Sunday, March 28, 2010

Review: How to Train Your Dragon

It is widely understood that Dreamworks is pretty much a joke compared to Pixar. The perfect idea of a Dreamworks film is A-list voices combined with talking animals and some pop culture references, whereas Pixar's focus will always be story and character. If the end result is money, then both are good business models because kids will flock to turd movies like Shrek 3 while adults embrace more adult fare like Up! and WALL-E. That's why I was very curious to learn that Dreamworks' How to Train Your Dragon was entering the weekend with a 97% fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes (that's Pixar-grade stuff). After watching the movie, I'm not that surprised. Dragon serves up a strong story while utilizing some of the best movie cliches and sidestepping cliche landmines.

It's the story of a little skinny kid named Hiccup (the guy from She's Out of My League) who lives in a craggy, stormy village plagued by dragons. In order to defend the village and livestock, everybody is trained on how to kill a dragon, and it's what everyone dreams about. Even Hiccup fantasizes about it, even though his small frame and engineer's brain aren't suited to the task at all. One day, he proves his worth to his father (Gerard Butler) by snagging a dragon... only he can't kill it... and they become best friends!!!

What follows is a story that's pretty predictable if you've seen Dragonheart, but with the humorous schoolyard chums (voiced by Jonah Hill, McLovin, Kristen Wiig, and Hud from Cloverfield) and a climactic battle scene that is immensely entertaining, you are tricked into really digging the movie. The animation is some of the best ever put to screen, and the music is really well done, and often times I had chills watching the flying sequences. So far, the movie is awesome, but does it avoid the traditional Dreamworks pitfalls?

Firstly, the dragons in this movie do not talk. This is a big win for movie fans everywhere, because it takes away the urge to have a wisecracking sidekick voiced by Eddie Murphy or Steve Buscemi, and it forces the animators to do more with body language than outright dialogue. Secondly, there are zero A-list voices in this film. They need Scottish voices, so rather than pay $15 million to Mike Myers to do an accent that gets more annoying with each iteration, they recruited genuine Scots Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson. And finally, there are no out-of-place rock tunes (this probably disappoints those that thought the Foo Fighters would sound just perfect in a Viking/Dragon movie, but I'm afraid it wasn't to be). Trust me when I tell you that it's shocking to think that this studio delivered Shrek, Shark Tale, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda. With no talking animals and no big celebrities, the movie is 10x better because of it.

Those were the horrific cliches they avoided, but what about the one they utilized so well? Firstly, they threw out historical accuracy to keep the story familiar and likable. Vikings didn't have horned helmets in real life, but 95% of people don't know that, and in fact, 95% of people actually expect it! Secondly, the Viking tribe, with the exception of the kids, all have a Scottish accent. So what if Vikings are from Scandinavia? What does a Norse accent sound like anyway? Everyone loves the hearty, romantic Scottish tongue. It's almost as well-liked as the generic European accent (see: Liam Neeson).

But here's the big thing that it did so well. They made the dragon act almost exactly like a pet dog, and that's the key to the whole movie. In our heads, we want every wild animal we meet to act like a dog because that would be amazing! Wouldn't it be awesome to have a grizzly bear best friend that licks your face and lets you rub his belly? And why not tame a shark to nuzzle your hand with it's head when it wants affection? The dragon in this movie does those things, as well as turning in circles when it wants to lie down, and the audience (me included) buys into it. The pet dog technique is the quickest way to make you sympathize with any wild animal in a cartoon.

The only downside to the movie is Jay Baruchel's voice, which eventually starts to wear on you. Other than that, everything in this movie is easy to like. The themes of trust, acceptance, and prejudice are easy to spot, but the biggest praise that I can give How to Train Your Dragon is that it could probably pass as a Pixar film (they even borrowed the caricatured human look that Pixar loves much). Toy Story 3 has some strong competition this year.


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