How To Train Your Dragon

December 23, 2010

Think of the way people talk about Pixar.  Now think of the way people talk about Dreamworks Animation.  Pixar has become a studio-auteur, where people go in expecting a certain level of intelligence, emotion, and outright beauty that most reserve for the latest picture by their favourite director.  Of course, Pixar is made up of individuals, and though the only one ever really singles out is Brad Bird (mostly, perhaps, because The Iron Giant is an oft-heralded but little-seen masterpiece), there exist their talented people with their own unique input.  Dreamworks, on the other hand, is an ugly studio with limited ambitions.  They made name for themselves with Shrek, and then proceeded to run that brand into the ground whilst simultaneously infecting a whole score of animated films for years to come with its heavy reliance on pop-culture parody and smirking, adults-will-laugh-too humour.  It’s easy to say that in our modern, cynical world the average moviegoer demands a certain amount of self-awareness.  It’s only a movie, guys, so let’s not get carried away.  Then again, it’s not so easy to say that when you consider Pixar’s incredible (and incredibly successful) run, all of which are grounded in deep, honest emotions.  With How To Train Your Dragon, Dreamworks has made what is easily their best film yet, but it’s tempting to say that it is a one-off or a fluke.  Nothing this quality could come from a studio that only desires a quick buck and maybe a franchise.  While there seems little doubt that Chris Sanders and Dan DeBlois (previously of Lilo and Stitch) have an awful lot to do with the success of the work after being brought in half-way through, credit should go to the studio for letting it happen, and we can hope that they’ve discovered the simple truth that all you really need is a good story well told.

A “good story”, in this case, is also an endlessly recycled one. A Viking village on an island (where every adult is Scottish for some reason) is regularly attacked and raided by dragons.  It occurs so often that the entire purpose of the culture now seems to be raising everyone to kill dragons and not much else.  The blacksmith’s apprentice and village chief’s son, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is scrawny and clumsy and brainy and oddly sensitive.  He sets out to prove himself by killing the most dangerous and elusive dragon of all, a Night Fury.  After taking one down with a machine of his own design, he finds he cannot kill it.  Hiccup soon finds himself caring for the injured dragon, whom he names Toothless.  Before long Hiccup is fixing Toothless’ broken tail and flying on his back.  Of course everything comes to a head and Hiccup has to convince his fellow Vikings that killing dragons isn’t the only way and they’ve misunderstood the beasts.  And there’s also a girl named Astrid (America Ferrera), whom we know is the love interest not only by her thin features, but because she is introduced in a slow-motion shot walking away from a fireball.

The real joy is in the telling.  Not just the welcome economy of the story itself and the fluid movement through which it is presented, but through through the charming and oftentimes striking visual style.  The characters are extremely caricatured (disproportionate sizes, funny little noses) and the dragons are colourful and playful, but the world in which they inhabit is – somewhat contradictorily- grounded, gorgeous, and at times, strikingly real.  Roger Deakins was a visual consultant, and it shows in scenes lit by candles or in the wet, misty forests.  The grounding serves to give the larger moments a more epic grandeur.  With such harmless-looking characters and monsters, a shot of clouds punctuated by the silhouettes of dueling monstrosities after a fireball is let loose stuns in its Wagnerian operatic majesty.  There are scenes here that rival –and possibly surpass- Pixar for beauty, but more importantly, they serve the drama extremely well.

The effectiveness of the film might be best expressed in two similar, but very different, scenes.  The first flight of Hiccup and Toothless is less about the thrill and majesty of the sights, but of the fun, the terror, and the trust that develops between the two.  There’s a moment where they flight too high and Hiccup’s hooks fly out of the saddle.  He hangs for half a second, and then they start to freefall.  That half-second churns the stomach in a way that a scene like that ought not to (in a good way), and as they both hurtle towards the ground there is excitement and intensity in the scramble to recover their bearings.  They need each other, and what was a cute friendship moves into a partnership.  A little later Astrid discovers Toothless, and to stop her from telling the villagers they kidnap her and take her on a flight.  After playful maneuvers they emerge above the clouds, and the sense of wonder and joy is palpable.  For Hiccup, it was about his friend.  For Astrid, it is about seeing the world in a new light.  The camera floats around them then sticks to them as a fixed point as the sky begins to move around them.  It’s breathtaking in its stunning evocation of freedom.  Hiccup was never truly trapped in the outmoded, violent ways of his people, but Astrid was, and her enlightenment is palpable.  Compare this to the similar sequences in Avatar, with it’s stunning tech but hollow feeling, as though you were objectively viewing a well-made demo reel.  There, the film wanted you to look at what it could do, while here, it wants you to feel it.

I don’t mean for the film to sound ponderous.  It accomplishes these emotions quickly and effectively before briskly moving forward.  The final battle is epic and majestic, and while the result was always a forgone conclusion, it is nonetheless satisfying on its own merits.  As though that weren’t enough, the final utopian vision is marked by an unexpected but real loss for Hiccup.  The glance and the sigh when he realizes what has happened is surprisingly effective, but we know the character well enough now that his ability to move on in the next and final scene never feels false.  How To Train Your Dragon is wildly entertaining, exciting, freeing, and simplistic.  Perfect fare for kids but also a welcome Hollywood treat for everyone.


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