March 26, 2010
Review - " How to Train Your Dragon " - (in theaters) By Roland Hansen
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How To Train Your Dragon
Directed by: Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguso, America
Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig
Nordic beauty, likable charm instead of cheap jokes, heartfelt
characters and story, joyful flying sequences—with How to Train Your
Dragon, it appears DreamWorks Animation has momentarily set aside
its Shreked-out shtick and made a dazzling movie.
DreamWorks Animation has always been the hyperactive, pop-culture
obsessed little brother of the more thoughtful, more artistically mature
Pixar. Where Pixar films start with character and story, too often
DreamWorks CGI movies feel like they were born in the merchandising
department and then dipped too long in some sort a sugar-rush, pop-
culture snarkinizing solution. Blame Shrek, DreamWorks’ ogreish
runaway hit that infected the rest of its efforts. By comparison, for
better or worse—but mostly better–Pixar has never strayed far from its
Toy Story heart. DreamWorks Animation’s CG films are rarely bad—
Kung Fu Panda is well-done fun, and Monsters Vs. Aliens and the
Madagascar movies are goofy, spastic diversions—but they’ve
never achieved greatness.
Fitting in is hard to do, especially when you’re from a clan of dragon-
slaying Vikings but have zero hunger for the kill.
In How to Train Your Dragon, the new 3-D adventure film from Dreamworks, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is the
laughingstock of his dragon-hunting class, failing at every turn to take the reptiles down. Even his own father (voiced by
Gerard Butler) is disappointed, fearing that his son will tarnish his legacy as the most bad-ass slayer in town. Hiccup’s
fortunes -- and, ultimately, those of his society -- change when he secretly befriends a rare type of dragon, exchanging fish
for a little inter-species trust.
In many respects, How to Train Your Dragon is like Avatar for kids, minus the guns and loincloths. Hiccup doesn’t start with
an anti-dragon stance per se, but his diplomatic efforts pit him against his community and endanger his new scaly friends.
His unpopular politics also up the tension between him and his Dad, who suffers from an overabundance of testosterone,
hubris and high-calorie Viking roasts.
Dragon’s essential story arc is familiar, but the
original characters and unusual aesthetics give it
a freshness and feel-good vibe. Sure, there are
some requisite adult jokes (one memorable bit
makes fun of Viking breastplates), but not
enough to become a smarmy sub-text that might
undermine the movie’s kid-centric style. Hiccup
himself is adorably earnest but not too cute, and
the cast of schoolmates and dragons that round
out his crew are each drawn - literally and
figuratively - with a gentle sense of humor and
Some of Dragon’s endearing details are evident in its range of characters. Apart from Hiccup and Stoick, his
dad, there’s Astrid (voiced by America Ferrera), the ambitious and rambunctious classmate who’s determined
to finish first in her class -- and becomes the first to discover Hiccup’s secret. With her thick braid and
feisty little animated face, she evolves from being a thorn in Hiccup’s side to, predictably, his adoring
side-kick. Snotlout (voiced by Jonah Hill) is another student in the rag-tag Viking posse, with aggression
to burn and a chip on his shoulder about Astrid’s fading affection.
Unlike Avatar, Dragon is accessible for humans of any age. Toothless and Hiccup are platonic partners in flight whose union
has significant political consequences. Despite these tacit lessons in diplomacy and heroism Dragon is, at heart, nothing but
joyful entertainment that deserves praise for bringing a little fun back to politics and growing pains, even if it’s all pretend.
But that’s not all How to Train Your Dragon has under its horned helmet. Brilliant live-action cinematographer Rodger
Deakins (No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James, Revolutionary Road) was brought in as a visual
consultant, and the result is spectacular. While the character designs are still a bit Muppety (Hiccup’s young peers look like
Viking versions of the band Dr Teeth), the landscapes and skies that fill the screen are lush and layered; sun-dappled
wood, leaf, and stone are richly textured; and even the costumes, tools, weapons and buildings are, for the most part,
historically accurate. The result is much more Lord of the Rings than Shrek—not counting the former’s Riders of Rohan, this
may be the best Viking movie since the woefully underrated and unseen 13th Warrior.
And the flying scenes… well, the flying scenes are
just jaw-dropping, heart-lifting, joyfully amazing.
They may not be as show-offy as Avatar’s (and
the more I think about it, in 5-10 years the flying
scenes in Avatar will be all most of us remember
of it, just as all we remember now of Titanic is that
stern tilting into the sky), but in many ways How to
Train Your Dragon’s CGI, 3D dragon-riding
sequences are better, more emotionally,
majestically resonant. There is depth and
perspective to Dragon’s soaring scenes, as
DreamWorks finally learned the Pixar lessons not
just about character and story but about quiet and space.
DreamWorks still relies too heavily on star voices, but it’s not a problem here. Baruchel’s nasal voice, gangly physicality, and
earnest loserdom—adored by some of us since the too-short-lived sit-com Undeclared and the best thing about She’s Out
of My League—work nicely with Toothless’s mute inscrutability.
Butler is fine as Hiccup’s warrior father. (James Caan voiced the exact same role in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.)
Craig Ferguson does no harm and brings a bit of funny to his Viking arms maker and trainer (yes, it seems Scottish accents
were all the brogue among the Norsemen), and Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera is likable as the usual romantic interest. Jonah
Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and TJ Miller (who previously worked with Baruchel in League and battled a giant monster in
Cloverfield) all do the right thing as Hiccup’s bullies-turned-buddies: they put their voices to service of their characters
rather than lazily playing themselves.
There’s still a bit of the bratty, Shrek-style adolescent humor in Dragon, but for the most part the pop-culture riffing is kept to
a minimum so the movie can focus on nobility, heart, and the notion—sadly as subversive now as it may have been to Viking
hoards—that sometimes knowing and understanding your sworn “enemy” beats letting aggro warrior pride and fear-fueled
hatred blindly swing your sword. Thanks to Dragon’s story and charm, its Love Thy Enemy/Give Peace a Chance message
goes down even easier than Avatar’s hippie eco-lecture. Not that it’s all Hugging and Learning in Vikingland: there’s a terrific
slam-bang action finale with Viking warriors, a fleet of longboats, and a Godzilla-sized brute.
While the Vikings are an inspired and rowdy
lot, it’s really the dragons that make the movie
the gem that it is. Toothless is Hiccup’s special
dragon friend, and the unwitting star alongside
his human trainer. With a flat, snout-shaped
face and big eyes, the black creature is both
cute and imposing. Directors Dean DeBlois
and Chris Sanders exploit every trick in the
book to cull the “oohs” and “ahhs” for
Toothless, and it works. He becomes for
Hiccup what Neytiri was for Jake Sully,
becoming the surprising hero who saves the
human, battles be damned.
Too often with animated films of a certain
calibrated mediocrity, we shrug and say, “Eh, it
was a fun way topass the time and babysit the
kids.” So it’s nice to welcome DreamWorks
Animation into that special circle where you can
say, “Animated or not, for kids or whoever, this
is an entertaining, thoughtful movie.” Maybe
even a great one.