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At The Movies

Like a lot of Gen X guys, I have fond childhood memories of Dungeons & Dragons and the original “Clash of the Titans.” I think I even knew at the time that the 1981 version was pretty corny, filled with bad acting and worse claymation.

This new version has gotten terrible reviews. But would it really be in the spirit of things to make a really good movie? Or one that changed the way we think about the modern action film, the way “Avatar” did last year?

This is just good goofy fun, PG-13 rated and not meant to be taken too seriously. Director Louis Leterrier wasn’t trying to make the next “300” (or, as Jon Stewart so aptly put it, “1,800 Abs”). There’s a lot of action, but any gore seems to be intentionally cartoony. And though Perseus (Sam Worthington) and his comrades do spend two hours running around in skirts, there’s hardly any bare chests or heaving bosoms. Speaking of Sam Worthington, also the hero of “Avatar,” no one I know seems to get why he’s suddenly the go-to leading man in fantasy-action movies—being neither pumped up or a decent actor—but he at least manages to not really get in the way of all the silly mayhem.

One of my favorite aspects of the film was a religious subtext that could be taken a few different ways. Much is made of the idea that each of the gods gains or loses power based on the worship (or fear) being directed at them by humans. I found myself reminded of a strange Japanese arcade game I used to love, where you fought other gods—usually in the form of dinosaurs or giant gorillas—with your tiny human worshipers gathered around your feet, sometimes getting crushed or, if you were losing, defecting to worship your opponent.
The essential conflict is whether humans should worship the gods (and which ones) or rebel and go their own way—which, come to think of it, sounds a bit like a big section of our present political divide. The entire concept of Gods was a bit different in ancient Greek gods, of course—in that they were just as petty and conniving as humans. Liam Neeson plays his absurdly-attired Zeus as a zoned-out ladies man with ADD and frequent mood swings.

So, yes, I found some things to like in this widely-panned movie. By contrast, we all absolutely loved “How to Train Your Dragon” (directed by Dean Deblois and Chris Sanders). There’s nothing groundbreaking here in terms of the animation or plot. There’s the wimpy, nerdy, misunderstood son (Hiccup—Jay Baruchel), the impossible-to-please father (Stoic the Vast—Gerard Butler), the sassy, unattainable love interest (Astrid—America Ferrera)…you get the idea.

But there’s just something about how these elements are combined that really sets this one apart. It starts with Baruchel, who brings a likeable vulnerability to his role. Even when he’s being whiny, he’s easy to root for.

The dragons are also a lot of fun. They come in creative and absurd variety. Rather than having human-like speech and brains, they’re animals, with behaviors that seems borrowed from dogs, horses and, especially, cats. They’re refreshingly unpredictable, jumping from deadly to adorable and back again.

I was skeptical of this flick at first, because I’m generally not a big Dreamworks fan. I’m that rare person who disliked “Shrek,” because I found it to mainly be a collection of unfunny and inappropriate pop culture references. But “Dragon” sticks with its own story, characters and internal logic, without resorting to surreal Motown numbers or reality television takeoffs. The one really noticeable pop-culture reference was completely appropriate—and might only be understood by people familiar with D&D (see above).

These flicks offer an interesting contrast in the latest 3D craze. Like a lot of computer animated 3D I’ve seen, “Dragon” looked great pretty much throughout (especially on the big IMAX screen). It had depth, without getting that cardboard-cutouts-at-different-distances thing you got with old fashioned 3D—and still got with “Clash,” despite the $180 million budget. Different audience members seemed to notice different problems—the back of some characters’ heads, the first Pegasus sequence—but it seemed like everybody had a section where they thought things just didn’t look right.

Interesting, both films (especially “Clash”) had creatures whose look seemed ripped off from Spanish director Guillermo Del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” the “Hellboy” movies)—though I’m pretty sure he wasn’t involved in either. Not every scary creature needs to have no eyes or six, to name a couple obvious trademarks. For two such enjoyable flicks, I gotta say this particular lack of originality was a bit distracting.


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