How to Train Your Dragon
There was a time when DreamWorks Animation looked like it could pwn Disney in the 3D-animated films arena. Many thought Antz was better than A Bug's Life, and audiences enjoyed Shrek's not-at-all-good-natured digs at the Walt Disney formula. But then Pixar proved itself the greatest film studio of all time, and DreamWorks became synonymous with uninspired, pandering, assembly-line kiddie flicks. (This pretty much says it all.) Part of the reason is that Pixar is a close-knit family of creative people who constantly push each other to greater heights, whereas the directors and animators at DreamWorks come and go on a work-for-hire basis.
But when they hire the right people with the right project, they can still make magic.
The Vikings of the village of Berk are constantly raided by swarms of dragons. Hiccup Horrendous Haddock (Jay Baruchel) is the son of Stoick (Gerard Butler) the village chief and apprentice to Gobber (Craig Ferguson) the blacksmith; he's also the weakest and frailest of the Vikings, and more keen on building gadgets than swinging an axe. He wants to kill a dragon to prove himself to his father - and impress his crush Astrid (America Ferrera) - and actually succeeds in shooting down a Night Fury, the deadliest and most mysterious breed of dragon. Instead of killing it though, he befriends it, naming it Toothless and training it to be his flying mount. But his friendship with his people's sworn enemy can't stay secret for long - and on top of that, the dragons have a secret that could spell doom for all the Vikings.
I gotta admit, when I read all the glowing comments on the Lowyat.net forum thread, I was highly skeptical. The trailer didn't impress, neither did the title, and I'm still miffed that Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was so unjustly overlooked. Even as I watched it, the opening scenes invited unflattering comparisons with Cloudy; Hiccup is, like Flint Lockwood, a gadgeteer geek with a burning need to prove himself to a community who does not appreciate him. And yet again, he has a father who doesn't understand him but whose love he craves. (Seriously, what is it with Hollywood and daddy issues? Did all their directors and screenwriters have fathers who would rather they became football players?)
But despite the similarities, it soon became clear that How to Train Your Dragon is very much doing its own thing. Cloudy was an out-and-out comedy, and a very funny one. This is a fantasy action-adventure, and it is a marvelously thrilling and surprisingly affecting one. Surprising, because there was nothing to indicate that it was going to be this good. The storyline is by no means fresh - it's basically another variation of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial - but it's superbly well-executed, with an uncommon care and attention to character relationships. (Which is pretty damn rare in any movie.) Particularly the central one between boy and dragon.
Toothless is straight up a marvel of character design. Directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois are best known for Lilo & Stitch, and yes, Toothless looks a lot like Stitch - but hey, why change what works? And it works terrifically well; the dragon can look cute and expressive, but he can also look as badass as you wouldn't normally expect a DreamWorks animated film to be. Night Furies are the stealth fighter of the dragon species, and also has what appears to be a plasma strike breath attack that's put to devastating use in the truly awesome aerial battle scenes. Why yes, this is a DreamWorks animated film, no mistake.
But once again, it's the relationships that make this more than just a neat action-adventure. Hiccup needs to earn Toothless' trust, and the scenes in which he does demonstrate that the dragon isn't your usual anthropomorphic cartoon critter. (We should just be thankful that he isn't voiced by Robin Williams or Jack Black.) Sanders and DeBlois give Toothless behavioural characteristics of dogs, cats and horses, making him a fully-realized character that is still recognizably animal. It's a testament to how effective this is when Stoick discovers his son's secret and takes it very very badly - no, it isn't really a spoiler, of course that would come in a story like this - and I was surprised how gut-wrenching it was.
And then there's the father-and-son relationship, which I will declare is done better here than in Cloudy. Yes, there's still that jokey modern attitude to it - Stoick is very much the stereotypical American jock father with the nerd son, transplanted into a Viking chief - but the heart of it is in the right place. I was also surprised at how well-drawn the romance between Hiccup and Astrid is. He initially thinks only a successful dragon-slaying Viking can win her heart; but it is his newfound sense of purpose, greater than her own pursuit of personal glory, that she truly falls for. Later on, it is that same sense of purpose that she helps him regain.
Of course, none of this would work without some stellar voice performances. Jay Baruchel has a pretty distinctive voice, but the actor very quickly disappears and becomes Hiccup, the character. Gerard Butler puts on a comically thick Scottish brogue, but still manages to turn in a heartwrenching performance; I didn't know he had it in him. America Ferrera looks nothing like a teenage Scandinavian goddess, but she plays Astrid perfectly. Once again, this movie rejects DreamWorks Animation's tired old formula by casting voice actors with the right voice, instead of physical resemblances to their animated characters. Ooh, and there's also John Powell's amazingly epic score. Seriously, I've been listening to this for days.
Okay, I've basically been dissing DreamWorks Animation throughout this review, and it's really unfair of me. I'm a Pixar fanboy, but I loved How to Train Your Dragon; it's the first film of the year to earn an early spot on my Top 10 of 2010, and I seriously doubt there'll be ten better movies in the months to come. In any case, comparing it with Pixar's films, or even Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, is moot; we should count ourselves lucky that terrific animated films are coming from more than one studio. DreamWorks may never be as consistently awesome as Pixar, but this proves that awesome is not out of their reach.
NEXT REVIEW: The Lovely Bones
Expectations: it can only improve on the book