How to Train Your Dragon 2 has been one of the most anticipated films of the year. The massive sleeper hit that was the original, made out quite well back in 2010 thanks to its brilliant blend of story, animation, and character; setting a new bar for a DreamWorks film and proving that they had the chops to match Pixar if given the chance. Fast forwarding a few years, and after viewing the sequel, I came away with the feeling that although inferior to the original, there was something else that bothered me about How to Train Your Dragon 2.
This isn’t a review of the film itself (although overall, the script was weaker than the Croods and the brilliant streak of character development from the original is shoved aside in favour of what amounts to a near-fatal dose of action.) Instead, what struck me during the screening and what stayed with me afterwards was the notion that what I had watched could hardly be said to be an animated film.
Fighting words? Perhaps, but hardly unwarranted. The lines between animation, live-action, and VFX have been blurring for years now and have gotten to the point where the average person cannot tell them apart. Films like Life of Pi may indeed have real actors, but are essentially animated. Andy Serkis can crow all he wants about the actor doing the heavy lifting in mo-cap, but it takes two to tango, and it’s the animator that makes the stuff the audience actually sees.
The original HTTYD had a great sense of realism but that came with a dose of mythology courtesy of the dragons. The sequel, in contrast, expounds the realism in spite of the dragons. While undoubtedly a visual feast in more ways than one, the film appears more like a live-action one populated by animated characters.
The influence of the Croods is evident here; lush vegetation, massive landforms and vast landscapes are all present. Yet even on the smaller scale, detail abounds within Berk and the characters themselves (mainly their clothing and props). A great deal of effort has clearly gone into HTTYD2, but at the expense of wonder. The desire to make everything appear as realistic as possible undermines the goal of animation to convey the illusion of life. There is no illusion any longer because it isn’t necessary; real life can be replicated exactly and tweaked, just enough if desired, to appear animated.
That’s right; I’m implying that animated films have advanced to the point where they need be dialled back in order to appear animated rather than live-action. Uncanny valley issues aside, does having characters that are obviously animated enhance or detract from such films? The Dragon sequel isn’t harmed by them, but they do appear out of place amongst their surroundings in a manner not unlike any live-action/CGI hybrid film.
What else can I say? Animation has plateaued as far as realism goes; it’s practically impossible to get any better, any more detailed. Will there be more technological developments? Sure, but they’ll be on the back end; what the audience sees will remain much the same. The hope is that we’ll start to see movement away from the visual spectacle and a return to more character, and plot-driven storylines; delivering films that are more than mere eye candy.