Review: How to Train Your Dragon

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How to Train Your Dragon sadly proves that sometimes a movie can do everything right, and still never find an audience.

Which is depressing because HTTYD (I am not writing the full title out every time) breaks away from the usual Dream Works mold by being funny, witty and well – good!

I know, I know – it sounds crazy! How on earth could the studio that spawned such shallow and contrived efforts such as Sharks Tale and Madagascar, produce such a well made, charming little picture? I`m not so sure, but by all rights – the studio should have had a real winner on their hands here.

The movie is set in a mythical Vikings village where dragon attack is an almost daily occurence. The movie follows Hiccup, a Viking teenager who doesn’t quite fit in with his heroic dragon slaying peers. Hiccup is a scrawny, cynical outcast, desperately seeking the acceptance of his legendary dragon-busting father Stoick.

Hiccup attempts to win his father over by setting out on a quest to hunt down the fiercest dragon known to his tribe – the Night Fury. During his search he stumbles upon one of creatures, only to find that it is wounded. Seizing the opportunity, Hiccup traps the beast,  and goes in for the kill. But Hiccup simply can not do it. He  sees a kindred spirit in the outcast dragon and decides help nurse the creature back to health. The two slowly start to form a bond. A bond that challenges everything he and his fellow Vikings have been raised to believe.

With Hiccups father on the brink of unleashing all out genocide on the dragon species, Hiccup and Toothless desperately race to intervene before the irreversible damage is done!

It is so rare these days to see a non-Pixar animated movie actually bother with a meaningful story, layered characters, and fully realized  worlds.

Real effort has gone into establishing the richly detailed Viking world in-which the tale takes place and its trouble history with the dragons. Equal effort has also gone into is animated cast. Every character in the movie has their own defined personality, and evolves during the course of their adventure. Our lead Hiccup for example, learns that you don’t have to be built like a rock to be strong-willed or brave, and his tough but ignorant father Stoick learns to let go of his hateful ways and see the world through the eyes of others.  Character arcs developed by a well written script that expresses a fantastic message of tolerances and understanding, without ever feeling forced or preachy. HTTYDs message is snuggled comfortably amongst the movies engaging characters, exciting action and touching moments. 

Contrary to Dream Works usual model of employing the biggest names they can afford, HTTYD opts for actors who actually suit the material. The acting on display her is very engaging. Gerard Butler is perfectly cast as the brutish and over baring Viking Stoick, as is Jay Baruchel  playing the geeky, quick-witted Hiccup. Brauchels whiney voice is admittedly little off-putting at first, but once the story gets set in motion this mild annoyance quickly fades, to be replaced with complete immersion into the character and his plight.

On top of this, the movie is also genuinely funny and exciting – including some fantastic dragon-related set pieces that out do anything in Camerons Avatar.

The movie also packs a real emotional punch. Much of the movies heart lies between the unlikely friendship between our hero, and the loveable Toothless the dragon.

Toothless can summed-up with the following mathematical equation – 

 

What do How to Train your Dragon and Avatar have in common? Both movies shamelessly exploit the cuteness of Cats to win favour with its audience.

Toothless is undoubtedly the star of the show. As mentioned above, the designers have obviously modelled the characters movements and mannerisms on those of a kitten. Toothless is playful and affectionate in a way that all cat  lovers are going to recognise and enjoy. A wise choice – by basing your character design on a cutesy animal – half of your winning the viewer over work is already done. Almost everyone is partial to the cuddly charms of a cat, so when someone (or something) looks a little like one (be it Toothless or Avatars Navi) the audiences is subconsciously going to embrace it.

Thats not to say that we are cheated into liking this beastie. Our affection is earned by the real personality that the filmmakers injected into Toothless. The dragon even has an arc of his own – going from a human fearing loner, to loyal friend and protector of Hiccup and his tribe.

One of the sweetest moments in the movie is a montage showing the progression of Toothless and Hiccups friendship. This wonderfully scored and staged scene visualizes the characters realisation that while different on the outside, they are in fact very much the same on the inside. Both a little different, and both in need of a friend. This scene will force a lump in even the most cynical SOBs throat.

One thing I havent yet mentioned is the animation. Now I will admit myself, that when I first saw stills and artwork from the movie, I was very – meh! The slightly bland Viking decor and generic looking human characters did little to fire up my enthusiasm. But when watching the film as a whole you realise that the animation is actually quite wonderful. Fluid, sharp and beautiful textured – I was shocked at how pretty the movie really was. From the detailed Viking villages, to the foreboding islands of the dragons – there is some fantastic cinematography and direction on display here.

Does it compete with Pixar? No, not quite but impressive none the less.

The only mildly critical aspects I will mention are the minor inconsistencies with the production design.  For example, most of the additional dragons in the movie look completely different in style and design when compared to our hero dragon. So different in fact that it is almost as though Toothless came from a different movie. The same can be said for some of the human characters aswell. Some are proportionately true to life, others are wildly OTT charactertures. There are also a few pacing issues, with a very noticable lull midway through.

To be honest, I also have my issues with the ending – which is far less focused than the rest of the picture. You get impression that the film makers had to end on the obligatory action set piece, rather than wanting to. Less love has noticeably gone into these final scenes. The climax also feels surprisingly safe. I was expecting a slightly darker resolution than one we get, given the more mature tone of the movie.

That said, none of these issues bothered me enough to hinder my enjoyment and I walked away from the cinema thoroughly entertained.

So the big mystery is why a movie this good has done so badly at the box office? The showing I caught was only a quarter full at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon showing. Not good; and although myself and my companions dug it, the younger viewers sitting behind us vocally hated it and moaned and squirmed all the way through. 

Ironically, I believe the movies quality may actually be its downfall.

HTTYD isn’t an immature, plotless parade of lame gags and slapstick. This is a movie that strived to be more, and there in lies the problem.  Thanks to some weak marketing and the reputation of Dream Works previous efforts, on face value the movie is only going to appeal to the very young (5-11) and not the teens and young adults that the material is a little more suited for. Kids just want to see big dumb characters, falling over and farting – that’s it. From a younglings point of view, the character building and emotional beats just get in the way of the big set pieces. HTTYD does have the spectacle, just not enough to win over its demographic.

A real shame, because this really is the jewel in Dream Works crown. Perhaps some better marketing would have led to the movie finding a more suitable audience, but as it stands, Dream works venture into producing proper movies has failed…

…Madagascar 3 anyone?

7/10

Trailer below…

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One Response to “Review: How to Train Your Dragon”

  1. James Says:

    I’d have gone to see it with you, after ‘Up’ I have a new found patience for animated nonsense…

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