How To Train Your Dragon: Dreamworks Soars To New Heights (In 3D!)
Nothing inspires more skepticism in me than the phrase “From Dreamworks Animation.” The Shrek films are overrated, the Madagascar films are mediocre, Monsters vs. Aliens and Bee Movie were passable, and the less said about Shark Tale, the better. They often settle for lowest common denominator humor, derivative characters, witless storytelling, and a notable absence of heart. How To Train Your Dragon, however, is the best Dreamworks animated film to date– even better than the previous exception to the rule, Kung Fu Panda. It holds the studio’s most accomplished animation to date, in particular boasting some wonderful 3D flying sequences. It has a certain wit to it, not settling for the same lame jokes in kiddie films; in fact, it dares to go for fairly long sequences without a “joke” at all. Most importantly, it has an abundance of heart, giving us characters and circumstances we care about– a rarity in today’s multiplexes.
Our hero is Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). He’s your typical misfit teen protagonist. In a town of tough angry vikings, he’s the only wimp. His village is constantly attacked by dragons, so every young viking, including Hiccup, dreams of becoming a dragonslayer. Hiccup’s dad, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) is the chief of the vikings, and he’s the biggest, toughest, and beardedest of them all. Hiccup invents a cannon that knocks out of the sky the “night fury,” a lightning-quick dragon so dangerous that no one has ever seen it and lived. When he finds the dragon, he discovers he’s broken part of its tail… and that it’s not ferocious as much as it is defensive. When Hiccup disarms himself, the dragon, which he names Toothless, is docile– but it’s been so ingrained in the dragons’ nature that vikings want to kill them that Hiccup will have to show both dragons and vikings that they can peacefully coexist. Meanwhile, Hiccup’s going through dragonslayer training, and Stoick is looking for the dragon nest, where something unexpected awaits for them…
All of the themes are familiar, but even though the story isn’t breaking new ground, the execution is flawless. The opening dragon attack sequence is so lively, and Hiccup is so immediately likable, that it’s engaging from the first second. Like Kung Fu Panda, this film extends Dreamworks’ comfort zone with animation, “moving” the camera around in action scenes and allowing shots to be longer than the average film– it trusts that its scenes are dynamic and exciting enough that it doesn’t need to resort to cheap chop editing tactics to stimulate the senses. Even more exciting are the scenes they allow to be quiet: there are a few father-son scenes that aren’t broken up by jokes, but instead rely on the heart of the characters to keep us caring. They don’t paint Stoick as the cliched neglectful father who scorns Hiccup’s inventions… he sincerely wants to do right and since Hiccup continually hurts the village by accident every time he uses a new invention, he’s not ignoring what’s best for Hiccup but rather looking out for what’s best for the entire village. Every kid knows what it’s like to want to make their parents proud, and every parent knows what it’s like to hope that they’re raising their kid correctly. The father-son relationship, familiar a story element as it may be, is executed as well as any film in recent years has done.
The 3D, while normally not an element that I’d say is “necessary” for viewing a film, I will say comes strongly recommended for this one. The flying sequences in 3D alone are worth the extra ticket price. Although Avatar successfully used 3D to capture the exhilaration of flying, there’s a certain sentiment that can only truly be captured when a kid is flying, in my opinion. The last film that gave me that sense of childlike wonder that comes with flight was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry flies on the hippogriff. All three of these films also ride on the backs of creatures, using flight to build a kinship, something shared– the flying creature is choosing to share sights with the human he otherwise never would have seen. In How To Train Your Dragon, the twist is that Toothless can no longer fly without Hiccup on his back, so there’s a mutual goal being achieved, and a sense that now they cannot function the same way without the other. Hiccup has a cheat sheet for how to “steer” Toothless, and the scene in which he first tries to master reading the cheat sheet while steering Toothless in flight is one of the most exciting sequences we’ll see all year, made better by the engaging and beautifully rendered 3D. There’s no bad guy chasing them, there’s no damsel needing to be rescued… we’re rooting for them to achieve a personal goal we care about.
Films about children/teens can be tricky. It’s hard to create a kid-friendly film that never becomes patronizing, or overly simplifies the difficulties of growing up. It’s even harder to make a cute-animal film where the cute animal doesn’t feel like it was designed solely for selling stuffed animal versions of itself, but rather has a distinct personality and the very real sense of danger that comes with being an undomesticated creature. A good PG-rated film for kids is such a tricky feat, which is why Pixar’s ability to constantly hit home runs should never go under-appreciated. Thank goodness How To Train Your Dragon isn’t going under-appreciated: it went back to #1 at the box office for its fourth and fifth week of release, outlasting the surge of Clash of the Titans (which tried to bully it out of 3D theaters by threatening not to provide theaters with 2D versions if they didn’t show it in 3D). It never rushes or forces a joke or action sequence onto us, instead focusing on character, story, and heart, trusting that the audience will care. Good move– other movies try too hard to fly, this one effortlessly hits the stratosphere. Not only is it the best movie Dreamworks Animation has ever made, it’s the best movie of the first four months of the year.