How to Train Your Dragon (2010) - Can't Stop the Movies
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How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

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ANDREW LIKEDreamworks Animation has been the dirty cousin to Disney/Pixar for quite a few years now.  They churn out movies at a clockwork pace and occasionally release a gem.  But most of their movies have been empty experiences devoid of anything but cheap fun.  With incredibly low expectations I jumped into How to Train Your Dragon and came out marveling at the first Dreamworks film in years that was playing in Pixar level storytelling terrain.

HtTYD, based on the novel by Cressida Cowell, takes place during an undisclosed time when Vikings and dragons ruled the earth.  The Vikings are always defending their sheep and tiny plot of land against near nightly dragon attacks.  The chief Viking, Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler), has been constantly trying to keep his muscle-deprived son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) out of harm’s way.  The film opens during a dragon attack and Hiccup, trying to be brave, mans a net-cannon and accidentally brings down one of the dragons that is so fast they haven’t even been seen.

At this point HtTYD is fun but nothing special, just fun.  I like the way that the animators treat the Viking village and its inhabitants as G-rated metal album cover stars.  There’s one Viking, named Gobber (Craig Ferguson) that they joyfully toy with.  He lost a leg and an arm to the dragons a long time ago, and shows his ingenuity as a blacksmith by making a wide assortment of prosthetic limbs throughout the movie.  The romantic throes of Viking life are presented with Hiccup’s crush on young uber-Viking Astrid (America Ferrara).  It could have been annoying, but is really cute and one where she seems destined to outshine him in every aspect of Viking life.

HtTYD really picks up the pace when Hiccup goes in search of the downed dragon.  He finds that it has been struggling against the nets and is completely helpless.  Hiccup tries to kill the poor thing but doesn’t have the heart to go through with it, and releases it instead.  In the attack the dragon lost its ability to fly and becomes dependent on him for food and basic survival after running away from Hiccup and falling into a hole.

The quiet scenes between Hiccup and the dragon, who he names Toothless, are wonderful.  There are extended sequences between the two of them played entirely without dialogue and backed only by a strong score.  Even as their friendship grows, the film never lets you forget that the dragons are still dangerous and unpredictable.  They are animated with a full sense of aggressive tension that switches into playful curiosity at a whim.  With the help of some borrowed Viking tools, Hiccup begins to teach the dragon to fly again, and learns more about their species as a whole.

Of course, Hiccup won’t be able to keep the dragon hidden forever.  No matter how good the reasoning is no one ever accepts a change in lifestyle in these kinds of movies.  Even these inevitable scenes are handled with a sense of style and character that’s mostly been devoid of Dreamworks productions.

Speaking of that style, HtTYD is passable when it comes to its human characters, great when it comes to the landscapes and dragons, and absolutely wonderful when it comes to conveying a sense of flight.  I watched it in 3-D, and while I still would have preferred watching it in 2-D, the scenes of Toothless and Hiccup taking to the air are gorgeous and make good use of the freedom granted by flight and animation.  The 3-D actually enhanced these moments instead of detracting from them.  On the whole, it was actually used pretty effectively, but the heart of the story is still in the bond between the dragon and human.

The only real problem with the film is a small sense of hypocrisy between the central philosophy established by the movie and its conclusion.  The entire film sets up how humans and dragons had mistrusted and fought each other without learning anything about one another.  Then the conclusion of the film has them all leaping headlong into a giant battle without learning anything about what they’re doing.  It’s a shame that a film based on so much quiet had to end with a bunch of crashing and explosions, but it’s exciting and well handled – just disappointing.

The fact that HtTYD isn’t a giant circle jerk of pop-culture referencing is a minor miracle.  It displays a mature sense of storytelling that hasn’t been in their productions since Chicken Run was made 10 years ago.  It’ll probably be a long time before we get something like this from Dreamworks again, so check it out while you can.

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How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

Directed by Dean DeVlois and Chris Sanders.
Written by William Davies, Dean DeVlois, and Chris Sanders.
Featuring the voices of Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson.

Posted by Andrew

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