Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Film Review: How To Train Your Dragon

"How To Train Your Dragon" *** (out of ****)

"How To Train Your Dragon" (2010), one of the latest Dreamworks CGI animated films, is a major improvement from the studio's last film, "Monsters vs Aliens" (2009).

"How To Train Your Dragon" continues in Dreamworks decision to release all of their films theatrically in 3-D. A decision which began with "Monsters vs Aliens". First, I'd like to say a word about this. I personally find this to be a mistake on Dreamworks part. I'm of the opinion 3-D is merely a theatrical gimmick. You have to remember the majority of people are going to see this film in 2-D. I saw this movie on DVD and it was in 2-D. If this movie plays on television it will be shown in 2-D. Ten years from now if someone were to watch this film they will most likely see it in 2-D. It is my guess, but, I think 3-D is just a current fade. What will Dreamworks do once people lose interest in 3-D? It just feels like Dreamworks is trying to cash in on a popular trend. That within itself is fine. My question is, do these films need to be told in 3-D? Does the technology further develop the story?

Now that I have gotten that out of the way, lets focus on the story. For the most part I would say "How To Train Your Dragon" is solid entertainment. It is one of Dreamworks better films. Not quite as good as "Kung Fu Panda" (2008) or "Megamind" (2010) but among their quality. "How To Train Your Dragon" has some wonderful visuals.

The story, which was based on a novel written by Cressida Cowell, follows a young Viking boy, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). Hiccup lives in a village to finds itself constantly under attack by dragons. It is Hiccups great ambition to one day go out alongside his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler) and fight those mean nasty dragons. Hiccup wants to live up to the traditions of his family and become a great Viking.

However, Hiccup doesn't have the brute strength of his father, or his boss, master cobber Gobber (Craig Ferguson). He is presented as being accident prone. Someone who creates weapons to kill dragons which never seem to work. Will he ever be able to kill a dragon?

Besides that Hiccup has the same problems most pre-teen boys have. He is at that awkward stage where he is starting to notice girls but has a hard time talking to them. How on Earth is he going to impress Astrid (America Ferrera), a young girl who has more strength than him? She actually fights dragons.

Beneath all of this is a story of a young boy seeking his father's acceptance. He wants to make his father proud of him. Then there is a commentary on how people should learn to live together. The Vikings kill the dragons but they don't understand their "enemy". Everything they think they know about them is wrong. Their fears are based on preconceived notions. If we learn to get past out fears of the "other" and find out who they are we will find we have nothing to fear.

Pretty serious message for an animated movie, right? Though there's nothing wrong with that. Animation doesn't have to avoid making serious points. It doesn't have to be filled with slapstick comedy and sly pop culture references. Think about animated films like "Princess Mononoke" (1999) or "Grave of the Fireflies" (1988). That is not to say "How To Train Your Dragon" is anywhere near as complex as those films.

I didn't find "How To Train Your Dragon" to be particularly funny. But again, that is okay. I also thought there were too many fight scenes which go on too long. I would have preferred more sentimental, emotional scenes. It also ends on a rather dark note for its lead character, which honestly caught me by surprise.

You see, Hiccup eventually befriends one of these dreaded dragons, whom he names Toothless. And as they become friends Hiccups learns some secrets about the dragons. Part of me actually wishes the dragon would talk. It would make it more of a complete character.

Still one has to admire the look of "How To Train Your Dragon". Pay close attention to the details of the village. I love the scenes when the Viking are out in the sea. Notice the waves of the oceans. They constant motion as the waters goes back and forth. Notice Hiccup's hair blowing in the wind as he flies on Toothless' back. The way the fog appears out in the distance. It all really helps create the proper atmosphere.

"How To Train Your Dragon" was directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. They both worked on the Disney animated film "Lilo & Stitch" (2002). DeBlois also worked as a writer on another Disney film, "Mulan" (1998) while Sanders worked on the stories for a number of Disney classics including "Beauty & the Beast" (1991), "Aladdin" (1992) and "The Lion King" (1994). Both men also wrote the screenplay along with the help of William Davies. A rather odd choice. Almost all of the films Mr. Davies wrote were live action movies. His previous screenplays include "Twins" (1988) and "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot" (1992). Two of my least favorite movies and may explain why I didn't find this film to be funny.

There has been a pretty strong positive reaction towards the film. On the website rottentomatoes.com, a site which collects critical reaction to films, the movie scored a 98%. Out of 156 reviews, 153 were positive. There is talk the movie is a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination in the "Best Animated Film" category. And the public seems to have enjoyed the movie, helping it gross more than 200 million dollars in the U.S. alone.

None of this really matters in the end in relation to the quality of the movie. But "How To Train Your Dragon" is well made and worth watching. There are a lot of little pleasure in the movie that I think both adults and children can enjoy. A very positive step for Dreamworks, which is sometimes accused of making animated films which lack a heart.

Here is an interesting story I found concerning this year's Oscar race in the animated category.