– Summary –
Director : Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois
Year Of Release : 2010
Principal Cast : Voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, TJ Miller, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse.
Approx Running Time : 90 Minutes
Synopsis: Young Viking kid Hiccup befriends a dragon, one of his people’s sworn enemies, and becomes the toast of the town when he begins to demonstrate an aptitude for taming the beasts: until his father goes on a mission to destroy the dragon’s nest and rid our world of them once and for all….
What we think : It’s a story we’ve seen before, but the DreamWorks version of the young ingenue becoming a man rates among the very best animated films of the last 12 months. While not a patch on Pixars best, it’s still a damn good film by any stretch, and is most certainly entertaining enough to be added to your collection. Funny, epic and with animation to die for, How To Tame Your Dragon is good enough to endure the multiple viewings your kids will want. Superb.
Just when you thought CGI animation couldn’t possibly get any better than Pixar, DreamWorks comes along and produces How To Train Your Dragon, an exciting, funny and simply gorgeous film about a young boy who befriends a wounded dragon, trains it, and eventually shows the world just how friendly these fearsome creatures can be. While the story isn’t the most original, nor the characters the most well defined, where Dragon does succeed is in it’s stunning animation and attention to detail, as well as a sharp sense of humor and a deftly edited screenplay. How To Train Your Dragon will never attain the cult status of Pixar’s best, but it is a well made animated film that deserves a bit of attention. I’m here to give it some.
Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a young Viking lad with the body of PeeWee Herman and the mind of a modern middle-American teenager, is struggling to find his place within the society he’s been born into: he’s weedy, weak of body and has a penchant for thinking before acting – something the Viking way doesn’t generally allow. His father, Stoik (Gerard Butler) sees Hiccup as a disappointment, with the young lad always managing to make any bad situation worse, and never looking like he’s going to amount to much. The Viking’s are the sworn enemies of the Dragons, a bunch of many-faceted creatures who dominate the landscape this film is set in, and who attack the Viking village on a regular basis, scavenging various forms of food. Hiccup, who dreams of attaining his fathers acknowledgment as a son, hatches a plan to capture one of the dragons, particularly the breed known as Night Fury. One night, a dragon attack is being thwarted by Stoik and his fellow Viking warriors, Hiccup manages to bring down a Night Fury off in the distance. Approaching it with caution, he discovers it’s missing a piece of its tail, making unassisted flight impossible. Hiccup and the dragon, whom he calls Toothless, befriend each other and set about trying to undo the Viking’s illogical fear of the dragons, only to discover that there may be something else, something bigger, than dragons to worry about.
There’s something intrinsically fun about How To Train Your Dragon, a sense of the comic while at the same time having a serious underlying issue about “fitting in”: the kind of narrative which would appeal to kids, because kids often have issues fitting in. The characters are pretty 2-dimensional at best, even lead character Hiccup seems to be a generic “dorky weedy kid struggling to gain his father’s approval” while “trying to make his culture see the error of their ways”: and while the outcome of the story is pretty much sewn up from the outset, the journey itself is interesting and funny, enough to keep even the adults amused. The directorial imprint on this film appears to be one of large-scale, wide-screen action, and as such the jaw-dropping visuals (especially towards the end of the film) give Dragon a stunning palette to work with in telling this story. While the design of the characters themselves is fairly simplistic, with the Viking men portrayed as large, hulking giants with little stubby legs and massive, broad shoulders, and the dragons all manner of shapes and sizes (and colors!) and strengths, the animation style and quality is of such a quality that the blocky nature of the design is easy to overlook. More stylistic than realistic, if you will. And it’s totally effective.
Where the best part of the film lies is in the relationship between Hiccup and his dragon friend, Toothless. They make a great team, and the animation guys do a top class job making a voiceless animal seem more human than the majority of the human cast. Baruchel is pretty good (if a little too-American) in the role of Hiccup, his somewhat strangled enunciation perfectly capturing the essence of the character. His on-screen father, Gerard Butler, finally gets to cut loose with that terrific Scottish brogue of his to fabulous effect, and his somewhat belligerent Stoik, the leader of the Vikings. While the scenes between Hiccup and Stoik are a little forced, and certainly lacking in genuine emotion, they really come into their own when separate (while this could work against most film, here, it’s not too big an issue) and interacting with others. Craig Ferguson’s equally cool accent makes his character, Gobber, truly hilarious, and he has some of the best lines in the film – a film, I might add, with plenty of cool dialogue. Ugly Betty star America Ferrera does a fairly satisfying, if entirely unremarkable, performance as Hiccup’s potential romantic interest Astrid, the tough-as-nails girl Viking who always wants to win. Rounding out the cast are comedic up-and-comers Jonah Hill (Superbad, Get Him To The Greek), TJ Miller (Cloverfield, She’s Out Of My League), and Chris Mintz-Plasse (Kick-Ass), who portray the younger Viking’s of the village, and who eventually become Hiccup’s gang of sorts.
The dialogue rattles along fairly briskly, as does the action, and this film is nothing if not action packed. Anybody with a decent home cinema set-up will revel in the directional sound, the heart stopping bass and incredible detail in the animation, and while many “action” films lose the story amongst the explosions, Dragon doesn’t. The script deftly strides the fine line between pop-culture savvy and slavish homage to Viking lore, but it steals liberally from both and creates something entirely new and fresh. The dragon lore is also expanded in an entirely new way from the Disney-fied DragonHeart style behemoths – instead, the dragons of Dragon are skittish, fast and dangerous, and using speed to escape them is entirely impossible. It’s a new take on an old concept and it’s in this area that Dragon excels.
But by far the most astonishing aspect of this film is the amazing, epic animation – the level of detail in this film is incredible, even in its fantastical stylization. It’s nowhere near The Owls Of Ga’Hoole level, mind you, but Dragon is still a stunning piece of technical skill. Every fleck of dirt, every chink in the vikings’ armor, every surface crevice and textural possibility is played out on the screen, with the animators bringing this world to life in such a detailed level that it’s a pure joy to watch. The finale, a battle between Hiccup and his friends against an enormous – wait, spoilers!! – the finale is a work of visual art, the kind of thing cave paintings display and we all stand around going “wow that’s awesome” and marvel at how ancient man managed to do stuff like that. Now we all sit around the plasma and go “wow that’s awesome” and marvel at how modern man managed to do stuff like that.
Cynical critics may find more to dislike about this film than I did, but I prefer my animated films to be fun, fast and furious: animation allows for a vastly larger canvas for action and drama to unfold with the only limit being the artists imagination, and I think the team behind How To Train Your Dragon have achieved something here which will stand the test of time against other, more famous, titles. It may still aspire to match Pixar level quality, but Dragon is destined to be a must–watch-again title in any collection. Hilarious and exciting, Dragon burns bright!