How to Train Your Dragon

At this point in the 13th year of the Disney Conglomerate Animation Studio War, it would seem that Pixar is emerging as the clear victor over Dreamworks (DW). In recent years, Pixar has been so good that they’ve earned an Oscar nomination for best picture (Up!), and has created a group of hardcore fanboys and fangirls devoted to everything they create, including their non-theatrical shorts (which, thankfully, they finally released on DVD). But people have short memories and they may forget the early days when DW looked like the better company. In the first three years of the war, the only battle DW lost was ‘99/’00’s Toy Story 2 VS The Road to El Dorado. Ever since then, the only battles DW has been able to win were those in which Pixar didn’t even show up for (like in 2005 when DW released Madagascar to Pixar’s… errr, nothing). With the acclaimed release of Toy Story 3 in ’10, I figured it was just a matter of procedure that I’d have to wait to actually see the films before I could declare a winner. Well, How to Drain Your Dragon may have just put a kink in my divinations; suffice it to say that this is DW’s best film since the original Shrek.

The story is set in a small Viking community on an island (or is it a peninsula?) where the villagers have built their life around fighting dragons that continually invade their village, snatching up food and flying off with it. In that community, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is the son of the fearless, courageous leader, Stoick (Gerard Butler). Unlike his father, Hiccup is a scrawny kid and a major screw-up who can’t seem to do anything but cause chaos. But when Hiccup ensnares an elusive Night Fury during a dragon raid on the village, everyone else is incredulous. Eventually, Hiccup tracks down the Night Fury, intent on killing it, but ends up letting it go instead. He names the dragon Toothless, proceeds to bring it food daily, while also engineering a fin to fix the dragon’s broken tail, but this requires Hiccup to ride Toothless and steer the tail. The two forge a close bond as Hiccup begins learning more about dragons through their kinship than all his Viking brethren and ancestors ever knew about them. Their friendship proves extra tricky when Hiccup joins a group of Viking teenagers including Astrid (America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnut (T.J. Miller), and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), as they’re trained to fight dragons by Gobber (Craig Ferguson).

Thankfully, for the first time in years, DW has developed a scenario that’s different from their “Look! Cute animals/ogres/monsters/aliens TALKING and acting all human-y!” paradigm. Granted, the scenario isn’t exactly original (it’s basically a boy-and-his-dog story where the dog happens to be part of the group that the boy’s family and friends are fighting against), but the real magic of DW and Pixar have always been in their ability to find the humanism in everything they’ve done. The biggest difference has been in how they’ve gone about it. Pixar has appropriated the classic sentimentalism of Classic Hollywood, creating films as full of wistful poignancy as they were full of hilarity. DW, on the other hand, has been more cynical. Shrek rather set the more hard-edged tone that would define the studio over the course of its next several features. Another thing that separates them is that Pixar has always worked best on an intimate and emotional level, while DW always seems to be going bigger and grander, selling excitement and adventure over characterization and sensibility.

In How to Train Your Dragon, DW hasn’t really abandoned their modality, but they have toned down the cynicism and attitude in favor of something slightly closer to Pixar’s emotion. At the heart of the story is Hiccup’s eternally relatable childhood dream of being a great warrior so he can fit in with his family and friends, but the bond that grows between him and Toothless is closer to the relationship between Carl and Charles in Up! than it is Donkey and Shrek. On the one hand, this is good because it gives the film a greater gravitas and weight, but, on the other hand, it serves to highlight a general flaw of the studio and that’s that they simply don’t develop characters as well as Pixar. Hiccup is immediately likable as the lovable, ambitious loser who favors learning, science, friendship, even art over brute force killing, but there’s really no development for his character over the course of the film. Much could be said of most of the relationships. Yes, Hiccup and Astrid get closer when he’s able to bring her into his world, Hiccup and Toothless likewise grow closer, and Hiccup and Stoick go through a typical father/son reconcilement, but it all feels incredibly rote.

If the film’s characters and development aren’t exactly animation at its best, the rest of the film is. Firstly, this is the best action/adventure story that either major animation studio has told. At its best, it almost reaches Miyazaki levels in its rendering of fantastic aereal fireworks. All of the flying scenes are beyond spectacular and worth the price of admission alone. The first time when Hiccup successfully rides Toothless, weaving at incredible speeds through the rocks growing out of the water, is one of the most triumphant moments in any film from the year (if not the decade). The epic final battle almost matches that level of kinetic and dramatic intensity. The romantic flight between Hiccup, Toothless, and Astrid doesn’t quite match a similar sibling in WALL-E for sheer magic, but the superb visual artistry almost makes up for it. Much could be said of the art and animation in all areas of the film. The technology is surely getting close to its pinnacle now, allowing the artists ultimate freedom to create the worlds of their imagination on screen.

Aiding the visuals is a truly cinematographic sensibility guided by the great DP Roger Deakins who was a consultant on the film. Deakins’ versatility is all over the lighting schemes of the film, effortlessly going from the luminous glows of fire in the night scenes to the eerie, low contrast fog and greenery of the forest. Even the interiors are given an attention to photographic detail in regards to shadow movement and darkness from candles being the sole light source. If Deakins lends the film a visual touch, then John Powell’s phenomenal score helps to galvanize the film from beginning to end. The main triumphant theme is one of the best crafted for any film in recent years, truly surmounting to glorious heights in the first flying scene and the last battle. But the score is equally successful in the quieter moments, lending emotional texture to the romantic flight, or creating dramatic tension during the discovery scenes without every crossing into the realm of obvious manipulation (like too many modern scores).

If we can thank Pixar and DW for anything, the voiceover talent that both have helped cultivate has consistently helped lift the medium to a much higher standard. Dragon might not boast the starriest cast in the world, but what’s here is perfectly tuned to the characters. I’d only vaguely heard of Jay Baruchel before this film, but his geeky, crackling voice is a beyond-perfect fit for Hiccup. Gerard Butler makes an appropriately strong and commanding Stoick. America Ferrera isn’t given as much to do as the other characters, but she manages to subtly shift between the strong and more childlike sides of the character. Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse reunite (in a sense) to help wonderfully augment the adolescent cast. But it’s truly Craig Ferguson who steals the show as Gobber. Perhaps I should admit my bias since Craig is currently my man-crush and his late night talk show is the only one I really care about, but he just can’t help but bring his effervescent personality to the character, really acting as the glue that holds it all together.

Holding together this massive production is the direction from Dean BeBlois and Chris Sanders. Both are relative newcomers with perhaps their biggest credit being Lilo & Stitch, but their biggest contribution to the film seems to be the guiding vision that orchestrates the hulking behemoth that any DW production must be. Of course, maybe we could say the same of any director, but when such large productions with so many artists manage to come together to produce something that maintains such a high quality, who else is there to thank for maintaining that coherency but the directors? Perhaps the biggest thing I noticed about this film is that it’s the first DW that seems to get the “small” moments right as much as the major set-pieces. One great example might be the slight pause that Toothless gives before he places his head in Hiccup’s hands (their first sign of mutual trust), or the dazed stagger that Stoick gives after disowning Hiccup for refusing to hunt and kill dragons.

Ultimately, How to Train Your Dragon is a major success on nearly all levels and marks the much-needed rejuvenation of DW as something better than Pixar’s underachieving big brother. I can’t call it a perfect marriage of Pixar and DW’s sensibilities, but what I can say is that it’s the first DW film in years that maintained the best qualities of the latter while excising the worst and incorporating some of the best qualities of the former. The result is a supremely charming, genuinely funny, and grandly exciting film on a scale that can be both majestic and intimate.


About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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