Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Silver Screen Selections: How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon
How to Train Your Dragon
Studio: DreamWorks Animation
Director: Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders
Released: March 26, 2010
Genre: Animated Fantasy


Set in the mythical world of burly Vikings and wild dragons, and based on the book by Cressida Cowell, [this] action comedy tells the story of Hiccup, a Viking teenager who doesn't exactly fit in with his tribe's longstanding tradition of heroic dragon slayers. Hiccup's world is turned upside down when he encounters a dragon that challenges he and his fellow Vikings to see the world from an entirely different point of view.

[From Metacritic.]


When I saw the first trailer for How to Train Your Dragon, I dismissed the movie almost at once. Early advertising focused on the humor without hinting at the huge beating heart underneath. Not even the cute scene of Toothless spitting up half a fish to share with Hiccup was enough to change my first impression. At best, I thought it might achieve mediocrity, and it would certainly never be able to compete with rival studio Pixar's offerings.

After a slightly disappointing opening weekend, however, word-of-mouth started pouring in, and the overall consensus surprised me. It was good. Great, even. Now, four years later, it sits at an impressive 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, only a single point below the almost universally acclaimed Toy Story 3, released the same year. How to Train Your Dragon shifted almost immediately from "definitely skip" to "gotta watch."

I'm glad I did. How to Train Your Dragon is not only the best of Dreamworks Animation's offerings, but one of the best animated films of recent years, period.

The movie centers on two primary relationships: that of a boy and his father, and that of a boy and his dog—sorry, dragon.

Defend him from all of those tasty, tasty fish.

It's these relationships that elevate the film from good to great. The budding friendship between Hiccup and Toothless is the highlight of the film. Though largely devoid of dialogue, the scenes leading up to the pair's first synchronized flight say everything they need to about both characters. Hiccup finally gets to utilize his true talents: patience, empathy, observation, and intellect. In doing so, he transforms from dejected village outcast into a self-assured and competent young man. In the meanwhile, Toothless shows off the real face of dragonhood. Far from the brutal killers Viking-kind has made them out to be, dragons are intelligent, inquisitive, and unfailingly loyal to those who show them kindness. While Toothless does bare his retractable teeth on occasion, it's only to defend himself or his newfound best friend.

This friendship's development is beautifully wrought through the aforementioned dialogue-lite scenes in combination with a masterful score courtesy of composer John Powell. I'd be hard-pressed to name a single weak track in the movie's score, though picking out the strongest ("Test Drive" and "Forbidden Friendship") is easy. The music moves easily between the booming cadence of its Viking scenes and the whimsy of our man-and-beast duo.

In the film's secondary relationship, Hiccup struggles to impress his father, Stoick the Vast. Stoick is chieftain of their Viking tribe, a mountain of a man who, within minutes of the film's opening monologue, wins a fistfight with a dragon.

Stoick is the ideal Viking, a massive, bearded warrior more than capable of protecting the village from the dragons that threaten it. Hiccup is his direct opposite: small and weedy, too weak to wield a weapon any bigger than his knife. Stoick may love his son, but he's clearly disappointed that his heir turned out to be nothing like himself. That the village itself seems to tolerate Hiccup as little more than a nuisance to be babysat lest he end up on fire or in a dragon's belly probably doesn't help matters. Hiccup is desperate to prove himself a real Viking and earn his father's—and the villagers'—respect, and many of his actions center on that goal. As for Stoick, though he is stern and sometimes harsh, it's clear that what he really wants is a way to connect with his son. The movie could have painted him as a villain. Instead, with the help of some subtle animation cues and a great performance via Gerard Butler, Stoick comes off as a concerned parent who wants to prepare his son for what he knows to be a dangerous and often deadly world.

Other characters in How to Train Your Dragon's colorful cast include Gobber the Belch, Stoick's best friend and Hiccup's secondary caretaker, Astrid, a tough, no-nonsense dragon-killing prodigy, and an assortment of Viking teens who serve mostly as comic relief. Though only Astrid achieves any significant development, the other named characters are responsible for some of the movie's funniest scenes, and their individual quirks make them extremely likeable.

From left to right: Snotlout, Astrid, Fishlegs, Hiccup, Ruffnut, Tuffnut.

How to Train Your Dragon's animation is some of the most timeless in its genre. Each character is awash with tiny details, from Toothless' barely visible stripes to the scar on Hiccup's chin. These details stand out in opposition to many other animated features, where characters' textures are often Barbie-doll smooth.

Freckle-faced and scarred.

The highlight of the animation is, of course, Toothless. His mannerisms, inspired by such varied animals as dogs, cats, lizards, birds, and insects, combine to make a creature who is totally unique. He is also extremely expressive, moreso even than most of the human characters, thanks to his axolotl-like ears and large green eyes.

I'd be remiss if I failed to mention Hiccup and Toothless' flight scenes, some of the most delicious eye-candy in animation. A lot of research went into these scenes, and it shows. Seeing these in 3-D was worth the price of a ticket (despite the ensuing 3-D headache).

No matter your age, How to Train Your Dragon deserves a watch. Click here to find it on DVD or Blu-Ray in the library catalogue.

Part 1 of a series of How to Train Your Dragon posts. Stay tuned for Part 2, our review of the book that started it all.

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