Monday, March 29, 2010

Love: How to Train Your Dragon

I'll admit it, when it comes to animated features, I tend to pre-judge a little bit.  A decade or so of experience and observation based research has dictated that Pixar is the go to production company for your computer generated animation and Dreamworks is their competition only in dollar signs, not in quality.  The diffenece, in my eyes, is that Disney/Pixar generally makes stories built to last and targeted at anyone with a pulse.  They're emotionally complex, easily relatable, and don't go for the cheap laughs.  Dreamworks, on the other hand, tends to go exclusively for the cheap laughs.  In the past, films dropped on the public from Dreamworks animation have played out essentially as goofy concept comedies with big name stars in the voice roles and layers or layers of pop cultural refences thrown in as a "hey, you" for the adults.  They're bright, poppy, and amusing, but don't resonate.  Few outside the K thru 8 set will tell you that Bee Movie or Over the Hedge is a classic, and the next generation won't even get the majority of the jokes in Shrek 2
Of course, there's a market for what Dreamworks has typically produced, albeit a temporary one. This is part of the Hollywood pecking order, and they're filling in the brainless fun bracket while Pixar busies itself winning Academy Awards. Yet, it seems Dreamworks has been trying. They're putting in the effort. The vibrant Kung Fu Panda was, animation wise, a step in the right direction. Last year, while they struck out with the abyssmally juvenile Madagascar 2, they also made the surprisingly charming Monsters vs. Aliens. While these were improvements, they were not triumphs. Which is why it is perhaps somewhat miraculous that their latest effort, the goofily (poorly) titled How to Train Your Dragon is just maybe the best film the company has ever released.  For once, Dreamworks has made a movie for kids where the battles don't recall The Matrix and the jokes aren't hand me downs from some poor entertainment television attempt at satire. That's worthy of applause all on its own, yet past that Dragons is a legitimately entertaining tale filled with enough action and drama to captivate kids and adults alike.
Based on a book by Cressida Cowell, How to Train Your Dragon follows Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel), a young Viking who isn't living up to his father's expectations.  He's scrawny and clumsy, causing accidents and living very much in his own head.  The problem is twofold: 1. Hiccup's dad is tribe leader Stoik (Gerard Butler) and 2.the village of Berk has a bit of a dragon infestation, being uncoordinated is a serious health hazard.  As can be expected, one thing leads to another and Hiccup winds up learning far more about the reptilian pests than any Viking before him.  He bonds with the beasts.  He is the dragon whisperer.  Yet, dragons are the enemies of his race, and this sort of behavior is frowned upon in the extreme.  The themes are simple and universal.  The story transcends its simplistic fantasy construct to become a tale of intergenerational understanding and openmindedness.  It's about moving forward, being different, and having that be ok.  It's a simple message, one that you've seen repeated a million times in children's cinema, but this one.....this one has dragons.    
There can be little doubt that the dragons will be the main attraction for most theatergoers.  Everybody loves a creature with character, and the dragons have that in abundance.  The writing/directing team behind How to Train Your Dragon was previously responsible for Disney's minor gem Lilo & Stitch, and that past is evident in Toothless, the quirky, cat-eyed jet black beast young Hiccup befriends. Toothless will undoubtedly, for many people, become the film's selling point.  You'll walk out of the theater wanting one just like him.  That's just the kind of creature he is.  But, apart from that, the scenes between Toothless and Hiccup are also where the film truly finds its footing.  Using a lack of dialogue to positive effect, Hiccup's character gains quite a bit of depth during the scenes for which the film's title is most applicable.  Their interaction, far outside of the raucous Viking village displays of Hiccup's inate awkwardness, uses simple methods to establish a sincerity that keeps the viewer emotionally invested.  This is a quality Dreamworks has long failed to understand, often opting to keep their characters mouthy or precocious instead of allowing them to be perceived as potentially quite fragile.
How to Train Your Dragon represents a milestone for Dreamworks.  It's the closest they've ever come to a Pixar film, yet remains clever in its own right.  While the premise has a storybook simplicity, it offers enough action, heart, and organic feeling 3D aerial sequences to make it a scaled back triumph and bring a smile to even the most cynical amongst us. Suprisingly delightful, Dragons offers up a maturity in animation style and substance that's as exciting as it is just plain fun. 

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