by David Cornelius
A few weeks back, I reviewed “Pirates in Callao,” the inaugural animated feature from Peru, a nation that only recently attempted to enter the cartoon industry. It wasn’t a good movie, but it was an admirable first try, an interesting testing of the waters that kept me curious about the studio’s follow-up, “Dragons: Destiny of Fire.”The film, originally titled “Dragones: Destino de Fuego” for its South American release, is at once a bold step up and a disappointing step back for director Eduardo Schuldt and his crew. We open with a dazzling chunk of large-scale fantasy imagery, with dragons duking it out in an underground lair; the scene is obviously inspired by the massive battle scenes from “Lord of the Rings” and the like, and the filmmakers put a great deal of effort into crafting a memorable action sequence. It looks terrific, plain and simple, the perfect way to hook an audience.
"One part admirable, two parts unbearable."
But then the movie doesn’t just switch gears, it kills the transmission. The story abandons the underground war and takes us to the surface, where the animation quality dips to a bland, inferior level, and the script comes with it. From here, we get a typical ugly ducking story, with a family of condors finding and adopting a mysterious egg; the egg hatches to reveal a dragon, whom they raise as one of their own. He can’t fly, he has no feathers to keep him warm, and the other condor kids mock him. But then he finds a flying glowworm and a tiger who befriend him, and together they eventually discover that the young dragon is really John John, the long lost prince of the underground dragons.
All of this is peppered with weak comedy and hackneyed moralizing, both of which are overplayed beyond their breaking point. Even young kids will yawn at the strained attempts to repeat familiar lessons, all that stuff about how your real friends will like you for who you are. Those same kids might giggle at the slapstick (mainly from a monkey who pops up only for such purposes, in a blatant rip-off of Scrat from “Ice Age”), but it’s not enough to carry the picture.
The script itself is rushed and clumsy; it’s in some sort of rush to break through all the key plot points without ever earning them. In one scene, John John receives magic that instantly turns him into a grown-up dragon, as if the writers just gave up all attempts to figure out a better way to progress his character.
After some mediocre training scenes (set to a cover version of “Eye of the Tiger”) and some familiar fluff in which John John and pals meet a chain of colorful characters, the movie eventually returns to the dragon-filled underworld, and the animators give plenty of attention to these scenes. Which begs the question: were they striving for some sort of contrast (the rich detail of the fantasy world vs. the cartoony cheapness of the world above), or did they simply run out of time and/or money after finishing those scenes, thus leaving the rest of the film to look shabby?
There are moments where “Dragons” almost reaches the level where it should be. The finale, while awkwardly presented, makes some pleasant points and manages to repeat familiar “friends and family first” lessons without making them feel stale. And several of the action sequences deliver some well-earned thrills.But the rest is by-the-book blandness, the sort of uninspired storytelling that pops up in too many family titles.
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originally posted: 04/01/08 17:14:34