Book Review: How To Train Your Dragon

My boyfriend introduced me to How To Train Your Dragon, the animated fantasy film, and I loved it. We then watched the sequel, How To Train Your Dragon 2 (creative) and I loved it more. We’ve re-watched them several times. I didn’t even know there were books. So, at his suggestion, I read How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell.

Hmm.

Spoiler Warning: There will be some.

How To Train Your Dragon is the first in a series of twelve children’s books about Hiccup, the son of a Viking chief, as he overcomes great obstacles on his journey to become Heroic.

Visually, it’s a nice little book. It has childlike My Image [How To Train Your Dragon Book] handwriting and drawings throughout, so it’s perfect for Cowell’s target audience; the idea is that the book was genuinely  written by Hiccup – hence his illustrations and annotations – and she was just his Old Norse translator. A nice touch.

The descriptions are as vivid and not complicated – as you’d expect in a children’s book, and there are also some witty moments.

The key plot points are clearly identifiable:

  • Hiccup is a below average Viking boy who wants to achieve but struggles under the pressure of being the Chief’s son
  • Snoutlout is Hiccup’s cousin, eager for Hiccup to fail so he can become chief instead
  • Hiccup is concerned about not fulfilling his father’s Viking expectations
  • It is only when Berk is placed in danger, Hiccup’s usefulness and value is recognised

These are (no surprises here) “obvious” for an adult reader, but this the sort of good narrative structure a children’s book should have, so I wanted to point it out.

However, it is very different to the films. An enlightening comment, I know.

The characters are different – without seeing them frequently “onscreen” like you would in a film, I felt forced to rely on a few, infrequent small illustrations and their initial descriptions at the start of the book to remember who they are; it was hard to keep track of the long-winded Viking names.

My Image [How To Train Your Dragon 1]

Another striking difference between the book and the film is that in the film, Berk is an island scared of, and enraged by, dragons because they believe they are violent creatures that need to be destroyed. The community is only persuaded to think otherwise following Hiccup’s discovery of, and his blossoming friendship with, Toothless the Night Fury, one of the most legendary and fearful dragons in existence. However, in the book, Berk is an island that already believes that dragons can be, and should be, domesticated pets. It is only once the Viking boys in training are given the useless handbook How To Train Your Dragon, Hiccup must create his own, personalised, methods to tame his dragon Toothless.

 A second significant difference is that in the book, the dragons can talk. This creates a new layer of characterisation because they can communicate thoughts and feelings with each other, and their owners. This means that, instead of the smiling but silent Toothless from the film, he is whiny and always back-chatting. It’s very difficult to see him as the loveable, heart-warming, protective but powerful and incredibly rare Night Fury from the film – the Toothless I love.

I’m so clearly biased – sorry – and I preferred the films to the book. I can see exactly why kids would love this sort of book though: it’s funny, it’s adventurous, it’s easy to read and it’s imaginative.

I won’t read the rest of the series, but at least I now have a flavour of the writing which inspired two films I greatly enjoy.

How To Train Your Dragon 3 is in production and is due to be released in 2019.

– Judith

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Film Review: XX – ‘Her Only Living Son’

This is the fourth review in a series, talking about the anthology horror film XX.

What is XX?

XX contains four horror shorts, each directed by four female directors. Each short presents four different stories about four different female characters.

I wrote about the third of these – Don’t Fall –  yesterday. You can read this review here:

Her Only Living Son

Her Only Living Son is the final short in the series, written and directed by Karyn Kusama.

Cora (Christina Kirk) is a single mother, and her rebellious son Andy (Kyle Allen) is about to turn 18. However, the day before his birthday, she is called into school to discuss an incident in which Andy tore off a classmate’s fingernails. Andy becomes increasingly violent and Cora becomes increasingly afraid of him. The tension builds, as it is strongly hinted that Andy is not entirely human, but may in fact be the son of Satan.

What I Liked

Zacharek writes, it ‘deftly on the subterranean fears that often come with motherhood’, introducing the theme of motherhood (just as in The Box) but approaching it differently. (Time Magazine) This may remind horror-film fans of other works like Rosemary’s Baby or The Omen, in which a child Antichrist is the central antagonist.

My Photo [XX - 5B - Her Only Living Son]
Image via Netflix

In a similar manner to Don’t Fall, the story felt more like a horror than The Box or The Birthday Party. The score and occasional gore (nice rhyme) added to this.

However, whilst the premise of Her Only Living Son is suitably “horror” in nature, by introducing concepts like Satan and the Antichrist,  the execution of this was poor.

What I Disliked

Characterisation

Cora was a weak character, snivelling and sad – even before her son transforms into something abhuman.

In a similar manner to The Box, Cora’s behaviour as a mother does not empower women, but displays women as once again under the influence of the men in their lives; even the mailman seems to have more agency than Cora. Normally, gender roles in film wouldn’t bother me a great deal, but given that Her Only Living Son is directed by a woman, to create more presence of female film directors and better female representation in film, I thought the female characters would reflect this. Representation was an issue in other ways too.

My Photo [XX - 5C - Her Only Living Son]
Image via Netflix
Representation

When Andy’s “fingernail incident” was discussed at school, the parent of the victim, a black woman, is present. She is talked down to by both the headmistress (a white woman) as well as the other school staff (white men) and told she is the problem for speaking out against Andy’s behaviour.

Whilst this scene makes no sense anyway, I also realised that this mother (Lisa Renee Pitts) in Her Only Living Son was the only prominent person of colour since Lucy (Sanai Victoria) in The Birthday Party.  I’m not going to start accusations of “racism”, but I found it incredibly interesting that a project specifically designed to improve representation in film seemed to favour casting white men and white women – women who then became subservient to those men within the film.

Structure

The flashbacks at the beginning felt disjointed from the rest of the narrative – they didn’t provide enough information for what was happening to be understandable. Furthermore, the entire use of the flashback is undercut when Cora relays what happens via dialogue later in the film. I also found the ending dissatisfying because it wasn’t particularly clear as to what happened, and why it happened.

Was Andy exorcised? Was he punished by Satan? Why did Cora suffer too?

These are the sorts of questions it raised, but not in an enjoyable “cliffhanger” way, but in an “unfinished story” way.

Conclusion

Overall, despite its links to the supernatural and paranormal genres of horror, Her Only Living Son is the short I enjoyed the least.

Concluding Remarks

Having watched and reviewed all four shorts in XX, here are my final comments:

  • Was each film incredibly well-made?

No; there were some flaws in production and things that could have been bettered.

  • Was each film explicitly “horror” in nature?

No; sometimes the genre wasn’t clear cut, and was a mix of different elements.

  • Was the story of each film entirely perfect?

No; character development and storytelling technique were the two things I found most lacking across all four shorts.

My favourite film was probably The Box because I liked its story premise best, and I liked being able to interpret it.

  • Was the message of each short explicitly clear?

No; not always.

  • Were the films particularly feminist in either style or content?

No; I didn’t think so and at times representation was an issue.

  • However:

I have never spent such length discussing films before – albeit whether that’s an indication of XX being so good and thought-provoking or so bad it needs condemning I don’t know.

XX has been described as a ‘mixed bag’, which I feel is an apt description.

If you’re looking for some relatively light horror this Halloween, you could always give XX a go. If however, you prefer well-made horror films with … actual horror, I recommend you steer clear of XX.

XX is available to watch on Netflix.

***

Thank you for reading this series on XX; I had great enjoyment in both watching each short, and writing each review.

– Judith

Film Review: XX – ‘Don’t Fall’

This is the third review in a series, talking about the anthology horror film XX.

What is XX?

XX contains four horror shorts, each directed by four female directors. Each short presents four different stories about four different female characters.

I wrote about the second of these – The Birthday Party –  yesterday. You can read this review here:

Don’t Fall

Don’t Fall hits closest to the mark as an independent paranormal horror film. It is the third short in the collection, written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin.

Lemire agrees, writing that it is ‘the most traditional, straight-up horror film of the series’. However, she also argues it is the weakest link in the chain of the four shorts. (Roger Ebert, Reviews)

Don’t Fall is about four friends on an expedition in the desert. One of them, Gretchen (Breeda Wool) stumbles across an ancient cave painting whilst exploring the cliffs that appears to be denoting an evil spirit. The group camp out for the night, and Gretchen is attacked and possessed by a creature. One by one, this “Gretchen Monster” attacks the other three friends.

My Photo [XX - 4B - Don't Fall]
Image via Netflix
What I Liked

Surprisingly, what I liked most about Don’t Fall was its overuse of horror clichés and stereotypes. It was a refreshing difference to the oddities of The Box and The Birthday Party. Although, had this been a feature-length production, these clichés would have worked against, rather than for, the film.

In an interview, Benjamin said: ‘I wanted to make it very much like ‘we are in a horror movie’ from the second it opened.’ (Cryptic Rock Magazine)

I liked the establishment of tone early on in the short with the use of music; the horror score was good throughout and the transitions from light to darkness alert the audience that they’re clearly watching a horror film; something, I think, that was more difficult to establish in The Box and The Birthday Party.

My Photo [XX - 4 - Don't Fall]
Image via Netflix
What I Disliked

However, whilst the group of friends are picked off one by one in true Cabin In The Woods fashion – an admittedly exciting premise that has some decent scares –  because of a complete lack of characterisation (again) the audience are given no reason to care. The group’s fate is virtually insignificant; we don’t know or care why the evil spirit chose to attack them, nor do we find out anything about this spirit at all.

This is why Lemire wrote that this was the weakest of the four shorts, arguing: ‘we never get to know the characters enough to care about their fates’. (Roger Ebert, Reviews)

Ultimately, I think this reveals the issue of pairing the short film format with a long cast list.

There are plenty of independent short films on YouTube that are both enjoyable and successful, because they keep their narrative streamlined and focused on a single character, or minimal characters. Therefore, after 15 minutes, the audience feel as though they’ve had a reasonable glimpse into the character’s life, experiences, and personality. However, in films such as Don’t Fall, the addition of lots of characters, paired with the time limitations of a short film make it incredibly difficult to develop anyone’s characters in any real depth.

However, Zacharek praises the brevity of Don’t Fall, arguing that it is a ‘solid example of film-making economy’. (Time Magazine) Speaking of economy, the limited special effects budget was clear when it came to the “big reveal” of the monster, although credit must be given for Benjamin’s attempt.

Conclusion

Overall, the effect of Don’t Fall is one of a small scale paranormal horror that could definitely be improved but, left as is, is reasonably entertaining.

XX is available to watch on Netflix.

– Judith