How to Train Your Dragon
Directors: Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Viewed: April 18, 2010
Format: 3D Digital Theatrical Projection (Wehrenberg Ronnies Cine)
B+ - For over a decade now, Dreamworks Animation has been churning out Shreks, Madagascars, and various other talking animal mediocrities (anyone remember Shark Tale?), jousting with Blue Sky Studios for a distant second-place slot behind American animation’s reigning champion, Pixar. In 2008, Dreamworks managed its first genuinely good film, Kung-Fu Panda, a charming, marvelously designed bit of fluff in the underdog sports movie mold. Lacking contemporary kiddie animation’s characteristic risible pop culture references and cheap scatological humor, Panda hinted at better things to come from the studio in terms of feature animation. And, lo and behold, here we are, two years later, and Dreamworks has delivered the exhilarating, dazzling How to Train Your Dragon, a film that should by all rights be nothing more than disposable entertainment, but attains something much finer. No doubt this is at least partly due to the men at the helm, Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, who were the minds behind that oddball late Disney Renaissance marvel Lilo & Sitch. However, it’s undeniable that Dragon feels like the progeny of a studio that has finally found its stride and resolved to aim high. The story is simple, the design breathtaking, the action rousing, and the humor mostly warm and sweet. While Dragon lacks the grace and thematic sophistication of a Pixar film, it is by any measure a damn splendid animated feature.
Based on the novel by Cressida Cowell and adapted by DeBlois, Sanders, and William Davies, Dragon is a teachable example of how superior children’s films flow from simple, vivid stories, as opposed to high concepts or gaggles of wacky characters. At bottom, the film is a winning blend of two familiar fairy tale scenarios: 1) Loser Find His True Purpose, and 2) Two Groups Find Understanding. The setting is Berk, a fantastical Dark Age Nordic village as seen through a sumptuous, sardonic cartoon lens. (Picture Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert’s take on Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings and you won’t be far off the mark.) The village is bedeviled by constant dragon attacks, and as a result life in the community is organized almost entirely around fighting the beasts. Our hero is a milquetoast blacksmith’s apprentice named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), who wants more than anything to slay a dragon and thereby prove himself, particularly to the aloof object of his crush, Astrid (America Ferrera), and to his perpetually disappointed father, Stoic (Gerard Butler), who is, naturally, both a mighty warrior and the village chieftain.
When an opportunity to kill a wounded dragon falls into Hiccup’s lap, the young Viking nonetheless finds himself pitying the creature. Over the course of several days he returns to visit the hobbled dragon, which he dubs Toothless, bringing it food and gradually earning its trust. Hiccup’s kindler, gentler approach proves to be a boon, as he quickly rises to the top of his dragon-slaying class with the aid of all the practical knowledge he’s gleaning from his quality time with Toothless. Eventually, Hiccup fashions a prosthetic tail fin for his dragon pal, as well as a saddle and bridle, and before you can know it the pair are sailing through the wild blue yonder. This is just about the point when his secret comes out to Astrid, the most capable wannbe-dragon-slayer in the village before Hiccup’s unlikely rise. Shortly thereafter, Hiccup’s enraged father captures Toothless and uses him to discover the lhidden location of the legendary Dragon’s Nest, setting the story up for a climactic confrontation.
Dragon treads over well-traveled fairy tale territory, but it’s told with an admirable tidiness and emotional sincerity. There are no feeble, prolonged digressions for the sake of comic relief or unearned pathos. The scenes click together, one after the other, succinctly establishing the story’s core emotional conflicts while also taking time to revel in the film’s rich design. And what design! Boasting the most evocative art direction in a computer animated feature since 2007’s Ratatouille, Dragon is bursting with marvelous sights, evincing a phenomenal attention to detail and a spirited affection for its historical-mythic Nordic setting. From the mighty longboats and icy fjords to the tiny runes scrawled in a dusty book, the film is wall-to-wall with visual pleasures. The design just feels positively enthusiastic, and while one might be tempted to dismiss its “Völsung-Cycle-for-Kidz” aesthetic as faintly ridiculous, the overall effect is so lusciously enveloping and so vividly realized that the look of the thing feels like an artistic achievement all on its own. Nowhere is this element more apparent than in the dragons themselves, for DeBlois and Sanders have envisioned them not as a slew of anonymous scaly terrors, but as a collection of distinctive species, each with its own appearance, movements, personality, and lethal breath weapon. Toothless, who from a certain angle resembles nothing so much as a proud, finicky black cat, is a particularly fine example of a memorable animated creature whose persona is derived almost wholly from facial expressions and motion.
Baruchel—who is apparently a movie star now, but who I still remember best as scrawny, dimwitted Danger from Million Dollar Baby—is a fine fit for the wry, self-effacing, slow-on-the-uptake Hiccup. Indeed, most of the voice-acting is suitably spry and broad without being distracting, with Craig Ferguson’s garrulous blacksmith being a particular standout. One of the film’s odd incongruities is that the adult Vikings speak in booming Scottish brogues, while the adolescents sound like Santa Clara high school students. (When it is dubbed into Danish or Norwegian, will the Vikings still have Scottish accents? The mind boggles.) The film’s rare moments of unsuccessful, grating “humor” consistently involve the teenaged Vikings, who, more so than any of Dragon’s other characters, seem to have wandered in from hyper-kinetic afternoon cartoon show. They’re cranked up to eleven—as teens are wont to be, I suppose—and therefore seem a poor fit for the film’s more conventional storybook pacing and tone.
While How To Train Your Dragon fits in seamlessly with a thousand other good-natured children’s stories about understanding and cooperation, DeBlois and Sanders reveal, through their handsomely expressed Long Ago milieu, a more sophisticated dimension to their film, one absorbed with the relationship between man and animal. The dragons of this story possess fantastic physical qualities, but they are not genius arch-villains in the mold of Tolkein’s Smaug. They are animals, who yearn for food, comfort, and companionship above all else. Dragon thus functions as a kind of Domestication Myth, condensing millennia of side-by-side adaptation between man and beast into a magical moment when the savage wolf changes into the loyal hound, or the stallion into the steed. It might be a far sight from the psychological, emotional, and generic complexity that Pixar has been able to weave into its ostensible children’s stories, but this added dimension to Dragon deepens its appeal and adds a humane resonance to its timeworn outlines.