A film review by Craig J. Koban April 13, 2010
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON
2010, PG, 98 mins.
2010, PG, 98 mins.
With the voices of:
this is much more like it!
the last few weeks I have been lamenting the recent trend of 3Difying
mainstream films, often with huge sacrifices to their overall visual coherence.
Although there have been some solid success stories (like AVATAR,
a 3D film done the
right way: filmed in 3D for 3D consumption) there have been far too
many others (ALICE IN WONDERLAND
and CLASH OF THE TITANS, to name a few)
that received three dimensional upgrades so mediocre that they took away
from the filmgoing experience rather than enhanced it. CLASH OF THE TITANS was especially weak: The very hasty
augmentation of the original 2D imagery left a lot to be desired.
I left that film feeling that all hope was lost for this
technology: if all the studios want to do is shamefully release would-be
3D epics and advertise them as the heir-apparent to AVATAR and still charge a
hefty viewing surcharge, then count me out.
Dreamworks’ splendidly rousing and frequently exhilarating new animated feature, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, has reaffirmed my faith in the potential of 3D to enthrall filmgoers. Gone here are the hazy and diluted colors of TITANS and WONDERLAND as well as the herky-jerky strobing that accompanied the action in those films: HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is one of those rare animated films that fully utilizes 3D to realize the spatial and depth possibilities of the frame that does not hamstring viewers to the point of annoyance.
What’s truly fantastic here is that
we're giving 3D spectacle
that is on par with what AVATAR had to offer: there is remarkable
delineation of foreground, middle ground, and background details that
are crisp and clear and, most crucially, there is none of the headache-inducing blurriness that typifies its
surprisingly vivid action set pieces.
Even more refined is that HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON respects both
the art form of CG animation and 3D to the point where it does not use the
latter for obtrusive, eye gorging overkill. It uses the 3D sparingly and
suggest scope within each image and scene and does not burden viewers with
unnecessarily hooky, in-your-face "wow!" moments.
Because of this, the film becomes astonishingly involving; this is
one of the finest of the recent crop of animated films at making you
legitimately feel like you are within the visuals on display.
something else the film does with a headstrong confidence: it has magic
and a genuine heart in the story that is set against the
backdrop of its lush and awe-inspiring imagery.
The central story arc of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is, of course,
the unlikely friendship between a young man and a young dragon, sworn and
misunderstood enemies in life that begin to forge a loving bond that
overrides all mutual stigmas and prejudices.
The dramatic themes and how they are presented have more than
discrete echoes to other family classics (like THE BLACK STALLION, E.T.:
THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, and THE IRON
GIANT), but HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON still manages to become a great family film with solid family values:
it teaches viewers young and old about the importance of family
ties as well as the virtue of tolerance of others despite their overt differences, and it does
so without shamefully preaching it down our throats. Beyond that, the film also grounds its central
friendship with a real charm, poignancy, and depth.
film is narrated by its main young character named Hiccup (voiced with
enthusiasm and sly spontaneity by Jay Baruchel) that is the pint-sized
and somewhat dweeby son of his Viking clan’s main chief, Stoick (Gerard
Butler, whose bombastic and rugged intonations remind viewers of his macho
turn as Leondis in 300). Hiccup is a kind, intelligent, and noble-minded boy, but he
is hardly cut from the same raw, war-mongering material as his Viking brothers and
sisters: he is thin, gawky, and has serious issues with killing.
The rest of the Vikings seem to exist for one purpose: to defend
their lands and to eradicate all dragons.
After an early dragon siege on their village, Stoick and a
blacksmith named Cobbler (a riotously quirky Craig Ferguson) decide that
enough is enough and declare an all-out war against the flying creatures.
preparation for the battle a lifetime, Gobbler decides to train the next
generation of sword-slashing Norsemen (voiced by the
likes of T,J Miller, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and America
Ferrara respectively) against the fire-breathers from above. Hiccup
is among the new recruits, but he is a highly reluctant one at that: his true Viking heart, alas, is just not in the spirit of
slaughter. While training to be all that he can be to prove his worth to
his father, Hiccup makes an interesting discovery in the nearby woods: he
has found a wounded and very rare dragon known as a Night Fury that has
been ensnared via a bolas cannon during a previous battle.
Hiccup knows that the key to his father’s appreciation of him as
a warrior would be to slay the beast, but just as he’s about to deal a
death blow he changes his mind and instead frees the infamous monster.
though Hiccup leaves the creature, he finds himself curiously drawn back to
He returns to forest to check on it to find that it is unable to
fly because a vital part of its tail has been destroyed as a result of its
previous crash landing. In a
scene of remarkable inventiveness, Hiccup goes back home and devises an
ingenious mechanical device that will allow the dragon to fly again, but
only if he rides him in a makeshift saddle.
The journey towards Hiccup building up enough courage to place the
device on the dragon is patiently observed, and when he finally does and
is able to soar into the heavens with it, he begins to develop a newfound
appreciation for these stigmatized creatures.
The more time he spends with “Toothless” (a name he gives it
because of its peculiar smile) the more the lad and monster form an
attachment to one another. Of
course, with the threat of war looming ever so close between their kind,
it's only a matter of time before their friendship is challenged and
story for the film – based on a 2003 book of the same title by British
author Cressida Cowell – is surprising for how refreshing it is in
approach: this is not another half-hearted animated musical, nor a pop
culture riddled satire ala SHREK nor a too-cure-for-its-own-good kiddie
flick. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is more sly and sophisticated than its
advertising lets on. Aside
from its amazing visual wonders, the film taps into Hiccup and
Toothless’ story with a touching insight.
Toothless, a dreaded Night Wing dragon, is the epitome of what is
so misunderstood about its species: Toothless is a lethal force, to be sure, but
the boy is able to overlook the beasts that humans have grown to fear and
despise and come out understanding them in ways no one else has dared.
As a result, Hiccup becomes a
leading voice of reason to his
people and, as a result, grows wiser and more liberal minded than just about anyone else around him. There
is a dramatic and resonating authenticity to this story that you
don’t find in too many other animated films.
TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is also a resoundingly assured technical spectacle on
top of its quietly compelling storyline.
The directors, Chris Sanders and Dean Dubois, made a novel choice
of hiring Coen Brothers cinematographer regular Roger Deakins to serve as a visual
consultant to the film, and the results show.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is an amazing film simply to look at and
digest as it creates a vividly constructed Viking universe that manages to make the
stylized and cartoony visages of its characters (especially the Viking
chiefs, with their fearsomely bushy beards and hairlines and their
boulder-sized physiques) breathe with a restrained naturalism and fluidity.
The dragon designs themselves are intriguing varied as well (we get
designs that manage to be colorfully exaggerated while feeling both inviting
and intimidating at the same time). The film concludes with a fierce, stirring and thrilling
action climax – which pits the entire Viking army against a Queen Bee-esque
mega dragon - that would revival just about any other recent live action
Hollywood swashbuckler: it packs a real pulse-pounding vigor.
But the really inspiring moments in the film are the quieter - but thoroughly transfixing and rip-roaringly powerful – scenes of Hiccup taming his new best friend and ascending to the skies, during which the makers show just how to use the silver screen and 3D to give viewers a breathtaking first-person prerogative of flight, all augmented by the majestic and exultantly joyous score of John Powell. The limitless high energy and soaring pageantry of these moments help to elevate HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON well above the cheap moniker of a disposable cartoon. The film is a sure-fire artistic triumph that harnesses its audacious, dazzling, and colorfully nuanced animation and design with sweeping, but not eye-strainingly obtrusive, 3D effects. This film unequivocally proves that less is more when it comes to a fully immersive 3D effect that does not distract from story and characters. The 3D here never feels like a cheap gimmick, but a tangible enhancement to the overall visceral effect of the film. This is certainly something that the makers of the last Dreamworks animated effort, MONSTERS VS ALIENS, failed to understand.
Most significantly, though, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON has a wonderfully unexpected sincerity, charm, and intelligence. Despite its fantastical settings, the film has its heart more deeply entrenched in its sweet coming-of age-tale of two souls that go from being bitter enemies to close confidants that eventually become lightning rods of change for all those around them. Few films manage to bridge the often-difficult gap between gee-whiz thrills and opulent eye candy with a story that contains an endearing emotional pulse and tenderness. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is a terrific family entertainment that moves the soul as much as it stirs the imagination and appetite for adventure. It’s one of 2010’s most sublime surprises.
And, heaven help me for saying this, you must seek this out in 3D.