Sunday, October 31, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

Here is the latest solid yet unimaginative effort from Dreamworks, made by a directing duo with a pedigree that indicates to me that the lack of inspiration found within is more of a directive from the corporate executives rather than being a result of the talent being unable to reach any farther. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The film stars Jay Baruchel as Hiccup, a young Viking that finds that he completely doesn’t belong in a society that’s based entirely around killing dragons. Going off into the countryside on his own, he accidentally befriends Toothless, a type of ultra-feared dragon that no Viking has ever before seen and survived. With the knowledge that dragons aren’t as dangerous as his people believe them to be, he quickly rises to the top of his class in dragon training, until his father, village chieftain Stoick (Gerard Butler) puts an end to his friendship with the dragons and decides to capture Toothless and use him to lead the village in an assault on the main dragon hive that Hiccup had unwittingly tipped him off to. Of course, the assault all goes horribly wrong, and it’s up to Hiccup, his fellow students, and their new dragon friends to save the day and revolutionize Viking society in the process.

So yeah, an animated story about a societal outcast who constantly butts heads with an authoritarian figure and yet overcomes adversity, revolutionizing his society in the process? Just off the top of my head, that not only describes this plot, but also the plots of Sony’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Pixar’s Monsters Inc. and Ratatouille, and Dreamworks’ own earlier film Antz. Given that I’ve missed a good deal of animated films from the past ten years or so, I can only assume there are several more that I missed. Point is, this is as by-the-numbers a story as an animated film can have without including a young princess, a dashing prince, and an evil witch. The music is fittingly generic, sounding like everything you’ve heard before in such films, to the point where I’m half convinced that composer John Powell just directly took the score from one of his earlier films, rearranged it to fit the new scenes, and called it a day.

Which is all curious, as aside from the script and music, this movie has a good deal to offer. Made by co-writers-and-directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (whose first film, Lilo & Stitch, was arguably Disney’s best movie of the last decade that wasn’t made by Pixar), it has a great deal of visual flair, frequently looking a good deal darker and more sinister than most children’s movies I’ve seen (the main exceptions being Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline, of course). The fight scenes and flying episodes all look really well animated, and show that Dreamworks’ animators are some of the best in the business (though I do take issue with them deciding so many of the dragons should have rounded faces -- I like my dragons Dungeons & Dragons style, filled with angles and sharp edges, not looking like the kraken from the Clash of the Titans remake). They also mostly did a good job in hiring the voice actors: as has become the norm with these kinds of films, they filled up the supporting cast with great comedic talents like Craig Ferguson and Jonah Hill so that there can be a proper amount of unscripted jokes to help improve the film. The pedigree of these people, when combined with Dreamworks’ backlog of animated films like Over the Hedge, Madagascar, Open Season, and Kung Fu Panda, leads me to assume that the seemingly intentional generic story was forced on the filmmakers to try to ensure that the film kept as wide an audience as possible. Given that the film did incredibly well in theaters (making $217 million, which ranks it as currently the eighth highest grossing movie of 2010, right behind Dreamworks’ other big release Shrek Forever After), they may well have been correct to do so.

I don’t want you all to get the wrong impression here. This is indeed an entertaining movie. It’s funny, fast-paced, and frequently rather beautiful. That it’s got a plot you’ve seen enough times that you can probably set your watch to all the story’s turns isn’t likely to matter to your children one bit, assuming of course that you aren’t like me and actually buy children’s movies for your children to watch.

Rating: ***

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