EIFF 2012: Dragon and The Lorax
Posted on Friday June 29, 2012, 09:45 by Stephen Carty in Under The Radar
In its simplest terms, Dragon (or Wu xia, as it was originally titled) could be described as high-kicking hybrid of David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence and the BBC’s Sherlock. How so? Well, in terms of the former, the narrative starts with a simple family man (martial arts legend Donnie Yen) whose past is called into question after he kicks the life (quite literally) out of two out-of-town thugs in a moment of local heroism. Though known as a peaceful paper-maker with a wife and two kids, this unexplainable fighting prowess leads a detective to believe that there’s more to this man than first appears…
Which brings us to Sherlock. Said detective (played by House Of Flying Daggers’ Takeshi Kaneshiro) is a logical man who employs deduction and an unmatchable mind's eye to peace together things which others normally miss. A rational man who has voluntarily removed himself from human emotion, he’s one step ahead and dedicated to finding out the truth, even when his superiors are satisfied with the easy, surface-level explanations.
Given all the heightened, borderline supernatural martial arts exploits and flighty rooftop-bounding, it’s also tempting to compare Dragon to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Choreographed by Yen himself, the fight scenes are occasionally dizzying and frequently inventive, while filmmaker Peter Chen (The Warlords) scores points by ensuring that the movie is about more than just kicking and punching. An oriental noir with intermittent CSI-style CG whizzes, it’s a skilful exercise in how to merge varying genres without any jarring shifts in tone, while keeping the audience involved with all the different layers.
Though chop-socky fans might complain that there are only really three set pieces, each one is largely thrilling and superbly realised. Plus, as mentioned earlier, this isn’t just about kicking and punching, as it’s as much a thoughtful detective story as it is an athletic kung fu-fest. Surprisingly thoughtful and visually striking, Dragon takes a host of notable influences and manages to blend them into an enjoyable whole, placing it as one of the Edinburgh Film Festival’s surprising treats.
As for Dr Seuss’s The Lorax, with all the patriotic hub-bub and endless promotion surrounding Pixar’s Brave, hardly anyone has paying attention to The Edinburgh Film Festival’s other notable animation. But while you could empathise with any animated movie trying to be heard in today’s Pixar-dominated market, Universal’s candy-hued kid-lit adaptation doesn’t do nearly enough to differentiate itself from all the other generic animations cluttering up multiplexes. Trying to be all things to all viewers, The Lorax ends up as a conflicting cacophony of slapstick antics, earnest environmental issues and various big musical numbers.
So, simply put, it leaves the characters so underdeveloped that they’re hard to care for – something which simply wouldn’t ever happen in the Disney-Pixar house. OK, so kids will enjoy all the knockabout farce, but the contrasting flavours won’t satisfy the adult viewers who now expect a certain depth from animated fare. While you can understand the need to pad out Dr Seuss’s slight source material in order to accommodate a feature-length movie, so much time dedicated to singing and dancing leaves the actors with little chance to make a real impression. Danny DeVito is gruff as the titular furball, and Betty White lends her cool-Granny charm to a cool-Granny part, but Taylor Swift’s love interest, in particular, is so under-written that she feels like little more than a mechanical, story-prompting plot device.
It’s her Audrey, you see, who sets the whole thing in motion. Living in the self-contained town of Thneed-Ville where everything is artificial, Audrey is desperate to see a real tree (even those are fake you see), so young Ted (Zac Efron) sets out to find one and win her affections. Venturing out into the lifeless, decimated area outside the town, Ted goes in search of “The Once-ler” (Ed Helms), who is supposedly the only person who knows what really happened in the town's seldom-discussed past. From here we flash backwards and forwards between Ted’s quest and the Once-ler’s past, which reveals the latter as an ambitious young man who chopped down all the Truffala trees in order to make a mint from their fluffy Thneed. In doing so, he slowly ruined the idyllic paradise, despite the warnings of the Lorax (DeVito), the forest’s mysterious, Garfield-ish moustache-toting defender.
In better hands, The Lorax might have offered us another oddball animation to join the better non-Pixar efforts of recent years (How To Train Your Dragon, Rango), but as it is, it’s just another one to add to the pile. It is occasionally engaging, the visuals are gorgeous and some of the characters – the singing fish – are amusing enough, while fans of Ed Helms will enjoy his usual schtick (is it in his contract that he has to sing at some point in every feature he does?). But behind the junior surrealist window dressing, there’s really not much more here for grown-ups.