How to Train Your Dragon is the second non-Shrek Dreamworks Animation film that I’ve enjoyed (the first was Kung Fu Panda). In both cases, I didn’t want to see the film based on the preview and went only due to good word of mouth. Well, let me now join the chorus of other voices and say that How to Train Your Dragon is a fun, easy-to-watch adventure that, while not revolutionary, represents another nice step into non-gimmicky storytelling for Dreamworks Animation that is delightfully free of Smashmouth songs and out-of-place pop-culture references.
The story is predictable but effective: A wimpy Viking boy, with the pejorative name of Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), flies in the face of his town’s dragon-slaughtering ways, secretly befriending a wounded Night Terror dragon–the most dangerous of all dragons and one not yet seen by human eyes. Hiccup is a bit of an inventor, and when he realizes the dragon needs new tail feathers in order to fly again, he fires up the kiln and builds a rig that soon has him flying his very own pet dragon. The dragon, which he names Toothless, needs Hiccup to fly; Hiccup needs Toothless to help him find a way toward more compassionate Viking/Dragon relations. Hijinks and culture clashes ensue, dragons are flown, and a lot of stuff ends up engulfed in flames.
So the story is pretty much a given from the first general characterizations. There’s a competent nod to the Chicks-Can-Kick-Ass-Too school of feminism in the character of Astrid (America Ferrera), who is the fiercest of the other children warriors and part-love-interest, part-competitor for Hiccup–but it’s all a little too easily unraveled. Astrid still ends up being cast into the role of support structure for the heroic, dragon-riding male. I think this dynamic was done much better recently in Kick-Ass, but I understand that this film is meant to be lighter in spirit. Not every movie has to have some sort of tragedy, but it would be nice if there were just a tiny bit more bite to this dragon fable. There’s a sort of uneven vibe to the danger, especially when the characters are training to fight dragons, that often left me confused: were the children actually risking their lives in practice, or did their teacher always have it under control? It’s perplexing, because I feel like there was both too much danger and not enough danger in the encounters with these fire-breathing creatures.
Where the film shines is in the gorgeous cinematography, which is often surprisingly artistic and witty. There’s a wonderful aerial battle in the final act that observers on the ground see as a lightning storm in the clouds, complete with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shadows of warring dragons. Water, too, looks the best I’ve ever seen it look in a computer animated film. The flying scenes are effective, although I wanted more of them. Finally, I found myself remarking more than once at what a great, dynamic job the filmmakers did with Hiccup’s hair, which is reshaped in nicely authentic ways by his many flights.
My favorite visual, however, was Toothless, whose design was unique and successfully vacillated between intimidating and adorable. The dragon design in How to Train Your Dragon outdoes the dragon design in other recent attempts, such as Alice in Wonderland, or even Eragon, a film in which the dragons also unfortunately talked. There’s no talking here, which is welcome. Without the crutch of blathering conversation, the filmmakers adopt more purely cinematic storytelling techniques, which always draws me in. This film is not as good as Wall*E, but I like the dialogue-free beginning of that movie, and I like the dialogue-free scenes between Toothless and Hiccup here. Both films drew me into their stories with interesting scenes between two characters from different worlds. It’s a nice way to ground the film in some real heart before flying off into more effects-heavy wizardry.
How to Train Your Dragon, directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. Written by William Davies, Peter Tolan, Sanders and DeBlois. Based on the book by Cressida Cowell. Running time: 98 minutes. Rated PG (for sequences of intense action, some scary images and brief mild language).
… But hold on, why did I go to see that movie this weekend?
Okay, so here’s a little sidenote that I feel compelled to add, so I hope you’ll spare me another paragraph or so.
Aspiring horror novelist though I may be, I’d like it noted that I went to see a fun kid’s adventure movie instead of the new remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. I don’t approve of this remake mania, and I will not support it. How hard is it to come up with your own original mythology? I’m doing it. Why can’t these professionals do likewise? I dislike both the Saw and the Final Destination franchises, but at least they created their own gimmicks. So, please, can I get some more horror films that are 1.) not remakes, 2.) not vampire movies, and 3.) not zombie flicks.
Please? Anyone? Is it really that hard to come up with something that wants to eat people that you have to make go back to the freaking Wolfman? Until I’ve seen The Deerman, you aren’t trying hard enough!