Since its inception, Dreamworks, as an animation studio, has trailed behind its primary competitor, Pixar. In pair-up after pair-up, Pixar’s are always the funny, warm-hearted, timeless classics, and Dreamworks’ are the pop-culture hobbled toilet humor fests with the depth of a teaspoon. Dreamworks has collaborated with other studios to produce Pixar-comparable films (such as Chicken Run and Flushed Away, which were done in conjunction with British animation studio Aardman.) But it’s not until now that I’ve really felt Dreamworks has made a truly stellar film all on its own.
How to Train Your Dragon is that film. It’s rare find among family films: a movie that kids will love but that parents won’t want to drill through their own heads to escape (as if you need an example, but: Chipmunks 2: The Squeakuel). In fact, there were plenty of adults in the theater, myself included, that had come out to see it on our own, without even using a young cousin as an excuse. The story goes something like this:
When Hiccup, a young Viking without much skill for fighting, brings down a type of dragon so rare that no one’s ever seen one, he finds himself making friends with it rather than fighting to the death with it in the Viking tradition.
3-D movies have exploded in popularity in the last six months (we have Avatar and its 2 billion dollars to thank for that) but so few of them are actually 3-D (instead they’re a sort of film-diorama with a two or three different layers and a few cheap gimmicks where things pop out at you) that you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’d be okay to see How to Train Your Dragon in regular-D and save a few bucks.
Isn’t it immaterial whether or not the dragons occasionally jump out at you?
Well, I’d forgive you for thinking it, but not for doing it. How to Train Your Dragon‘s 3-D is like Avatar‘s 3-D: rounded (for lack of a better word). It’s a cartoon, not a live action film, which means they didn’t need expensive 3-D cameras to create the experience, just a different form of computer software. The 3-D was meant to be there from the start and it really puts you in the action. And trust me – you’ll want to be in the action once people start flying around on dragons, because it looks even better than flying did in Avatar.
Wheeeeeeee! I want a dragon!
Having said that, though, How to Train Your Dragon uses the same 3-D cliches that amazingly have had time to become cliched since Avatar did them: floating ashes, flitting insects, fireballs and/or monsters coming toward the viewer, and water spray. But unlike Avatar (sorry, Avatar) How to Train Your Dragon doesn’t let the 3-D gimmicks carry the movie. There’s story for that.
Said story centers around Vikings (who, for some reason, all have Scottish accents. Not Scandinavian, but at least consistently Not Scandinavian). As Hiccup says in his opening narration, they live in an old village…
Awww isn’t that quaint? What a great place to raise a family.
… where the houses are all new because they keep getting blown up by dragons.
I am less inclined to buy real estate here now.
So naturally Viking life revolves around:
a) killing dragons and
b) not being killed by dragons
All in favor of killing more dragons?
This sort of warrior-centric culture doesn’t leave a lot of room for a kid like Hiccup, who’s scrawny and uncoordinated. Consequently he often gets pawned off as a blacksmith’s apprentice and left behind when all the really cool suicide missions are going on.
Bye! Don’t get killed without me!
Hiccup really wants to fit in and kill a dragon (at least in the beginning). A few minutes into the movie, when he brought out a homemade cannon to help him shoot one down, I thought: “oh no, not ANOTHER misunderstood inventor.” It’s been done to death in cartoons in the last few years (think Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Meet the Robinsons, Igor, A Bug’s Life even the villain in The Incredibles).
“No, Flint/Lewis/Igor/Flick/Buddy, your invention will not work, please go home.” – Everyone
I was therefore relieved when they didn’t focus on the invention part except as a means to bring Hiccup and his dragon buddy, whom he names Toothless, together. Too often when person and creature bond in these stories, it’s simply because the creature decides it likes the person, or the person does one nice thing to the creature and unconsciously inspires undying devotion… like giving it something to eat.
Forget men, the way to ANYTHING’s heart is through its stomach
But Hiccup and Toothless are more than just two beings who happened to make friends. Due to an injury Toothless sustained, they actually need one another to fly, which bonds them more tightly than your typical dragon and rider (in other movies… obviously Hiccup is the only one in this movie). I won’t tell you the exact details of the arrangement, it will be much cooler if you find out yourself…
…but suffice it to say it adds a really cool fighter-pilot like aspect to the film.
But the best part is that the writers and animators create the rules of dragon biology and flight physics and they STICK TO THEM (just because it’s a cartoon doesn’t mean you can contradict yourself, Joe Screenwriter). In terms of design, the dragons’ animators avoid the pitfall of making everything ugly just because it’s supposed to be dangerous, or conversely, making everything ridiculously cute and nonthreatening just because children will be in the audience. Cute and dangerous are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as How to Train Your Dragon shows us. Toothless and his fellow dragons are capable of wreaking great destruction…
…especially Toothless, who has what looks like photon torpedo breath…
… and they have spikes and claws and scales and razor sharp teeth, but they’re also extremely cute. There are a wide variety of dragon breeds of different sizes, colors, and abilities (most of which have hilarious names like Monsterous Nightmare), but each one is capable of being adorable in movement, looks, or personality.
Awwww! My icy cold cynical heart just melted.
And though they’re the cause of much human misery, there’s a very good explanation for it (that I will not tell you about) that keeps dragons from being truly evil. The best fantasy is a balance of familiarity and invention (just like science fiction) and How to Train Your Dragon toes the line with precision balance. The dragons are very cat-like in some of their movements and preferences, but with teeth, claws, wings, fire breath, more higher mental functions, and the ability to mimic human behaviors, they’re obviously something entirely different.
He’s trying to smile! It’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen!!!
Everything in this movie was rendered in such loving detail, from the glistening dragon scales to Hiccup’s freckles, that it would be completely engrossing to watch, even in 2-D. As it was, I kept getting distracted by how realistic Hiccup’s father’s arm hairs looked.
Stoic the Vast. That’s him of magnificent arm hair on the right.
There is, of course, some interpersonal conflict in the form of Hiccup wanting the other kids to respect him, the hot girl to love him…
Dating Tip #1: Do not allow your dragon friend to eat the object of your affection.
… and his father to get to know him properly, some of which can get a little cliched, but not enough to become squirm-worthily melodramatic. This is mostly because the movie has a lot of great jokes in it (of the sarcasm variety, not the toilet variety).
“Gee, Dad, thanks for this helmet made from Mom’s former boob covering.”
In short, I loved How to Train Your Dragon from start to finish (I even stayed through all the closing credits to finish listening to the music and look at the cute drawings in the margins). It didn’t seem that much like the excerpt from the book (by Cressida Cowell) that I read, but in a good way.
Yes, movies can be better than their books. It just doesn’t happen very often.
In fact, I enjoyed How to Train Your Dragon so much that as I walked away from the theater I realized I had found what I was missing from Avatar. At first I couldn’t place what it was, and then it hit me: it was cuteness. While Avatar‘s world was populated by dangerous creatures, just like How to Train Your Dragon, the creatures were just plain ugly. Cuteness inspires love and love inspires devotion. Ergo, I am devoted to How to Train Your Dragon, while I was merely impressed by Avatar. And that’s what makes all the difference.