Friday, March 26, 2010

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon

Dreamworks How to Train Your Dragon

Our heroes Hiccup & Toothless

I've been waiting for this movie for a LONG TIME. It was brought to my attention through a couple my husband and I are close friends with, Shelley and Brian. My husband and I are both animators/story tellers by profession so I was a little perturbed that I was totally out of the loop when the trailer for this came around. Shelley and Brian showed me the trailer and I eagerly dug into everything I could find on the film.

First off one should understand that Dreamworks How to Train Your Dragon is the studios third film (to my knowledge) that is based on a book. Useless Trivia for the day: The first Dreamworks film based on a book was actually the 2D animated epic The Prince of Egypt; the second film based on a book was their first 3D movie Shrek (but the sequels not so much).
The book, How to Train Your Dragon is the first in a 7 book series written by UK based childrens author Credessia Cowell. The first book is written in the perspective of Hiccup, a noodley, awkward and disappointingly dweeby Viking prince who just doesn't fit in. The movie differs greatly from the book on plot points and overall feel, as the books are made up of a lot of potty humor. As one person has said 'the gross stuff young boys would like'. Dreamworks also left out that Hiccup actually knows how to speak 'Dragonese' (examples: Mi Mama no likeit yum-yum on di bum. = My mother does not like to be bitten on the bottom. Nee-ah crappa inna di hoosus, pishyou. = No pooing inside the house. Doit a wummortime. = Let’s try that again.) The books are a fast paced, hilarious thrill ride for anyone looking for something fun and different whether you're 8 or 80. Speaking of which I want to make a segway on that topic for a moment. Should you wish to forgo this segway skip the portion marked with a *.

*Childrens books, the really really successful childrens books, have a charm, wit, excitement and inspiring message that branches beyond just children. The authors realize that adults will be (for the most part) reading these books too, and in many cases reading for a child. As an adult I appriciate it when authors remember the adult is there, and while writing for children understand that it's not JUST children they are writing for. Good childrens authors do not write for children but the general audience. That means everyone from Tiny Tim, the emo teen, Joe the business guy, and Grandma Ida. Good childrens authors write for everyones enjoyment, and a good movie company whose main focus is on childrens entertainment remembers the very same fact. For example there is a vast difference in story quality from (sticking to Dreamworks here) the original Shrek when compared to Monsters vs. Aliens. MvA was a humorous movie. Yes it was funny, but what a lot of people do not realize is that a bunch of funny pop-culture jokes thrown together does not make a good story. Here I bring in what the industry calls "The 50 Year Rule." This rule states that if someone from 50 years in the future goes to see your movie, will it still be relevant? Will this time traveler actually get the jokes? Will they understand the story or will they just be lost? The idea being (and that has held to be quite true) is that the more your films story is based on pop-culture, the more likely your movie will be lost to time. Eventually it will never be remembered by anyone except the few hardcore movie buffs. Dreamworks movies tend to have a hard time dealing with this issue, sometimes seeming to throw it out all together (though they broke their trend with Kung Fu Panda). This is a problem ALL writers face, not just script writers. This is also the biggest difference between Dreamworks and Pixar. Critics are constantly talking about 'the battle of animation studios', the two heads going against each other being Team Dreamworks and Team Pixar. Somehow, Pixar is generally the winner, and critics are always leaving their readers (and sometimes themselves) wondering why that is. The core reason is simple: Pixar story development teams understand that when you say your target audience is children, it means your target audience is the General Public. But I digress...*

How to Train Your Dragon starts out with our hero Hiccup severely wishing he could be more of a Viking. He's noodley, awkward, and the only thing he has going for him is that he's creative and brainy. So how does Hiccup go about becoming more of a Viking, and solving all of his social problems? He's gotta kill himself a dragon of course! And he REALLY wants to kill a dragon. Throughout the film the epicness of decapitating, disemboweling or otherwise destroying a dragon is a core component of becoming part of the Hiccups community. As his village is being attacked by dragons, he shoves off with his new invention to net a one. Lo and behold he actually manages to do it, but upon finding the creature he can't bring himself to kill it. The film unfolds as Hiccup realizes the creature is incapable of surviving without his help. All the while he's battling the inner and outer struggles of trying to fit into his Viking society, while sympathizing with the creatures his entire culture is hell bent on destroying.

Hiccups father is one character that had a surprising amount of depth despite his "I HATE DRAGONS," mentality. I feel that perhaps the writers could have expanded more on his attitude for them, but the movie was 2 hours long and had they written it in I'm sure something like that would have been cut for times sake. Additionally, I feel the same way about the movies supporting heroine and Hiccups love interest, Astrid.

This is Astrid. This is her "I'm better than you" face.
This is the face she wears when not angry or determined.

These are her only expressions through most
of the movie.

Astrid is a no-nonsense girl who is hell bent on being the best. We have no reason as to why she's so driven, why she's so angry, or why she's so sickened by Hiccups eventual success. It takes a ride reminiscent of Aladdin's 'I Can Show You the World' (thankfully with no singing), to finally see her expression change to anything but angry, determined or I'm-better-than-you-and-Lady-GaGa-combined cocky confidence. I can't remember her character, though surrounded by Hiccups other training mates, ever actually talking to them beyond giving orders. The character of Astrid honestly seems to be a shining example of LINETS. LINETS is an acronym for:

L - Love
I - Interest
N - Non
E - Essential
T - To
S - Story

And honestly, she has no real purpose aside from being a love interest and dragon kicking goddess. I really wish they would have done more with her because your mind races with the possibilities the film doesn't even acknowledge. In the end she's just there to be something for Hiccup to drool over, and occasionally wield a battle ax in an effort to appear useful to the story line.

Our other characters, include Gobber, Hiccups trainer and town smith, a set of obnoxious twins, an overweight fact vomiting 'D&D' nerd type of character, and a macho brat whose supposed to be Hiccups competition for Astrid. The only one that shines in this line up is Gobber, the smith. He's much like a second father to Hiccup, and teacher for the new batch of dragon-slayer trainees. Much humor comes from his sink or swim mentality to training, and his interactions with Hiccup.

We can't forget the dragon's though, now can we? There are 7 types of dragons (if you count the one in the climax) which are focused on. This is 7 species out of the hundreds that are alluded to in the film. These dragons are awkward looking, made of various combination's of large body mass, spindly legs, flat heads, long tails, raptor like bodies, wings that are either too large or too little, with lots of round shapes covered in spikes. Oh, and they're colorful. REALLY colorful. The character designs are fantastical, as dragons should be. They're fun to watch and can be simultaneously threatening and endearing.

Warning: staring at this too long may cause cute induced seizures.

And then we have this adorable bundle of claws, scales and Chris Sanders cute simply known as Toothless. If you're slightly reminded of Stitch from Lilo & Stitch, that is not a shocker as Toothless was designed by Director and concept artist Chris Sanders. Design wise this is a double edged sword, as the character is instantaneously appealing due to his dangerously cute design; However, he's instantaneously awkward when lined up with our other dragons. I am convinced that this is because Sanders only designed Toothless and through either his own decision or company politics, everything else was left up to in house artists - thus the clash of character design style. His silhouette when flying is exceedingly similar to kites one might see in China or Japan. None of the other dragons are designed with even a similar concept in mind. Toothless is one solid color, his pupils actually dilate, and his Sanders-esque heavy limbed design is seen no where else in the entire film. Some may argue that Toothless' design is simply made this way so he stands out. This argument basically means that the character has to look different from every other dragon because he's the main focus of the plot. On the flip side, some may argue it's just bad design and that Sanders style should have been adapted throughout the entire cast, or that Toothless should have been designed by some one in house.

Toothless definitely has a personality, and it's really interesting to see how the artists got creative with his movements. He goes from sleeping like a bat, to curling up and pouncing like a cat. His flying movements go from bat like to eagle, to something looking like a fighter jet in certain scenes. What I found most intriguing about Toothless were the expressions, and the animators certainly deliver a squee-worthy performance! Thankfully the dragon doesn't talk. In fact he's presented as more than just a 'dumb animal', and yet retains his animal instincts and power. He can be horrifyingly threatening one moment and break your heart with a glance in another. Though the movie Toothless' main conflict seems to be his distrust of humans outside of just Hiccup. Some people may review this movie saying that it's about a 'boy and his dragon' but for me it seems to be more of a 'best friend' type of adventure only Chris Sanders could bring.

In the end How to Train Your Dragon is a good movie. It's fun, has a surprisingly deep storyline, and the visuals are engaging. Kids laughed, adults laughed, and the simple fact that characters do not come out of daring skirmishes without getting hurt is something to be applauded. It's entertaining and though it's got it's flaws, I can see this film being a favorite for years to come. Rest assured grown ups, even you can enjoy this one.

Seriously, this movie is pretty damn awesome. Go see it!

~ Have you seen the film already? What did you think? Leave your thoughts in a comment! ~

1 comment:

  1. Great review!! I, personally, think its awesome you used the word "wank" in this review. There was a lot of information that I had no clue about. Way to go!! Even more excited to see this movie!