When I saw the first trailer for How To Train Your Dragon, I must admit it didn’t pique my interest. A non-Pixar film is automatically fighting an uphill battle in the animation industry, and Dragon just didn’t seem that interesting to me. So I practically surprised myself when I decided to check out an advanced screening (in 3D, no less) at the Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood on Thursday night. I was also surprised with how much I ended up enjoying the film.
How To Train Your Dragon shares plot elements with a lot of stories we’ve seen recently. The plot follows Hiccup, a young Viking living in a culture that thrives on fighting dragons. His dad is the chief of the village and wants nothing more than for his son to grow up to be a hard-nosed Viking like the rest of the tribe. That’s what Hiccup wants, too – but the problem is he’s kind of clumsy and seems to be more of an inventor than a warrior (he’s the apprentice to a blacksmith). When Hiccup uses one of his inventions to take down a Night Fury (the most mysterious and rare of all dragon classifications), he finds he doesn’t have it in him to kill the beast and instead befriends it. As the rest of the story unfolds, Hiccup attempts to convince his tribe that dragons may not be as bad as they thought.
So why did I like this film? First off, aside from the overly-cartoonish characters (admittedly a Dreamworks style that I don’t particularly care for), the animation was phenomenal. There were a few sequences in which Viking ships were travelling over water where I literally whispered “wow” in the theater because of how beautifully the water was rendered. I know it’s a small detail, but it was some of the best CG water I’ve ever seen. More than the water, though, I loved the actual “dragon training” sequences. Remember the scene in Avatar where Jake Sully’s Na’vi flies through Pandora on the back of a dragon? This film does that same sequence, but better (and about half an hour longer). You can practically feel the wind on your face as Hiccup and his dragon soar through the air, coast above the water, and dodge through rock formations. It’s genuinely thrilling filmmaking, and I had an insane amount of fun with those scenes.
I mentioned before the film shares plot elements with a few other films. Besides the Avatar similarities (which are too blatant to ignore), How To Train Your Dragon also borrows a bit from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, one of my favorite animated films of the past decade. The protagonists in both films are “different” from societal norms; they are outcast inventors trying to impress their fathers and score their first girlfriend at the same time. They both get in over their heads, but eventually prove that not only is it OK to be different, but it’s ultimately necessary for the well-being of their respective towns. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the (slight spoiler alert) huge monster dragon that appears near the end of the film bears a striking resemblance to the Kraken from the upcoming Clash of the Titans. The animators must have been pissed when they saw that Titans trailer.
Rising above the shuffle of filmic references and breathtaking visuals is a solid cast featuring Jay Baruchel (She’s Out of My League, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) as Hiccup, Gerard Butler (300, Gamer) as Stoic, Hiccup’s father and village chief, and late night talk show personality Craig Ferguson as Stoic’s right hand man, Gobber. Butler and Ferguson relish in their Scottish accents, while Baruchel mercifully plays it straight and avoids any annoying vocal tricks. America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Kristen Wiig round out the cast in supporting roles, all to fine effect. (Hill plays a character clearly based on Jack Black.)
The film tries to introduce a romance that didn’t work for me, partly because Astrid’s (Ferrera) transformation from “badass alpha-female” who wants nothing to do with Hiccup to “instant girlfriend” was rushed and didn’t feel natural. There’s even a scene reminiscent of Aladdin‘s famous “A Whole New World” montage where Hiccup and Astrid fly for the first time together, but it isn’t enough to make their relationship believable. With that said, the visuals during that sequence were spectacular. There’s one shot in particular that stood out as something I’ve never seen before. The camera stays locked in a side profile view of the pair flying atop a dragon as the dragon goes into a flying flip, with the background around the camera rotating but the trio staying right-side-up for the duration of the shot. It’s a cool little touch; add that to the training sequences I talked about earlier and I think we have one of the most gorgeous films of the year so far. It’s no surprise that Academy-Award winning cinematographer Roger Deakins was a visual advisor on the film.
Speaking of visuals, I haven’t mentioned the 3D yet. Like Pixar’s Up, this movie uses 3D as a means of adding depth instead of bringing things out into the face of the audience. I’m generally not a fan of 3D, but this felt totally organic and didn’t distract from the story at all. However, if you’re not willing to part with the extra cash for the more expensive 3D ticket, I’m confident the film will look just as dazzling in the standard two dimensions.
My last point comes with a brief disclaimer: I’m fully aware some people are going to accuse me of reading too far into a “kid’s movie,” but I figured I’d bring this up anyway. At one point, Astrid disgustedly looks at Hiccup (who has just failed a training mission in Viking Camp) and says “our parents’ war is about to become ours. You better figure out whose side you’re on.” Poignant words from a movie geared towards kids, especially today. Later on, Hiccup and his father argue over the merits of saving the dragons or fighting them. “They’ve killed hundreds of us!” Stoic yells at his son. “But we’ve killed thousands of them!” Hiccup replies. “They’re just defending themselves.” I’m not going to use this review as a platform for my own political beliefs, but it would appear someone was trying to slide a little current affairs into this movie. For those who would argue with me on this, let me offer a bit of defense: I think the aforementioned points are just as relevant as the political references in The Dark Knight. How To Train Your Dragon was based on a book written in 2003, so it’s probable that if those specific bits of dialogue were in the text, they were written with the War on Terror consciously or subconsciously in the author’s mind.
Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois co-wrote (with a few others) and co-directed, and overall I had a really fun time with this movie. The characters aren’t as fully rounded as I’d like, but the breathtaking visuals and fun tone of the film more than made up for any missteps along the way. While I haven’t seen many of Dreamworks Animation’s films outside of the Shrek series, How To Train Your Dragon definitely ranks up there next to the first Shrek film as my favorite of their work so far. Unlike the Shrek sequels (and, from what I hear, other Dreamworks Animation films since), this movie does not rely on pop culture gags AT ALL and instead chooses to focus completely on the story and the characters. Obviously this was a great decision on their part, one I hope they repeat in the future. I’d recommend this movie to anyone of any age. How To Train Your Dragon hits theaters on March 26th in the United States and March 31st in the United Kingdom. Until next time…