Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How To Train Your Dragon

Refreshingly low on the pop-culture references and fart jokes that have made so many computer-animated films so far below par, DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon arrives with a heaping dose of sentimentality and a cadre of adorable beasts that would make it a huge hit if not for the lame title and even-more-lame marketing campaign that pass it off as just more of the same. The product itself represents a huge leap forward for the studio in the race to be number two behind Pixar.

One major problem with the film (and I’ll try not to extrapolate this into a wider point about where our culture is headed) is the humans. These characters - from their physical design and their dialogue right down to their cutesy names and B-list celebrity voice acting - just aren’t up to snuff. The film attempts a shaky balance between cartoonish and realistic in its design. The characters say "Oh my gods" (because they're Vikings) but also, "This is pretty cool!" (because riding dragons is cool). That it succeeds to the extent that it does despite this is a testament to the power of the story.

The skinny hero is Hiccup; his giant father is a dragon fighter named Stoick who, as though no one looked up “stoic” in a dictionary, shouts and complains constantly about his worthless son. One character suggests Hiccup’s only value would be as a toothpick for the dragons that nightly torment the Vikings’ village. Hiccup’s spindly frame contrasted with that of his spherical father is a nice attempt at a visual gag, but like Hiccup himself, it falls flat.

Sick of being an endless embarrassment, Hiccup is compelled to use his blacksmith apprenticeship to construct a contraption that he hopes will trap a Night Fury, the least-seen and most-feared breed of dragon. Inevitably, he succeeds and inevitably, he can’t bring himself to kill the beast. Instead Hiccup goes back to the shop to create a prosthetic wing to replace the one he damaged and restore the creature’s flight.

Hiccup dubs his pet dragon “Toothless” (his teeth are retractable) and the movie mines its considerable pathos from the ensuing scenes of their blossoming friendship. The twist is that the dragons are little more than overgrown, misunderstood puppies. The dragons, as opposed to the humans, are created with dimension and depth (and not just of the gimmicky, 3D-glasses variety, though some of those effects are admittedly neat). There is an abundance of imagination poured into the creation of a wide variety of dragon breeds, from fire-breathing to hut-crushing; at night the dragons are fearsome and shrouded in black but by day they are quirky in shape and size and wide-eyed such that we, along with Hiccup, will learn to love them. They like fish but detest eel and they love being scratched behind the ears.

How To Train Your Dragon follows a tried-and-true formula; it’s about a boy with a dangerous secret who has to teach his community of ignorant elders the error of their ways. As in E.T. or The Iron Giant, the adults fear what the child knows to be a simple messenger of love (much like the way the adults in the theater treated the film: with ignorance, and paying more attention to their cell phones). Dragon does what it can to ape those classics and where it ultimately fails is in its sense of danger.

There is no analogue to Spielberg’s hazmat-suited spooks or Giant’s communist scare; Dragon meekly strays from putting its protagonist in any palpable danger. Have the filmmakers seen Up? You’re supposed to raise your protagonist’s stakes by putting him in danger, even in a “children’s” movie. Especially in a children’s movie.

This is obvious from the beginning. The film opens with a spectacular dragon-on-viking battle (most of the scenic animation in the film, from the wafting clouds to the rocky outcroppings of the Vikings’ island home, is gorgeous), but we soon realize that while they set the houses on fire and steal all the sheep, the dragons aren’t interested in the humans. Even during the second-act reveal of the Big Bad Boss dragon, we witness a mass-feeding of … sheep, fish, and other animals. There is one major character with a couple of missing limbs, but he is played for laughs. To make matters worse, the dragons’ lack of interest in human flesh actually creates a decent plot hole. The film isn’t interested in inflating any real threat to its heroes. Pete Docter drew blood in the opening minutes of Up and WALLE lived in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. How To Train Your Dragon makes great strides for populist animation, but with every Pixar success it's harder and harder to catch up.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!


  1. I actually didn't see any of those problems, let's remember here that this is supposed to be a FAMILY FRIENDLY film, as in CHILDREN are watching it, not violence-craving adults. I thought the film was absolutely adorable, and I'm sure the majority of the people out there who have seen it will agree with me.

  2. Thank you for the comment, Anonymous!

    I'm not craving violence, I'm merely suggesting that the best children's films aren't interested in stopping at 'adorable' - they pose a viable threat to our young heroes and in overcoming the odds, those heroes teach our own young ones a lesson.

    Given that the movie is about fire-breathing dragons, I don't think that's too much to ask. If the dragons aren't dangerous, where's the conflict in Hiccup having a secret pet? It only makes every other human character implausibly ignorant.

  3. I think it's more of a taboo for Hiccup to have the dragon than an actual danger.

    And I'd have to agree with Anonymous, I thought the movie was great without any unecassary violence. Perhaps the bit at the very end was a little bit too sunchine and lollipops but I'm pretty sure they were leaving it open for a sequel...

  4. At the risk of repeating myself: it's not violence or gore I'm looking for. I'm looking for a palpable threat to the hero. The dragons of the film are not scary or dangerous, and yet we are asked to accept that the humans fear them.

    Look at Pete Docter's MONSTERS, INC., wherein we get to see how truly frightening the eponymous beasts can be. When Sulley scares Boo he is engulfed in self-loathing - there's a duality to his existence. Sulley is simultaneously a frightening beast and a cuddly teddy bear. This is what makes him an interesting character, and it's his quest to reconcile the demonic with the angelic that makes the movie a thrilling drama.

    And to draw another example from Pixar, check out the just-released TOY STORY 3, which is as terrifying and brutal a movie as I've ever seen and yet still I'm confronted daily with condescending "adults" who can't grasp that a movie "for kids" could be in any way valuable to them, or to them in relation to their own children. If we coddle our children with mild, weak entertainments high on cute and low on substance, that's exactly how they'll grow up: weak and low.

    And yet, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON isn't even an example of this trend in children's movies. It's a pretty solid movie (I think I wrote this). But if the Dreamworks collective ever wants to make one for the ages, they're going to have to take some risks, as in ET, THE IRON GIANT, UP, TOY STORY 3, et al.

    But thank you, KC, for keeping the dialogue alive.