Thursday, April 22, 2010


Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders

Voices by Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson

On my way out of How to Train Your Dragon I saw a character poster for Shrek Forever After featuring Rumpelstiltskin. The quote above ol' 'stiltski read "WHERE MY WITCHES AT" in big white letters. The poster exemplified my problem with most Dreamworks animated features. Unlike Pixar, Dreamworks's films almost always go for the cheap, pop-culture juiced laugh and bodily function humor, and rely heavily on advertising the star power behind the voices behind the animated characters. Shrek, Shrek 2, Shark Tale, Madagascar, Bee Movie. All of these films seem less than timeless. I'd rather watch the lesser Pixar films on any given day rather than any of the films I just listed. Cynical as it may sound, I brushed off Dreamworks and their animation department long ago.

After sitting through the trailers for Shrek Forever After and MegaMind (a teaser trailer for a Dreamworks film that spent more time listing the cast name than it did showing any footage of the actual film) I wasn't looking forward to How to Train Your Dragon. I sat there wondering how many Counting Crows songs I'd have to hear, what dance number the characters would suddenly break into for no other reason than to make fans of iCarly giggle, and what popular trends/people/television shows/clothing styles/etc. would get a nod throughout the film's running time. It was a relief, then, when I walked out of the theater having experienced none of the aforementioned. Then I saw that damn Shrek poster.

How to Train Your Dragon is the first animated Dreamworks film that I think the studio should be proud of. If this had been the first film released when the studio started making cartoons, I would have said Pixar has some serious competition. How to Train Your Dragon begins and ends as well as any film I've seen, and although it's predictable and the middle of the film is shaky, it's still the best children's film playing in theaters right now.

The film begins as lead character Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) narrates and tells us about the little Norse island he is from: Berk. While in the midst of talking about Berk's inhabitants and customs, the town is suddenly attached by dozens of dragons. Turns out this has been happening for generations. The dragons attack, steal livestock, and destroy buildings, which are then rebuilt again and again. Hiccup is a blacksmith's apprentice, but his dream is to become a Viking warrior, like his father Stoick (Gerard Butler, who should do more voice-work and spend less time on-screen), and slay his own dragon. Most of Berk's men are heavily clad in armor and trained to take down even the mightiest lizard. Hiccup looks as pathetic as his name.

After downing a Night Fury (the deadliest type of dragon) with a lucky shot from a bolas cannon, Hiccup befriends the beast, unbeknownst to his father and the rest of the people of Berk. Hiccup splits his time between dragon slaying-training, with teacher Gobber (Craig Ferguson) and other kids from Berk, and dragon training the Night Fury, who he nicknames Toothless.

It is in the dragon training scenes with Toothless where How to Train Your Dragon becomes somewhat disappointing. While well directed and beautiful looking, the narrative loses drive and focus. Stoick disappears with a group of men to go hunting for the dragons' lair, and while Hiccup is afraid of being caught with his new pet there's never any sense that that's a real danger. A good half hour of the film is spent watching Hiccup and Toothless bond, and as cute and touching as it is it grinds the film to a halt.

Thankfully the movie starts really chugging along when Hiccup and Toothless are found out by Astrid (America Ferrera), a young girl Hiccup has a crush on and has been constantly trying to impress. When Hiccup and Astrid accidentally stumble upon the dragons nest, the third act suddenly becomes a tense, tight blast of action.

The last third of How to Train Your Dragon features some impressive work done by Dreamworks animators and directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch). This is by far the best looking Dreamworks animated film, and features outstanding textures and effects. The battle towards the end is particularly impressive, incorporating fire, earth, water, and sky effects that are exhilarating.

Of course, all the pretty explosions and effects work would be for not if the character work wasn't there. While How to Train Your Dragon takes the simplest approach to its characters (like-able but clumsy lead, stern but loving father, goofy comic-relief) it works. Partly due to the writing and partly to do with the voice-work. There's no stand-out performance in How to Train Your Dragon, but each actor suits their part well, and each has a moment to add levity to the film.

The comedy in How to Train Your Dragon is low-key. The directors wisely stay away from over-the-top slapstick and pop-culture references. It's an aspect of the film (among others) that will ensure people will be remembering How to Train Your Dragon long after they've forgotten about Shrek and its increasingly intolerable sequels.

I should note that I saw this film in RealD 3D. I regret it. I had heard the 3D in the film is spectacular, and while it works, the glasses dim the colors of the film. Many times I had to take my glasses off to see what was going on during the night-time scenes. Don't spend the extra money. See it in 2D, where the colors will pop.


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