Notes from 2019: On Two Animated Sequels


Of the five movies I’ve seen in a theater so far this year (an awfully low number for my personal standards aka “hello fatherhood”) two have been horror films and three have been animated films. Aside from my second viewing of the very excellent Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, the other two have a lot in common. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World both are sequels to highly successful and beloved animation franchises, two of the few outside of Disney/Pixar. Both have some continuity in their creative teams, with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller writing and producing Lego 2 and director Dean DeBlois overseeing the finale of his How to Train Your Dragon trilogy. Their most important connection, however, is their respective qualities, how they follow up on their giant predecessors. Specifically: they are both fine.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part continues to capture the hectic, fast, zany pacing and creativity that have made the Lego franchise distinctive among animated fare. So much happens in the movie that it is tough to recount the exact narrative in detail, especially a few weeks removed from seeing it, but let me try: every-man hero Emmet (Chris Pratt) is back after saving the world from the throes of Lord Business only to find continuous attacks on his world from alien forces. The world is no longer so awesome, but a ravaged Mad Max-esque deserted landscape. As he’s ready to take his relationship with Wyldstyle to the next level, she is taken into space, along with other notable friends, and held captive by Queen Watevra Wa'Nabi. Meanwhile, Emmet comes into contact with space pirate Rex Dangervest, who gives him the strength and courage to rescue his friends. Those are the basics, but so much more is revealed along the way.

Part of the joy of The Lego Movie in 2014 was its narrative audacity. No one expected a movie about Lego bricks could be so formally creative. The animation was like nothing ever seen before. More importantly, the film’s major theme is downright radical. In a time when fandom was becoming increasingly toxic, when the norms and rules had to be followed (the Ghost Busters can’t be women! Nobodies like Rey can’t use the Force! etc. etc.), The Lego Movie explicitly said no. We can be more creative when it comes to our art and storytelling, no one has the right to say what is wrong or right when it comes to how things have been done before.

And this is where The Lego Movie 2 falls a bit. It’s not that it reverts or takes away from that message, it’s just that its major theme is something entirely mainstream for animated films today. The film uses the break into reality which was so surprising in its predecessor much more often, with a slightly older Finn having to incorporate his time with his favorite toys with his younger sister (played by The Florida Project’s Brooklyn Prince)—moving right on from The Lego Movie’s final joke. Nothing about how the theme of getting along with others (especially younger sisters) is played wrong, it just doesn’t have the same film breaking quality.

On its own, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is absolutely fine. It has some creative characters, the animation is still stellar, and while it isn’t as laugh-a-minute funny as The Lego Movie or especially The Lego Batman Movie, it is an entertaining romp. Maybe I unfairly expected too much from it, alas, it didn’t meet those lofty expectations.

As for How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, I have far less to say because it just isn’t as interesting. Again, this is a perfectly fine film, far better than the glut of animated films that don’t have this level of ambition or resources. But this is far more standard as an animated franchise than The Lego Movie. Maybe I’m just not as personally invested in How to Train Your Dragon—I’m with the masses who think the first one is great and I can’t remember much of anything about the lackluster sequel. The Hidden World maybe falls somewhere in the middle but closer on the side of the second film entirely for its memorable and emotionally resonant ending (even if a little unearned).

Following the unremembered events of How to Train Your Dragon 2 (I honestly forgot there wasn’t even a subtitle on there), the world of dragons and humans is fully intertwined, causing logistical problems for young leader Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). Keeping his people happy and the buildings still standing is becoming more difficult, let alone a new threat in dragon slayer Grimmel personally targeting Hiccup’s beloved pal Toothless, and so the small community set out to find a safe space in the world. Their adventure leads to the mythical Hidden World where dragons roam free, stirring up the emotional conflict of whether Hiccup and pals should let their dragons live their own lives.

The parallels to Toy Story 3, probably the most important animated trilogy ending (that for some reason is continuing on later this year), are in your face and remembering that film certainly takes a lot out of the enjoyment for The Hidden World. This probably isn’t a problem for young fans of the franchise and I can imagine the final moments of the film, involving a flash-forward to how the relationship between an older Hiccup and Toothless comes to an end, packs a punch. It even worked a bit for me though everything that led up to these final moments (including almost the entirety of How to Train Your Dragon 2) was treading water.

It is hard to expect sequels of any kind to have the same creativity or impact of the films that launch franchises and both The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World do fall short. It is probably a better and fairer test to continue their stories in a consistent way, building on the characters and worlds. To that end, these films do fine.

Notes from 2019: Glass


Back in 2016, I felt like the only person who didn’t like M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, the backdoor sequel to the very good Unbreakable. I can honestly see why so many people were seduced by Split (James McAvoy’s insane performance, foremost), but I couldn’t get past the unbelievably bad expository dialogue (which seemed to be more than half of the dialogue overall) and the problematic hand waiving that trauma and mental illness is some sort of superpower. I also rolled my eyes over Split’s twist connecting it to David Dunn’s more thoughtful sad story while so many got caught up in the surprise without trusting that Shyamalan would build out the narrative implications in good faith.

Now comes Glass, which more directly connects David Dunn and The Horde while also bringing in the villain of Unbreakable, Samuel L. Jackson’s broken evil genius Mr. Glass. Glass is also a direct continuation of the problems of its predecessor. In a brilliant twist, though, it cements the strengths of Split, in particular its slow-build narrative design, making me reconsider the film’s final reveal just a bit.

Glass introduces Dr. Ellie Staple (the always dependable Sarah Paulson), a psychologist whose focus is the delusions of grandeur of ordinary men who think they have superpowers. She explains away The Horde’s ability to climb walls and bend bars and Dunn’s strength as unusual but not extraordinary. She secludes and sedates them in a psychiatric hospital, conducts family therapy sessions to convince them they are just regular folks.

Structurally, this is pretty compelling—the image of these three men sitting together in a large room is striking and makes for good promotional material. Unfortunately, Glass takes far too long to get to this moment and, in practice, the pace completely zaps when it gets there. Dr. Staple proves to be nothing more than an expository machine in a monotone voice. Bruce Willis somehow gives a performance with less energy than Samuel L. Jackson as a character who is so heavily sedated that he’s basically comatose. McAvoy is again giving it his all cycling through a dozen distinct characters, but it is less effective this time around because the film needs him to change more suddenly and give more time to The Beast.

The appeal of Split and especially Unbreakable was the slow build to realization that these stories were actually superhero origins. For Unbreakable, this was in a time where superhero films weren’t the norm, for Split there was a nice meta-context of a tarnished filmmaker returning to his roots. By the beginning of Glass, all the cards are on the table, there is no narrative tension to what these characters are capable of despite what third parties will tell us over and over again. This leads to the inevitable twist that functions more like your everyday realization that a character’s actions were not what you thought instead of a real change to the fabric of the narrative.

Shyamalan also lays on the comic book talk thickly. Secondary characters talk about the origins of comic books as people telling real stories of superhuman acts they’ve witnessed (did you know the original Superman didn’t fly?) and dissect comic book philosophy as major critique on unhealthy fandom. Like most of the dialogue in the film, characters’ musings on the role of superhero stories in the real world are very awkward, never honestly engaging in actual questions of obsessive fandom and vigilantism. Shyamalan finally shows his hand that he not only doesn’t really understand comic book culture, but he actually hates it.

Speaking of secondary characters, three are revived from the previous films as sorta sidekicks to the three stars: damaged Casey as the only person to truly understand and communicate with The Horde, Elijah’s strong-willed mother Mrs. Price, and Joseph Dunn who now acts as the man in the chair to the newly named Overseer. Of these three, Joseph is the only one to be given a satisfying subplot as he’s the only one active in their connection. Spencer Treat Clark is back 19 years later, the flashbacks to Unbreakable showing how much he’s grown up while looking exactly the same, and his over-earnestness is strangely effective even if it isn’t a traditionally convincing performance. Both Casey and Mrs. Price are completely sidelined, reduced to supportive and loving women to their troubled men.

Glass isn’t likely to be one of the worst films of the year, it is just lazy. Even with my low expectations not being a fan of Split, it does disappoint in unexpected ways. What seemed to be a fun set-up of having these three characters together in the space turned out pretty dull. I can’t even imagine this being satisfying for those completely taken by Split’s revelation. Maybe Glass tries to do a bit too much outside of the centerpiece scene—maybe this could have been one hell of a bottle episode. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t do anything to push these characters or the world forward.

Notes from 2019: Escape Room


As the calendar turned to 2019 and with my Top 10 films of 2018 (which you can go see over at Battleship Pretension) filed, I find myself a bit renewed. Being on a 2 month parental leave from work to care for my soon-to-be 6-month-old daughter gives me some time on my hands, as well. So, here I’m back to write again. I can’t promise I’ll be as thorough as I tried to be in the first half or so of 2018 (I can’t even promise that this space will be around when the renewal fees are due in June) but for the meantime, I’m here and I’ll be as active as I wish to be.

As with many, Escape Room is my first experience with the year-in-film 2019. The puzzle box horror film stars Taylor Russell and Logan Miller as two in a group of six unfortunate souls who are gifted invitations to a new cutting edge escape room with a dangling prize of $10,000 for completion. The six all come from very different backgrounds that are expanded throughout the film in flashback snippets that shed light as to a possible connection among strangers. Their initial curiosity or excitement for escape rooms slowly melts away as they realize they are pawns in something more sinister as they travel from intricate puzzle room to intricate puzzle room, defying death by being baked alive, frozen, poisoned, and so on.

The obvious comparison points are to Saw and Final Destination and the like, long horror franchises that morphed into nothing more than creative kill machines. As a direct comparison, Escape Room does match up among the best versions of the genre. At least it is as well made and designed, fully using the escape room setpiece without much outside intervention. Unlike a Saw or Final Destination, which at their most cynical only engages the viewer with the expectation of extreme violence, Escape Room lets the viewer play along, thinking about the clues with the players.

Further thinking about the subgenre, Escape Room suffers from its characters feeling more like characteristics. Part of the film’s design going into the inevitable final reveal needs to make each player significant for one specific reason and we don’t know much more about anyone other than that. Sure, the survivors are able to overcome their particular flaws, but there really isn’t that much true character growth. Zoey is a brilliant-but-demure student with a special interest in quantum physics (at least that’s the college course we’re shown her taking), Ben is a sad alcoholic, Jason is an entitled CEO-type, Mike is a happy-go-lucky dad, Amanda is a damaged soldier, and Danny is a cloying geek. I understand that part of the experiment here is to put a Breakfast Club-esque group of different cliches together in a more extreme environment, but being 2019 and not the mid-80s, I’d rather these characters (even one) transcend their three-word log lines in any way.

That said, I’ll reiterate that Escape Room puts in much more effort to build a world and engage the audience than it could have. I wouldn’t necessarily call the full experience “fun” or particularly memorable in any way, this is only a “surprise” when going in with the lowest of expectations. I’m not even sure I’m all that up for any further Escape Room movies that the film’s ending is trying to build. There is no need to go into any particulars on the film’s ending here, but it is a bit of a silly letdown from the simple plot mechanics of the escape room designs. Going back yet again to the two franchise films Escape Room seems to be striving for, I would honestly be more interested in future films in the mold of Final Destination (resetting the parameters of each film and just keeping the core concept) than Saw (a world with a specific inter-connected mythology and worldview).