How To Train Your Dragon
How To Train Your Dragon was a pleasant surprise and a lot more fun than I had expected from the trailer. I would go so far as to call it the best Dreamworks Animation to date.
Yes, the story is at first glance an all-too familiar one. A Young boy, a misfit in his community, befriends an ancient enemy and defies a centuries-old tradition. From that information alone, you can probably deduct where and how the story will proceed, but sometimes the joy is not in the story, but in the details with which the story is told.
I am the first to admit that I have never been a fan of the Dreamworks catalogue of animation films. As a studio, it had always relied too heavily on celebrity voice-casting, pop-culture references and slapstick to be a serious contender to Pixar’s (western animation) hegemony. Too often they forget that the heart and soul of a movie should be the story and its characters. With Dragon, it seems as if Dreamworks has abandoned its own tired formula and the result is a movie that perhaps can’t yet compete with Pixar’s finest hours, but is easily a match for some of their lesser output.Ironically, part of its success can be attributed to Dragon’s directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. After cutting their teeth on Disney’s Mulan and Lilo & Stitch, they bring an un-Dreamworks-like storytelling approach to the table that hugely benefits the movie.
You wouldn’t know it from the opening scene though. While the main character Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) narrates, we are treated to a night-time raid on the Viking village of Berk that introduces the characters, their mortal enemies the dragons (including the various types and threat levels) and Hiccup’s own standing in this warrior community. It’s such a barrage of information that it is easy to lose track of what’s what and who’s who.
Luckily, after that hectic opening, the movie turns down the pace and lets the characters blossom. It is here where it becomes apparent how far CG animation has come since Toy Story. Despite the cartoon style of the character designs, their body language and facial expressions are getting closer and closer to the nuance we have come to expect from live-action. Dragon uses this to its advantage. Instead of inundating the movie (and the audience) with countless one-liners in the hope one will stick (a common symptom of the Dreamworks-syndrom), much of the emotion comes from the quiet moments. While this is logical in the scenes between Hiccup and the mute dragon Toothless, it’s also used to great effect in the scenes between Hiccup and his father, the fearless Viking leader Stoick (Gerard Butler).
That is not to say the voice-cast isn’t good. In a rare case for Dreamworks they seem to have cast more for who fits the character than for the biggest names available (the biggest name on the cast list is Gerard Butler) and the movie is better for it, yet the voice work fits the characters to a Tee. To be honest , I had my reservations about Jay Baruchel judging from the trailer, yet his reedy, nasal voice really fits Hiccup, who at one point describes himself as an upright fishbone. Likewise, Gerard Butler, he of the booming voice, has a blast playing Stoick the Vast (with an inexplicable Scottish accent) in what could be his best role yet. Speaking of Scots–Craig Ferguson does an equally entertaining job as the mentor-like Gobber, a one-legged, one-handed old salt of a Viking who’s in charge of training the next generation of dragon-slayers (in a series of amusing scenes that seem to be set in a sort of Viking Thunderdome).
America Ferrera, best known for the title-role in Ugly Betty, is astounding as the warrior-maiden and potential love-interest Astrid. The cast is rounded out nicely by Christopher Mintz-Plasse (the rotund Fishlegs), Jonah Hill (braggart Snotlout) and TJ Miller and Kristen Wiig (twins Tuffnutt and Ruffnutt) who make up the rest of Hiccup’s dragon-slaying class.
Visually the movie is jaw-dropping. Acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins was hired as a consultant on this movie and while I’m not sure how much of his influence reached the big screen, there’s no denying the sheer impressiveness of the visuals. Especially in the aerial scenes, Dragon becomes awe-inspiring. It’s not just in the stomach-churning thrill of swooping down with wings folded, banking left and right between craggy rock formations, as impressive as it is. It’s also in the quieter moments as Toothless glides gently towards a cloud formation and one of the characters reaches out in sheer awe and joy to let the vapour play through her fingers. This is one movie that really benefits from the IMAX 3D treatment.
You can love or hate 3D, but when it’s done right, it really adds to a movie. In Dragon’s case, it adds. I have seen movies in which the 3D distracts from the story (Ice Age 3), I have seen movies where the 3D tries to compensate the shortcomings in the story (Avatar, Alice In Wonderland), but How To Train Your Dragon is the first time where I felt that story and 3D were used to complement each other.
I’m really hoping How To Train Your Dragon will do well. If it does, it might mark a new direction for Dreamworks, one that will break from the studio’s tired formula. Unfortunately, prior to Dragon, the theatre played the trailer for Shrek 4 (in 3D) and it’s formulaic, I hated it and no doubt it will do thrice the business that Dragon will do. Let’s not make that happen people! Let’s go and see Dragon and skip Shrek 4!
Sometimes, breaking with tradition is a risk worth taking for a better future.