GODS OF EGYPT (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Fantasy Violence and Action, and some Sexuality

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Directed by: Alex Proyas

Written by: Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless

Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Gerard Butler, Chadwick Boseman, Elodie Yung, Courtney Eaton, Rufus Sewell, Geoffrey Rush & Bryan Brown

Let’s ignore for a moment that GODS OF EGYPT is a colossal box office flop that only grossed a tenth of its budget back in its opening weekend. Let’s not even begin to get into the controversial white-washing of ancient Egyptian deities. Let’s just totally wipe aside that director Alex Proyas took to Facebook in order to scold movie critics and compare them to vultures pecking at a carcass. With these three major things put aside, let me just examine GODS OF EGYPT as a film, as pure entertainment. When taken as a big dumb Egyptian version of CLASH OF THE TITANS, GODS OF EGYPT is awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, and mind-blowing. Before you rush to crucify me or watch this movie, please hear me out.

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Before putting context to my earlier descriptions, let me lay out what I can of GODS OF EGYPT’s plot. The story takes place in ancient Egypt (duh!), but this isn’t your history teacher’s ancient Egypt. This ancient Egypt lies on a flat world and is populated by gods and mortals alike. The only differences between gods and mortals is that gods are tall, strong, bleed gold, and can occasionally transform into shiny animal forms. If that sounds stupid, just wait. Bek (Brenton Thwaites) is an Aladdin-type street rat and isn’t exactly a fan of gods, while his slave girlfriend Zaya (Courtney Eaton) has faith in air god Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).

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Bek’s prejudice seems justified when evil god of the desert Set (Gerard Butler) crashes Horus’s coronation, kills Osiris (Bryan Brown), and rips out Horus’s eyeballs in front of…well, everyone else’s eyes. He also induces a toll on death, so the poor will vanish into thin air and only the rich will gain access to the afterlife. Bek decides that he isn’t having any of Set’s bull and steals one of Horus’s missing eyeballs in a sequence that rips off RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. With his sight partially restored and screwy depth perception, Horus takes Bek and a variety of smaller gods on a seemingly never-ending quest to take down Set and restore Egypt to its former glory…but Set is already up to a bigger evil scheme of his own.

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To be fair, Horus and Bek’s quest feels never-ending because the story seems to be making itself up as it goes along. It’s truly awe-inspiring that two writers penned this screenplay together, got it funded to the tune of 140 million dollars, and that was completed by a director who has delivered quality genre entertainment in the past (ala THE CROW and I, ROBOT). The cold, hard truth is that GODS OF EGYPT’s script feels like it wouldn’t support a subpar video game. The 126-minute running time certainly doesn’t help matters, because the movie crawls along at a glacial pace. I know a lot of people hate the CLASH OF THE TITANS remake (I seem to be in the minority of those who actually enjoy that film), but at least that film had the decency to be thirty minutes shorter than GODS OF EGYPT.

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The performances are jaw-dropping in how utterly confused everyone seems. It’s as if the cast read the script, shrugged their shoulders, and said “Well, I’ll do my own thing and this movie will work itself out.” Every actor seems to be going in an entirely different direction with the material. Brenton Thwaites is playing Bek as Egyptian Aladdin. This means his dialogue is filled with lame quips passing for humor, e.g. asking aloud “Where do you even get that many scorpions?” while looking down at a scorpion-infested booby trap. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister from GAME OF THRONES), Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther from CIVIL WAR), and Elodie Yung (Elektra from Netflix’s DAREDEVIL) all seem to be playing their roles as straight as possible. Meanwhile, Gerard Butler sounds like he’s trying to pull some sort of indescribable accent…or simply got drunk as a coping mechanism for starring in this pile of sphinx excrement.

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GODS OF EGYPT is downright mind-blowing when you consider that this film had a budget of 140 million and the computer effects look like they belong in a subpar PlayStation 2 game, complete with herky-jerky movements. This movie tries and utterly fails to bring cool moments to the screen. There’s a couple of fire-breathing monster snakes here, a riddle-spouting giant Sphinx there, and not to mention spiky death traps, a hazy afterlife, the creator’s realm, a giant cosmic leech and many other creatures. However, none of these visuals look good or completely rendered. All of this CGI looks half-assed, stupid beyond reason and laughably awful.

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If you want to sit through a bloated plot that makes up its own rules as it goes along and drags for over two hours, GODS OF EGYPT might be your movie. If you want to watch poorly rendered CGI take up every inch of your screen and a half-drunk Gerard Butler hatch out a senselessly clichéd evil scheme, then GODS OF EGYPT might be your movie. If you like scenes filled with spinning cameras to a nauseating degree and slow motion that’s clearly being used to somewhat obscure poorly choreographed fighting, then GODS OF EGYPT might be your movie. If you want a well-written story, cool stylized action or enjoyable big dumb entertainment, then pick another film…because GODS OF EGYPT is not your movie!

Grade: F

BEOWULF & GRENDEL (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and some Sexuality

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Directed by: Sturla Gunnarsson

Written by: Andrew Rai Berzins

(based on the epic poem BEOWULF)

Starring: Gerard Butler, Stellan Skarsgard, Sarah Polley, Ingvar Sigurdsson & Tony Curran

It seems like the epic poem of BEOWULF cannot be adapted properly into the cinematic medium. This problem seems to stem from filmmakers and screenwriters feeling the need to put their own “unique” spin on the beloved source material, while neglecting that the script practically writes itself. The epic poem serves as a blueprint for current tales of heroism and fantasy, but everybody has to put their unneeded little twist on it. BEOWULF & GRENDEL is a supposedly more humanized version of BEOWULF that comes off as contrived, frequently dull and poorly constructed in every sense. It’s not that a little creativity on old material can’t be a good thing, but this movie is a shoddy mess all around.

The time is 500 A.D. and the place is Denmark. King Hrothgar has just slain a troll on the edge of his land. The troll’s young son witnesses the bloody affair and hides in the seclusion of nearby caves. Years pass and the young troll has grown up into a powerful beast named Grendel. In that enormous period of time, Grendel has plotted his revenge against Hrothgar’s kingdom. As bodies pile up and the king drinks himself into a stupor, the heroic Beowulf comes to the shores with the intentions of slaying Grendel. However, the situation soon appears more complex than originally thought. Beowulf starts to realize that maybe Grendel isn’t the monster that everyone is making him out to be, but a bloody deed must be completed before Beowulf can sail back home.

If there were a single compliment that I could give BEOWULF & GRENDEL, it would be about the locations. The film was shot in Iceland and the landscapes are simply beautiful. This lone positive quality makes the rest of the film feel like the giant cinematic disaster that it is. The production values appear to be fairly cheap, but that’s no excuse for poorly executed scenes that become unintentionally hilarious at points. Take for example when a rubber-looking webbed hand casually comes out of the ocean and caresses Beowulf’s face. The moment almost seems like it was intended as a jolt-worthy scare, but plays off in a passive way. The editing looks hastily glued together, especially during the final conflict. When it’s not cheesy or stupid enough to be unintentionally comedic, the pacing of the film really drags this whole thing down. Despite whatever new spin is put on the material, one thing is for certain: BEOWULF should never be boring. This film has two modes: dumb and dull. That’s about it.

Aside from awful production values and wasted locations, the acting is beyond bad from everybody. The dialogue is riddled with so much swearing that it becomes distracting. If curse words are to be used in the dialogue, they should feel like they’re a natural part of the character who happens to be saying them. It feels like the frequent F-bombs were really the only thing that got this film the R rating as the violence and sex are surprisingly tame. Gerard Butler portrays Beowulf as a bland guy who doesn’t seem the least bit heroic or someone worth caring about. He’s wooden delivery of “I am Beowulf” made me chuckle a few times. I mean, even Ray Winstone put emotion into those lines in 2007’s misguided animated adaptation and he was a cartoon character. Stellan Skarsgard chews the scenery as the drunken king. Two unneeded characters come in the forms of Sarah Polley as a witch and Eddie Marsan as a cowardly Christian missionary. Finally, the portrayal of Grendel merely consists of a guy in heavy make-up who occasionally yells out a bit of gibberish, pensively stares off in the distance, and (I kid you not) plays a game of bowling with human skulls on a cliff.

I’m not completely opposed to a creative take on the age-old tale of BEOWULF, but it would be nice to see a proper adaptation grace the screen as well. Even though there might have been creative liberties taken in this film that could have possibly played off well in other hands, this movie fails at everything it’s trying to do. I didn’t feel an ounce of sympathy towards Grendel or any emotion for any given character in the film. I was bored instead of excited. The locations are gorgeous, but wasted on a poorly written screenplay. Even though Syfy produced its own take on the material (simply titled GRENDEL), BEOWULF & GRENDEL feels very much like it deserves regular airings on the Syfy Channel. The only bit of entertainment I got from this film was when a crew member accidentally wandered onto a scene that occurred 18 minutes into the running time and then quickly darted off as soon as he realized the camera was filming. BEOWULF & GRENDEL is that kind of failure.

Grade: F

CORIOLANUS (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Bloody Violence

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Directed by: Ralph Fiennes

Written by: John Logan

(based on the play CORIOLANUS by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, John Kani, James Nesbitt & Paul Jesson

Shakespeare’s last recorded tragedy, CORIOLANUS, has never fully gone on to receive the acclaim of HAMLET or MACBETH. There are quite a few reasons for this. The biggest of which being that this play is not the easiest story to read or watch. The original text suffers from some of the same issues that RICHARD III and ANTONY CLEOPATRA have: far too many scenes that serve as quick exposition and lead for a longer running time than necessary. Ralph Fiennes wisely decided to take on CORIOLANUS as his directorial debut, as well as performing as the title character. Screenwriter John Logan and director Fiennes turned a very complex play into something accessible. The story has been relocated into an alternate present day Rome and modern technology has made its way into the war scenes. Action movie elements and a gritty atmosphere make for a thrilling experience that will delight Shakespeare fans and possibly intrigue those who don’t exactly care for Shakespeare.

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Times are tough in Rome due to a war with the nearby terrorist-like Volsci. Civil liberties have been revoked and food is being withheld from citizens. One general in particular, Caius Martius, despises the ordinary citizens and is very public about his low opinion of them. Being sent yet again into battle, Martius confronts the Volscian commander Tullus Aufidius, whom he has encountered on numerous occasions. After coming back home wounded and victorious (despite losing a whole lot of men), Caius Martius is awarded the official name of Coriolanus and runs for consul in the Roman Senate. Unfortunately for the newly named Coriolanus, public opinion is largely negative of him and he is soon betrayed by his own people. Banding with the now disgraced Aufidius, Coriolanus lays siege to his once proud country on a quest driven purely by revenge.

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Deciding to tell a Shakespeare play in a unique setting can play out brilliantly (TITUS, RICHARD III) or have a few negative connotations (ROMEO + JULIET). Luckily, CORIOLANUS is brilliantly executed. The incorporation of modern technology serves as a nice way to give exposition in a far more interesting fashion than a stage production or a traditional telling. For example, key information (delivered by messengers in the original text) is glimpsed in news broadcasts giving enough details to further along the plot and not diminishing any momentum. Another stylistic choice used is to play two separate scenes (one of which comes far before the other in actual play itself) at the same time. This means we cut between a relatively interesting conversation between two side characters and Coriolanus on a bloody battlefield littered with explosions. Far be it from me to criticize the work of one of the most celebrated writers in history, but this version of the story plays out somewhat better than the original text.

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The cast includes a variety of names that are a little unexpected to see in a modern version of Shakespeare, which also lends to the enjoyment of watching this performers have at it. Ralph Fiennes is astounding as Coriolanus. His character isn’t necessarily meant to be a sympathetic or likable person. Fiennes does lend real human emotion to the man shaped from both war and his domineering mother (played by the great Vanessa Redgrave). Brian Cox and Jessica Chastain are welcomed additions, even if they don’t receive a ton of screen time. Cox gives the most emotional and cynical performance of the bunch, jeering at his idiotic peers and feeling great sadness at witnessing Coriolanus transforming into an all-out monster. The biggest mixed bag is Gerard Butler. In moments, especially the battle scenes, Butler does what he does best in yelling and acting like a bad-ass. In the more quiet and subtle moments, he’s a bit flat.

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It’s not as if the film is loaded with action, but there’s a decent amount of on-screen bloodshed and implied violence. These war sequences are extremely well-staged and feel like a genuine modern epic mixing with Shakespeare. Shaky camera work botches a couple of otherwise cool moments, one knife fight is almost confusing as to which character is lunging and which person is being hurt. The biggest compliment I can give CORIOLANUS actually goes to the bard himself. It regards how shockingly relevant this story is in today’s world. It’s not as Shakespeare already hadn’t tackled universal themes (power, love, revenge, guilt, etc.), but there are huge political and social issues brought to life on the screen here that are possibly more prevalent now than they were at the time. The most obvious being the “glory” of war and the debate of dying for those who use you as a pawn. There’s also a not-so-subtle view on classism too. Props to both Fiennes and Logan for revamping an already relevant old text in an even more compelling setting.

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CORIOLANUS isn’t going to convince someone who already doesn’t care for Shakespeare into automatically loving the man’s work. It’s an interesting take on a lesser known play that will delight fans of the bard and interest people who are indifferent to old English literature. I’d argue that the film is worth watching purely to see Fiennes and Butler firing guns at each other while shouting Shakespearean dialogue. It’s pretty awesome that an adaptation like this still can be made in modern times and be absolutely compelling. There are a couple of problems (Gerard Butler’s mixed bag performance and some shaky camera work), but Fiennes dominating role and the fantastic social commentary far outweigh them. The story of CORIOLANUS holds up far better today than it probably did in Shakespeare’s era. This film comes highly recommended for those interested in this sort of thing.

Grade: A-

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Adventure Action and some mild Rude Humor

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Directed by: Dean DeBlois

Written by: Dean DeBlois

(based on the book series HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON by Cressida Cowell)

Voices of: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Cate Blanchett, Djimon Hounsou & Kit Harington

DreamWorks has been bringing impressive competition for Disney in computer-animated family entertainment. Out of their catalog of films, I would definitely say that HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is the best movie they’ve brought to the screen. Apparently, plenty of audiences and critics agree with me, because that first film has become acclaimed and made huge bank at the box office. It took four years for a sequel to hit theaters and was well worth the long wait to see this stellar sequel in the new animated series. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 manages to keep the level of high quality that the original had and bring to life a completely new chapter that’s unlike anything in the previous film. Usually animated sequels have an unfortunate habit of wearing out tropes that worked in the past, but DRAGON 2 takes some bold new turns. It’s a great adventure for the whole family.

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Five years have passed since dragons and Vikings have learned to live together. The village of Berk has become a wonderful ever-expanding place. With dragons being kept as pets and being rode in Quidditch-like games, everything seems to be working out perfectly. One-legged Hiccup and Toothless have taken to discovering nearby lands and expanding a map of what surrounds Berk. A chance encounter with a group of dragon hunters leads Hiccup to a familiar face from his past and brings the attention of vicious warlord Drago Bludvist.

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One of the twists that might have been genuinely (god forbid) surprising has been given away in nearly every piece of the marketing. This is just one of many ways that HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 expands the world of its predecessor and ups the stakes at every possible turn. The first film was excellent, but you could definitely tell it was a “kid’s movie” in the comical sense of humor that came through in nearly every scene. It’s a great follow-up, but DRAGON 2 made me forget I was watching “family entertainment” on multiple occasions. I don’t mean this in any sort of negative way, but I am saying that director/writer Dean DeBlois is more willing (or was allowed more room) to take risks this time around. He does and the emotional payoff to most of them resonates strongly. This is the first movie I’ve seen in 2014 where the theater burst into a round of applause when the end credits began to roll. It’s a terrifically exciting adventure that’s perfectly suitable for any age, despite heavier material thrown in here and there.

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Every memorable character returns from the first film and some get more screen time than others, but everybody is fleshed out. Two major new additions (one of which will not be specifically mentioned, even though the trailer gives it away) are also very well executed. The first film kind of followed the “secret friendship” formula of storytelling and there was no clear-cut antagonist (save for a massive dragon in the final third). DRAGON 2 introduces the intimidating Drago Bludvist and this is one of the best villains I’ve seen in an animated film for quite some time. He comes off as a little understated at first, but more the time spent on him, the more you understand what made him so cruel and why he’s such a lunatic. There was a good portion of the movie where I wanted Drago to die a horrible, painful as possible death because of how downright evil he comes off. That’s a very rare thing to see in a bad guy (especially in a computer animated “kid’s movie”).

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The visuals have gotten even better this time around and that’s saying a lot because they were really phenomenal parts of the first film. Everything is beautiful to look at and every landscape feels like a piece of art. The dragons themselves still come off as winged, scaly, fire-breathing pets and all the children in the theater seemed to love that aspect of it. Toothless is undeniably cute and I still wish that he was real, so I could ride him through the skies. There’s still quite a bit of comic relief thrown in and the story does go through some predictable motions (especially in the final act), but it’s an exciting ride that perfectly fits into this summer season saddled with a drought of family movies.

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I won’t say that HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is better than the first film, but I like them on equal ground for different reasons. This second installment is more mature, complex, and takes far more risks. It’s an awesome piece of family entertainment and shows that the series (third movie is already in the works) is blossoming into a maturity, kind of like the young central characters. Beautifully animated, surprisingly gripping, and braver than most of the family entertainment to come out in the last few years, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is a sequel that completely justifies it’s existence. It lives up to the first film and serves as a wonderful second chapter in a series that might go down as one of the best of its kind since the TOY STORY trilogy!

Grade: A

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Sequences of Intense Action and some Scary Images, and brief Mild Language

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Directed by: Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois

Written by: Will Davies, Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders

(based on the novel HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON by Cressida Cowell)

Voices of: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill, T.J. Miller, David Tennant

With the sequel coming out in a matter of weeks, I figured it was time to watch the first HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. Based on the series of children’s novels, this animated fantasy film skyrocketed to becoming a huge success and currently lies within IMDB’s top 250 (no small feat for an animated feature that doesn’t involve the companies Pixar or Disney). DRAGON is the best animated film to come out of DreamWorks (with SHREK 2 as a close second). The story is enchanting. The humor is whimsical and enjoyable for all ages. The visuals can range from good to dazzling. This is a great family film and just a great movie overall.

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For those who don’t know the story, the film is set is in a Viking village on the island of Berk. This village is constantly under attack by dragons. These fire-breathing monsters run amok, steal food, and have been responsible for the deaths of quite a few Vikings (so we’re told, we never see any of these graphically go down as this is a children’s film). Hiccup is the misfit son of the village leader. While everybody in Berk is all brawn and no brains, Hiccup is skinny and constantly inventing new contraptions. He also longs to slay a dragon in order to make a name for himself. One night, Hiccup does take down a Night Fury (the most feared and mysterious type of dragon) with one of his inventions and nobody believes him. Instead of killing the dragon, Hiccup wound grounding it on a mountain. The Night Fury seems unable to properly fly away and Hiccup finds that he doesn’t have it in him to kill the beast. Hiccup and the Night Fury (named Toothless) form a relationship that could be doomed due to the Vikings’ fearful nature of dragons.

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The formula used in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON involves an awkward outsider keeping a secret under wraps from his judgmental peers. It isn’t completely new. It’s been seen in plenty of other stories, especially kid’s movies. What sets this film apart is how everything is executed. I never thought I’d see a movie that turned a dragon into a cute adorable creature that you wished existed so you could keep it as a pet. Color me surprised, because I want a pet Toothless of my own and I’m a grown-ass man who knows that dragons don’t exist. The visual style is a little shaky during moments, as if it wasn’t as fully rendered as it could be, but the movie looks gorgeous in other parts (especially in a couple of flight scenes with Hiccup riding on the back of Toothless).

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I thought the voice cast for the film, populated with a lot of well-known names, was impressive as well. Jay Baruchel isn’t necessarily what you would call a leading man, but he does have the voice for Hiccup and makes the character his own. Gerard Butler isn’t screaming “This is Sparta!” 300-style, but does play Hiccup’s quick-to-judge father and doing a fine job in the part. I did like the love interest played by (unfamiliar face for me) America Ferrera. As far as everybody else went, I could take or leave them. They weren’t too memorable or given much character development other than being detractors for Hiccup that gradually grow to accept him. It was pretty neat to see R-rated comedy regulars Christopher Mintz-Plass (McLovin from SUPERBAD and the well-endowed stoner in NEIGHBORS), Jonah Hill (also from SUPERBAD and KNOCKED UP) and TJ Miller (who starred opposite Baruchel in SHE’S OUT OF MY LEAGUE) in a kid’s movie.

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Though the initial set-up may seem pretty familiar in its general formula, I really enjoyed where the movie went in the daring conclusion and some twists sprinkled throughout. DreamWorks has a knack for going into brave places that Disney wouldn’t dare touch. It’s not that the studio is out-and-out aiming for an adult audience, but they are willing to take new risks and that’s something Disney hasn’t been willing to do for the last couple of decades. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON has a rousing and very exciting climax that had me glued to the screen and I’ll gladly sit through the film again multiple times in the future. I’m very much looking forward to the second installment to see where things go from here.

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HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is a wonderful film. It will entertain older viewers, while delighting children. Toothless is a dragon for the ages and I would consider him to be adorable. The story itself isn’t entirely unfamiliar, but it does take some risks and goes into territory that separates DreamWorks from Disney and Pixar films. The cast all fit their parts, even if a few members/characters didn’t make a huge impact on the story. It’s a movie that brims with creativity and has earned every bit of its reputation as one of the best family movies in the past 5 years. This is highly recommended, if you haven’t already seen it. If you have, then watch it again!

Grade: A

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