Something that stuck me with me after watching How to Train Your Dragon was the amazing visuals. In the credits, cinematographer Roger Deakins was listed as a visual consultant. Figuring this to be something of a rare occurrence, I was astonished to learn that Deakins also consulted with Pixar on WALL-E. Animation has grown to extraordinary heights, both visually and monetarily, since Toy Story‘s arrival fifteen years ago. Not a year goes by where we don’t see at least one CG-animated movie in the top ten. Sometimes we get two. Though, in 2008, four had top honors.
With the arrival of Shrek in 2001 it was thought that DreamWorks would give Disney and Pixar some stiff competition in producing entertainment that would satisfy not only kids but tap into the kid inside every adult. But as Pixar found success at appealing to numerous demographics, DreamWorks was content on making movies specifically geared for kids. Visually strong as they were, it was rare to find one supported with the storytelling we’ve come to expect from the Disney/Pixar machine. Which makes the release of How to Train Your Dragon such a surprise.
Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, the creative duo behind Disney’s 2002 release Lilo & Stitch, have taken Cressida Cowell’s young adult book and made it into a rousing fantasy adventure. What surprised me about Dragon is that the promotional campaign got it all wrong; it was pretty horrendous, actually. The trailers and TV spots gave the impression that the movie was to be another yukfest from DreamWorks, this time involving a scrawny Viking teen and the dragon he befriends. It has some humor, just not the amount the ads lead us to believe. And the humor is pretty sophisticated for what it is. Those expecting talking dragons with distinct personalities or juvenile antics will be sorely disappointed.
Instead, How to Train Your Dragon is complete with smarts, heart and a few laughs. Our hero is Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), the wimp son of the head Viking chief, who is appropriately named Stoick (Gerard Butler). Hiccup has always wanted to make his mark as a Viking, but his size and lack of strength have crushed his dream. So he assists the local blacksmith, Gobber (Craig Ferguson), by hammering iron into strong durable blades that the Vikings use to protect their homeland from the “pests” that prey on sheep and other small animals. Now these aren’t garden-variety pests: they’re fire-breathing dragons.
When Stoick declares war on the dragons, he and small militia set sail to find the dragons’ lair and vanquish all of them. Meanwhile, Gobber puts the next generation of Viking warriors through a series of tests that prepare them how to defeat the mystical beasts no matter their size or shape. Hiccup, reluctant, ventures away from the town and into the woods after each sparring session to tend to the black-as-tar dragon he shot out of the sky with one of his inventions. At first he was going to slay the beast, but he showed mercy, seeing himself in the dragon’s eyes. He begins to bond with the dragon – even names it Toothless – and soon realizes that “everything we know about them is wrong.”
Having not seen its presentation in 3-D, I can’t praise the visuals as being truly eye-popping. But I could sense the sequences that would have looked exquisite in three dimensions. Guess I’ll have to make a point about seeing it again in that format and see if I was correct.
DreamWorks did do one thing right with its marketing campaign and that was not promote the actors behind the voices in the ads. This has been a pet peeve of mine, as Pixar is the only studio that doesn’t have to market its films based on the star power of its voice actors. So when we later discover that Astrid, a Viking blonde with steel-blue eyes, is voiced by the star of Ugly Betty, it’s a nice surprise. (Oops, I guess I just spoiled it.)
Actually, all the voices were sound choices by Sanders and DeBlois and the rest of the animation team. Jay Baruchel, who looks to have a breakout year in 2009 and is also one of the few Judd Apatow regulars who hasn’t voiced animation, has that great nasally inflection to match that of a Viking who has yet to reach puberty. Fellow Apatow alums Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse also flex their vocal chords, along with SNL star Kristin Wiig in supporting roles.
How to Train Your Dragon is a sneaky surprise that I wasn’t expecting. The picture is a family film that is fun and exciting, and appealing to all ages. Kids will be entertained by the action and animation, while adults can digest the morals that may not be all that clear to their children. I don’t expect releases like this will be common for DreamWorks (the studio is prepping sequels for Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda), but at least it’s a step in the right direction.
Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois Notable Cast: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristin Wiig Writer(s): William Davies, Peter Tolan, Sanders and DeBlois – Based on the book by Cressida Cowell
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!