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How To Train Your Kraken

April 4th, 2010

Despite my lifelong love of stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, I must confess that I’ve never had that much affection for his final film, Clash of the Titans. The story, based very loosely* on the Greek myth of Perseus, was a bit of a muddle. More damningly, the special effects–with the exception of the suspenseful confrontation with the gorgon Medusa–didn’t impress me that much either. And then there was that damned robot owl.**

Harryhausen’s retirement was well-timed. He not only went out with a box-office hit, he never had to confront the reality that his groundbreaking techniques would have appeared increasingly outdated in the Age of Industrial Light & Magic.

In turn, ILM gave way to the Age of Silicon, in which anything that can be imagined can be brought to three-dimensional life provided that one has the computing power. These days, even a Roger Corman sized-budget can produce a passable Dinoshark. And $125 million–about seven times the cost of Harryhausen’s last hurrah–can buy you the convincing mythical menagerie seen in this weekend’s remake of Clash of the Titans.

What I found most surprising about the new Titans is the extent to which it hews to the original.***  There’s an added subplot about an attempt by Hades to oust Zeus from Mt. Olympus, but otherwise it hits many of the same story beats. The Kraken returns, as does Calibos the beastman. There’s another brood of giant scorpions, even though their appearance in the middle of a Greek myth makes no more sense this time than it did back in ’81. The damned robot owl, however, only rates a cameo.

Early trailers for the film suggested that it would resemble 300 with a pounding rock soundtrack, but this proved not to be the case. While the action sequences display modern sensibilities, alternating between quick cuts and slow-motion, at its core Clash is rather old-fashioned. When you get right down to it, it’s a movie in which paycheck-cashing famous actors dress in shimmering togas and play with tiny statues of their mortal pawns, while buff heroes battle harpies and ride flying horses. It’s the stuff of countless Saturday matinees.

The weak spot in this new Clash is Sam Worthington, who, it must be said, is no Harry Hamlin. Worthington seems to be the go-to guy if you want someone to Make! Short angry pronouncements! And with his inexplicable buzz cut, he seems to have walked in from an entirely different movie. Harryhausen flicks weren’t exactly known for their strong central characters, but at least Sinbad and Jason seemed to be having more fun than Worthington’s Perseus, who spends most of his screen time pissed off.

There’s another kinda, sorta mythological movie out right now: How to Train Your Dragon, the latest offering from Dreamworks Animation. Despite a terrible title (an unfortunate remnant of the children’s book series on which it’s based) and one of the worst marketing campaigns I’ve ever seen, it’s an utterly charming story about a studious, imaginative boy who forms an unlikely friendship with the most mysterious of the dragons that assault his Viking village on a nightly basis.

Unlike most Dreamworks cartoons, Dragon avoids pop culture references and emphasizes character over comedy. That’s not to say that there isn’t humor: the dialogue is at times intentionally anachronistic and, for some reason, the Vikings have Scottish accents. Yet the overall effect is far less wacky than the commercials suggest.

At its center, it’s a boy-and-his-dog**** story in parallel with a sweet tale about a child trying to win the affection of his father while charting his own path among his more bloodthirsty kin.

I think that the highest praise that I can give How to Train Your Dragon is that it’s a Dreamworks film that displays the heart I usually associate with Pixar. And while it (thankfully) never goes ventures into Old Yeller territory, it does make one decision in its final scenes that was darker than I would’ve expected from the company that gave the world Shrek.

*Fidelity to mythology wasn’t one of Harryhausen’s priorities. For example, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad intermingled Arabian, Greek and Hindu elements. And in his version of Clash of the Titans, Cerberus the three-headed dog got shortchanged a head.

**Bubo was a magical, clockwork bird intended to pander to the Star Wars generation. In the ’80s, not even Greek mythology could avoid the cute robot sidekick.

***And, just as in the original, the Titans themselves never put in an appearance.

****The animators get a lot of personality out of “Toothless” the dragon. Maybe it’s just because I’m a cat person, but Toothless’ facial reactions struck me as more feline than canine.

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