After posting yesterday's review of Shrek Forever After, I decided I would post the other review I had for an animated film this year. And being as this is the best animated film release so far this year, I thought it was appropriate that I post this the day Toy Story 3, a film I'll be seeing Sunday, opens. It may be hard to compete with Dragon, but Pixar is the one studio I have faith that could.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON
Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders
William Davies, Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders (Novel: Cressida Cowell)
Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig
PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language.
Buy on DVD
Buy on Blu-ray
In the wide expanse of film history, the Norse seem to get the shortest shrift in terms of quality features. How to Train Your Dragon tries valiantly to rectify that imbalance with a sensible, entertaining and occasionally thrilling spectacle.
The film follows a scrawny, clumsy Norse teen wanting to get into the thick of the regular dragon attacks that plague his village. Being the son of the village’s elder, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) longs to stand alongside his glorious father Stoick (Gerard Butler) as a savior of his home. Yet, all of his efforts focus on trying to invent all sorts of gadgets that will help overcome his sizable shortcomings.
When one of his contraptions manages to ground a baby dragon, his sense of compassion takes over and he becomes quick friends with the young reptile who he names Toothless. His ability to learn what makes this little reptile tick aids him as he enters dragon fighting school.
There are few complex stories assigned to animated features and Dragon is definitely not complicated, but it’s more than your standard coming of age story, or at least its told in a way that makes it feel differently. You learn to love the characters as the story progresses and become involved in their successes and failures. It’s the right blend of tradition and forethought.
The dragons in the film aren’t your typical western or eastern types, they are a blend of these. After watching the trailer, I was certain I would not like the broad, oval head of Toothless. It was not my personal idea of what a compelling baby dragon’s head should look like, but his personality on screen erases most of my misgivings about his animated frame.
The performances are fairly standard for an animated feature. None of the key actors goes into accent, instead being asked to use their own distinctive rhythms. This is most noticeable with Butler who maintains his Scottish brogue despite playing a Norwegian character. Of course, the American accents used by the rest of the cast are no less disingenuous, but they at least add a touch of homogeny that Butler and Craig Ferguson unbalances. Yet, Butler’s performance is far superior to most of his live action work, so it’s not a total loss. As for Ferguson, who plays the loveable dragon fighting trainer and personal Hiccup supporter, has an accent that doesn’t feel as distracting, but still feels out of place with the younger cast members.
America Ferrera’s voice work is barely recognizable as Hiccup’s love interest Astrid, a tough, dragon fighting machine who feels her skill with a weapon far outstrips any of her male counterparts, and she likes it that way. It’s solid work for her, but there are few emotionally investing moments for her to sink her teeth into, so it remains fairly peripheral. The same can be said for Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Milner and Kristen Wiig who play other young dragon fighting trainees who cluster around Astrid and ridicule Hiccup. Their relationships are best compared to the high school antics that might be portrayed in a G-rated version of a Judd Apatow film.
The film itself seems to employ a good number of Apatow veterans, which seems a bit corny to say, but many of them have more box office hits to their names than many unfortunate indie actors. But, of the Apatow alums, Baruchel is the most engaging and being the lead character, that’s supremely important. His ability to convey pathos with such a two-dimensional (3D be damned) character speaks to his charms. Unlike Mintz-Plasse and Hill, Baruchel is one of the Apatow kids I have very little trouble watching. He doesn’t focus on buffoonery and has that loveable loser quality that is so important in roles such as this.
From the quaint, hillside Viking settlement to the peaceful mountain lake where Hiccup carefully nurtures his relationship with Toothless, the film’s design elements bring us into the lives of these dragon-blighted people conjuring up vivid pictures of what that place in history might have looked like. The inhabitants may be modern and the situations a bit fantastical, but the realistic approach to setting makes for a more livable film. It’s the same kind of design work that made Kung Fu Panda so visually stunning. Part of the visualization that sets Dragon apart from Panda is the employment of 3D visual effects technology.
One of the raft of major 3D animated features hitting the multiplex, How to Train Your Dragon falls squarely between the amazing achievement of Up and the dismal performance of Monsters vs. Aliens. There are enough exciting segments that don’t feel obligatory and help deepen appreciation in the film. Then there are the pointlessly flashy sequences that expand the traditional amusement park ride-style of many classic animated adventure (and non-adventure films) into the 3D universe. It’s these latter scenes that keep the film from truly soaring to new heights and make the 3D trend feel like it’s tagged with the promotional sales line “For a Limited Time Only”.
Unlike the trend of the ‘80s, 3D doesn’t seem to be abating as a visual style. The abject popularity of so many films in the format has managed to ignite a taste for further explorations of the medium. While we’ll continue to be inundated with dreck like Monsters vs. Aliens and just about every horror property out there, we can only hope that there are more quality pictures along the lines of Avatar and Up, but in the mean time, films like Dragon don’t entirely water down the format, but Dragon’s failures in that department are more a product of studio than of artistry and that applies not just to the 3D effects but to the film itself.
When expecting a new animated feature from a studio other than Pixar, it’s hard to know what you’re going to get. Sometimes, you can get an exceptional achievement (Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox). Other times, you find an entertaining film that isn’t quite a cinematic accomplishment (Kung Fu Panda). And the rest of the time, you get pedantic, unnecessary features that stretch your patience (Monsters vs. Aliens, Doogal). Where does How to Train Your Dragon fit into the picture? It’s more on the lines of Kung Fu Panda, an entertaining feature that turns out better than you would have initially expected from any studio other than Pixar.
June 11, 2010
How to Train Your Dragon