How to Fly in 3D

How to Train Your Dragon is made marvelous by that rarest of creatures – a nuanced and relatable CGI animal. Part dragon, part puppy, Toothless can convey a range of emotions with a curled lip or a twitch of the eyes, resorting only occasionally to the safety net of anthropomorphism. It’s the corniest of stories – a wimpy kid shows that brains trump brawn, and that gruff warrior types do not hold a monopoly on courage and persistence. The strongest message is that enemies are not always what they seem, and might be prey to the same fears and pressures as you are. It’s exactly what you want your kids to believe, but not necessarily what you want to see cynically mobilised to flog a Happy Meal. Dragon also benefits from the most effective use to date of 3D technology. Foreground and background are really unhooked from one another, dragons seem suspended in the air before you, and the Viking village depicted becomes a bustling perspectival pile-up of objects, high cliffs and big faces. I was also reminded of the close friendship between 3D movies and flying sequences. A film about dragons, and learning how to ride them, naturally lends itself to scenes of hurtling through the sky at breakneck speed, a white-knuckled passenger on a flight of vertiginy. See, for example, how Robert Zemeckis souped-up Dickens’s A Christmas Carol by having Jim Carrey’s Scrooge thrown through the air at regular intervals:

… Or how James Cameron’s Avatar features prominently another series of dragon-taming flight scenes, lovingly recreated in the video game for you to enjoy again at home on your Wii balance board:

Even Louis Leterrier’s execrable remake of Clash of the Titans, which was not shot in 3D but instead converted to cash in on Avatar (if you need to confirm how useless 3D conversion is, just take a look at this film and focus on somebody’s hair for a few seconds – you’ll notice that everybody’s head is followed round by a little double that is supposed to create an illusion of depth, but just makes everybody look likely a badly composited special effect), contrives to fly its hero around, over, above and between the limbs of its spectacular centre-piece, the Kraken:

[Hey, I could save myself the job of writing a separate post by inserting a mini-review of Clash of the Titans here. My ticket was printed “Clash of the Tit”, which set up expectations upon which it couldn’t possibly deliver. It’s the kind of film I didn’t think they made anymore: not since they’ve had a bit of practice, anyway. It’s packed with earnest performances by actors who almost choke on the disastrous dialogue; Sam Worthington is carving out a niche for himself as a uniquely blank performer, preferably in 3D to compensate for his mono-dimensional delivery – it means his characters always start out waiting to receive instructions and be given some kind of purpose or ideological stance they wouldn’t have come up with on their own; it’s horribly lit, like a Meatloaf video, where even the interiors seem to have moonlight from an indeterminate source; it’s the most boringly linear plot imaginable – go here, get instructions from there, defeat this monster, use its head to slay that monster, end; it manages to sap all of this potentially hokey fun of any joy by posing as a serious-minded epic about the relationship between gods and Man; there’s a ham-fisted, half-hearted tribute to the Harryhausen original, which consists of picking up Bubo out of a box and asking “what’s this?”: it puts the “b” in “subtle”; Ralph Fiennes sounds like he’s coughing up a furball; Liam Neeson wears armour so shiny he should either be posing in a Roxy Music video as Bryan Ferry’s teeth, or on the Anglia TV ident, and what’s more …. OK, that’s enough. It’s a silly, clunking dog of a film that has no levity to make it bearable. On the plus side, I briefly enjoyed the battle with giant scorpions, and the Kraken is an impressively momentous Cloverfield of the ancient world. For more trashing of this film, you might enjoy FilmDr’s post here.]

Back at the blog, Pixar’s Up built its plot around a central metaphor of flight, specifically faltering altitude, as the sustenance of hope:

Next up will be Zack Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians which, as far as I can tell from the trailer, is all about a bunch of Australian emo owls who are going to “find the hero inside” them, or possibly a dead mouse. Yes, it involves a lot of flying:

These flights that aim to give their spectators the same sense of motion through space have fast become the signature image of the 3D feature film, the sign that it has yet to transcend its theme park tendencies to assimilate the technology with the usual dramatic imperatives (or that 3D will always have limited applications). It’s the most straightforward way to deliver on 3D’s promise to fully immerse the viewer in the action, not by throwing stuff out at you, but by pretending to tip you forward into the screen. How soon before the repetition of the flying motif is as much of a giveaway of the format’s confines as it is an attempt to convince you of its capacity for release? I’ll reserve judgement until I get a load of Piranha 3D (slyly referring back to James Cameron’s directorial debut, Piranha 2), whose trailer makes fun of This is Cinerama before launching into an exploitative collage of bikinis, flash cars and that blockbuster staple, deadly fish. Instead of trying to distract from the low-rent, poke-you-in-eye, lion-in-your-lap heritage of 3D cinema, here is a film that decides to embrace it, flinging its bits in your face.


4 thoughts on “How to Fly in 3D

  1. While the flight sequences were definitely one of the strong points of “Dragon”, I thought it basically had just generally the best 3D-mise-en-scene so far. Focal lengths, camera movements, character designs: Everything seemed to fit together perfectly for 3D. And “Clash of the Tit” was just a silly old bit of fun, right? Every actor in that film knew it.

    • I didn’t find much fun in Clash of the Titans, and if the actors were having fun, they didn’t pass any of that joy onto me. We keep being told not to over-analyse popular cinema: it’s just for fun, so go with it and relax. Are there any other industries that do so much to lower their customers’ expectations to soften them up for the disappointment?

      Agreed, How to Train Your Dragon had excellent use of 3D. It wasn’t integral to the story, but they at least worked with it in eye-catching ways.

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