have moved on in some way. The possibility of Forell’s wife finding another man is never raised and they never give him up for dead.
All of this, coupled with the chief of security from the Siberian camp pursuing Forell across Russia like an ultimate nemesis, transforms As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me into am unrealistic fairytale. Forell is helped by a Jew at one point but the issue is merely touched upon. The period elements of this film are so secondary that they become redundant, but then the film does not claim to be “inspired by true events”.
It’s possible to enjoy this film if you look at it as simply one man’s impossible journey back to his impossibly perfect family. At way over two hours long, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is hopelessly brutal at times but somehow snappy too. It’s an engaging enough example of traditional storytelling, despite my doubts, but the only truths to be found are symbolic and stereotypical.
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