Sunday, March 28, 2010

Movie Review: How To Train Your Dragon

Directed by Dean Debois & Chris Sanders
Screenplay by Dean Debois
Based on the children’s story by Cressida Cowell
Duration 90 Minutes 
Rated PG

My Wonderfully Majestic Opinion
When it comes to animated films, my unacceptability of predictable plotlines diminishes about 50%.  The target audience is obviously children, but with the current popularity of animated films among adults, a secondary audience is kept in mind during the screenwriting process.  To write a completely predictable script is good for the kids, but not so good for the adults. (Unless you like that sort of thing) In turn, something else must be added in order to meet the adult’s entertainment needs.  How to Train Your Dragon combines children and adult appeal for a unique and interesting approach to the typical dragon adventure tale.

The set up isn’t anything we are unfamiliar with.  We have our main character, Hiccup (who’s probably the same age as your middle school child who sat next to you) who doesn’t quite fit in much to the dismay of his father, Stoick who indecently is the leader of this Viking tribe.  Within a mere ten minute segment, we are shown Hiccup’s desire to achieve his father’s approval and to win over the acceptance of the whole tribe through a blood thirsty dragon battle in the village.  Hiccup’s adventure begins as he accidentally takes down the most feared dragon of all, a Night Furry.  Hiccup develops a relationship with this beast and begins to realize that the Viking hatred towards dragons is unfounded and begins his self-appointed task to show the rest of his Viking comrades the error of their ways.  Thus we have the tale of the outsider taking a stance against the norm and becoming the hero at the climax of the story.

Somewhere in the middle of the film, Hiccup claims to see a lot of himself in his new found dragon friend, whom he has named Toothless.  A series of events occurs to help support this claim where, ultimately, both characters have lost something which is essential to their mobility.  I wasn’t convinced in the actuality of Toothless and Hiccup being connected in this way; rather I saw it as Hiccup looking for something within the Night Fury that he could relate too.  Whether it be an actual relatable trait or something Hiccup unconsciously made up in his own mind is what I question.  Never the less, the point is still made clear that this film is all about facing yourself, or to coin the phrase “to face your dragons.”  Since Hiccup saw a lot of himself in Toothless, he sought a way to help the injured creature, which in turn gave him an unconscious reason to help himself.  The title, “How to Train your Dragon,” does not actually refer to the literal and the obvious.  This film is all about facing oneself and holding true to your moral convictions and your goals in life, despite the fact that everyone around you holds no faith in what you wish to achieve.  While this concept is quite over played in the cartoon movie world, it is portrayed better in this film than any animated film I’ve seen to date.

The animation quality in this film could be compared to that of Pixar. There was a definite attention to detail that DreamWorks Animation Studios has lacked in previous films.  The variety in atmospheres and landscapes was incredibly impressive as we went from a small hometown Viking village, to falling through forest landscapes,  flying through cloudy blue skies, sailing across beautiful oceanic scenery, and finally battling at a fiery volcanic island where plant life is replaced by rubble and ash.  The attention to those specific details went above and beyond what I’ve come to expect from a DreamWorks animated film.  But even on the much smaller scale, the attempt at making each and every dragon uniquely different was fantastically achieved.  There were dragons that resembled, fish, dogs, cats, insects and amphibians and this cannot be thrown out as an easy task, giving every featured dragon its own defining features and recognizable attributes, including specific voice inflections.  These detail oriented aspects of the dragons are clear cut reminders that each animal species is very diversified and unique in every way, while at the same time maintaining a unified set of instincts.

Now with all the greatness that this film brought to the screen, there was one minor distractions that made me chuckle.  Take for instance that no one had ever seen a Night Fury, yet for some reason the Vikings knew exactly what the creature looked like once Toothless appeared to them for the first time.  I thought back to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast during this moment, how in the world did they know the Beast lived up in the castle on the dark and gothic hill when that moment when Belle returned was the first they had heard of the Beast?  I can only assume that, like most fantasy tales, this is one of its unexplainable attributes that the audience is supposed to accept and forget about…but I can’t.

There was, of course, the very formulaic plot progression that I actually laid out for my wife prior to seeing the film, it’s that predictable.  This led to a conversation about the predictability of all feel-good, family oriented animated films which caused me to ask myself why I go see cartoon movies when I know exactly what’s going to happen.  The answer…it’s the animation.  Having grown up wanting to be a Disney or a Pixar artist/animation technician, the artistry of animated films is what grabs me.  This film did a masterful job at creating visually likeable characters, emotional and recognizable faces, beautiful sceneries, and amazing special effects.  The story itself was applied very well to the film, but the events throughout the story were annoyingly predictable.  It’s the artwork that is worth its weight in gold here.

My Awe-Struck Conclusion
Most dragon films have to deal with the simple fact that, due to their size, demeanor, and unrelatable characteristics, they aren’t the most successful films to be made.  Human characters have to be brought in that serve no purpose accept to be there for the climatic final battle with the “ultimate” dragon.  Even in the film “Dragon Heart,” there is an ineffective message due to the exceptionally difficult task of making a film about dragons.  “How to Train your Dragon” does something that no other dragon film has done before.  Despite the fact that the dragons cannot speak, this film gives the dragons a voice in the story.

Rating 8.5 out of 10 stars

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