Friday, November 19, 2010

Welcome to Dragon Training

It's got to be tough being DreamWorks sometimes. Even though the animation company, launched in 1999 by Steven Speilberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, launched an award-winning, worldwide cultural phenomena with Shrek in 2001, it has been overshadowed by rival Pixar for what feels like forever. Since animated films were finally given their allotted due with the Academy Award for Best Animated being introduced in 2001, DreamWorks has won the award only twice: for Shrek in 2001, and for the stop-motion Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005. Pixar, meanwhile, has tasted success five times with Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008) and Up (2009), cementing their place as the more celebrated animation studio. And of the two studios, Pixar also has the only film that has broken the one BILLION dollar mark for gross, with this year's Toy Story 3. But give DreamWorks credit: they never give up and released three 3D animated films this year in Shrek Forever After, the recently-released Megamind, and the one that might be up for some awards at year's end, How to Train Your Dragon.

...And THAT'S how you train a dragon
Based on the fictional children's books by Cressida Cowell, How to Train Your Dragon takes place in the Viking island of Berk, where the local populace is tormented by a particular variety of pest. Dragons roam the area, stealing livestock (or anything appropriately food-like) from the villagers, who in turn attempt to capture and kill the invaders. Nobody knows where the dragons attack from, and the leader of the Vikings, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) often leads his warriors in raids on the fog-shrouded dragon territory, usually resulting in disaster. The story focuses on Stoick's son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), and undersized boy with a penchant for clumsiness and not at all cut out for fighting dragons, much to the embarrassment of his father. He is also the object of scorn from the other young people in the settlement, all looking to become hunters in their own right, especially Astrid (America Ferrera), the girl Hiccup pines over. Hiccup's helplessness reverses when he somehow befriends an injured dragon that he names Toothless, helping the creature re-learn to fly and the two fast becoming best friends. However, it's only a matter of time before he can keep this secret friendship hidden from a society that hates dragons with a burning passion.

The fire effects are especially eye-popping
I'd been trying to get this film for a while now, all the rental places had been out for weeks and it was becoming less and less likely I'd see it before my interest ran out. I had pretty much passed it over when the film was released in March, and only witnessing lavish praise heaped upon it for months after it's release made me think that perhaps I should sit down and watch this. I'm usually not immediately on-board with animated films, even those which have gotten gross recognition. I didn't see last year's Up in theaters, though when I finally got around to seeing it, the film became one of my favorite films of the past decade. I've never seen a Shrek film. I watched Toy Story on TV, but never saw the second, which many hailed as being better than the first. The Incredibles I rented on DVD. I still haven't seen WALL-E or Ratatouille. Despite how much I invariably enjoy animated films, I almost always overlook them when they come out in theaters in favor of other, live-action titles. Maybe some part of me thinks they're for kids? The best animated films can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike, and How to Train Your Dragon is no exception.

...Aaand so are the atmospheric effects
The film is somewhat of a retelling of the classic "boy and his dog" archetype; Hiccup must hide his pet/friend from his father lest there be consequences. That the film does this while incorporating breathtaking visuals and dragon fights is a bonus, and the film is worth watching for it's beautifully-rendered backgrounds and settings alone. And yet it still comes back to the friendship between Hiccup and Toothless, as well as that between Hiccup and his father, that drives the story forward.

Hiccup attempts to protect Old Yeller... I mean Toothless
The voice acting is especially good, even if you take umbrage with Norse warriors being depicted with the Scottish voices of Butler, Colin Ferguson and David Tennant. Butler especially is noticeable in his performance as the great warrior of the village of Berk. He varies between strong warrior and frustrated father with ease. The only unfortunate thing is that he's so recognizable (and he was the only one I KNEW was in the cast before I watched it) that it breaks the suspension of disbelief, with my mind telling me that this was Butler, not Stoick. Ferguson I recognized - though could not name - and enjoyed as Stoick's friend and Hiccup's mentor Gobber the Belch. From his portrayal of the Viking handicapped by years of battle with the dragons, Ferguson conveys a respect for the character inherent in being the buffer between father and son. He does all he can to help Hiccup and persuading Stoick to give his son a chance. America Ferrera does a great job as Astrid, a powerful young warrior who eventually learns to like Hiccup. Though not given a lot to do for the film's first half, she makes it work when it's her time to shine. Other youths take a part of the story, but they don't have a lot to do with the time they're given. That they're so good helps, however, especially T.J. Miller and Kristen Wiig as rival fraternal twins. Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse are also great in limited roles, adding humor and character in small doses to the audience. The only actor who might be considered a disappointment would be Baruchel, whose voice seems to sometimes be perfect to the dialogue he's given, while other times seeming completely out of place. His is a small quibble within a sea of talented voice actors, but since he's the main character it is possible to be sick of hearing his voice by the end.

Like most animated films, human character are just a LITTLE off
The film only has one additional problem in my opinion, and it's with the film's animation style, especially those of the dragons we see during the film. While the backgrounds and distance shots are all beautiful, the movements of the dragons, especially the big ones, see a bit clunky and not nearly as smoothly animated as the rest of the film. While even the human characters stand out a little from the settings they're plunked in, the dragons are even MORE removed, making them seem out of place and almost hokey. Well, okay, Toothless is fine, but I suspect only because the animators put so much more work into him to make it work for the viewer.

Uhm, sure, you can be there for the sequel...
In the end, I'm not even sure How to Train Your Dragon will be remembered as the best ANIMATED film this year, as opposed to some who would seem to think it deserves discussion as best film this year. It certainly deserves a spot on my Top 10 Movies of the Year, but at #9 I wouldn't count on it staying there too long. I really enjoyed this film for it's amazing art and animation, even if the dragons weren't too well incorporated. A little character development would have gone a long way, but I can't complain about a film that was feel-good from beginning to end and succeeded in transporting me to a world where Vikings and dragons co-exist in such an awesome way..If you haven't seen it yet, do so now.

1 comment:

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