I’ve never been to the Dreamworks Animation studio, but I’m curious if written on a wall there’s a universal Must Do list that applies to each movie they make. Settings can change, plots can change, characters can change (names), but there are checklist points that need to be crossed off with each movie – one being that characters must behave and speak in a manner that’s contemporary. It can be about talking animals in fairy-tale land, talking animals underwater, talking animals escaping to the wild, or talking animals in ancient China, but chances are the characters will appear as a more modern-day personality instead of someone/thing from the time or place of the story’s setting. I’m not a fan of it, but kids seem to love it and I probably would if I still was one. The Viking characters of How to Train Your Dragon are no different, but the main dragon of the story (named Toothless by our story’s hero) appeals to people like me – people who enjoy seeing creatures being creatures, even in family films.
A society of Vikings settled onto an island generations ago and they’ve lived happily for the past few hundred years. It has great scenery, plenty of food and everything else needed to make a healthy living. They just have this eensy-teensy problem with the local wildlife. They’re constantly harassed by flying dragons of all varieties. Some have two heads that perform different functions, some are like flying bulls, and some are completely invisible in the night sky with a flying speed that screams through the air like a banshee.
Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel, who has appeared in a live-action romantic comedy this month) is the son of the mighty Viking leader (voiced by Gerard Butler, who has appeared in a live-action romantic comedy this month), though you’d never guess it looking at him. He’s on the scrawny side where his father is more on the mountainous side and has the strength and tenacity of a Viking. Hiccup has the ferocity of a baby sunflower, but he has an inventor’s mind and wants nothing more than to prove himself as a worthy dragon slayer. During an attack Hiccup is able to hit a dragon mid-air with one of his designed weapons, but no witnesses to his success. The following morning he walks to where the dragon landed with the intention of taking his trophy back to the village, but he can’t bring himself to do it. He instead tries to nurse the flying creature back to health over the course of multiple visits, and in the process alters his perception of the dangerous reptiles his people have been killing for hundreds of years.
The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is one of the most carefully handled aspects to any of the stories Dreamworks Animation has told, and as a character Toothless is the most endearing creation to come out of the studio thus far. Their connection progresses steadily to friendship over the course of many meetings and gestures. They’re not instantly best buds and each little victory of trust feels like an earned victory without ever devolving into being cute for cute’s sake. When Hiccup is finally able to help Toothless fly again it’s a moment that could have felt meaningless if we hadn’t seen how difficult it was for the two to get there, but since we do it’s rewarding and thanks to some incredible animation and “camerawork” (don’t know what to call it for an animated picture) the flying sequences of that moment – and those that follow – are second to none.
Everything from the angle of the shot to the speed of the editing projects an end visual that feels like you’re either on Toothless’ back – sweeping in, out and thru small alleys on the cliff – or you get an outsider perspective of just how fast he’s flyng. It’s a combination of the wonder of flight in Avatar mixed with the speedy dogfights in Top Gun. I didn’t even have to experience the movie in 3D to feel it.
The rest of the picture is, for the most part, typical Dreamworks Animation storytelling with little surprises. The characters (voiced by the likes of America Ferrara, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, and Kristen Wiig) will be more fun for kids probably than their parents, but the grown-ups should be able to appreciate and enjoy the bulk of the film about the bond between Hiccup and Toothless. Dreamworks may not have yet steered clear of their habits fully, nor do they feel they probably need to, but I value baby steps in another direction when they attempt something against their own conventions; especially, if the steps are as exciting as those in How to Train Your Dragon.
The Upside: Incredible flying sequences, some interesting visual angles, and Toothless – the first character Dreamworks has produced that rivals the characters Pixar gets such an emotional response out of. The careful evolution to friendship between Toothless and Hiccup is also a big plus.
The Downside: The story is telegraphed, and most of the human characters are much less entertaining than the dragons who say nothing.
On the Side: As he did with Pixar’s Wall-E, master Cinematographer Roger Deakins also acted as a visual consultant for How to Train Your Dragon.