Nordic beauty, likable charm instead of cheap jokes, heartfelt characters and story, joyful flying sequences—with How to Train Your Dragon, it appears DreamWorks Animation has momentarily set aside its Shreked-out shtick and made a dazzling movie.
DreamWorks Animation has always been the hyperactive, pop-culture obsessed little brother of the more thoughtful, more artistically mature Pixar. Where Pixar films start with character and story, too often DreamWorks CGI movies feel like they were born in the merchandising department and then dipped too long in some sort a sugar-rush, pop-culture snarkinizing solution. Blame Shrek, DreamWorks’ ogreish runaway hit that infected the rest of its efforts. (By comparison, for better or worse—but mostly better–Pixar has never strayed far from its Toy Story heart.) DreamWorks Animation’s CG films are rarely bad—Kung Fu Panda is well-done fun, and Monsters Vs. Aliens and the Madagascar movies are goofy, spastic diversions—but they’ve never achieved greatness.
So after months of Winter Olympic promos and marketing blitz, it’s understandable if people were expecting more of the same from DreamWorks’ latest, the Vikings vs. Beasties romp How to Train Your Dragon. You know, something to drop the kids off at the mall on Saturday afternoon, something that won’t grate too much on non-stop DVD repeat viewings next fall. And for the first 15-20 minutes of Dragon it seems as if we are in for the DreamWorks formula—lots of loud, frantic action; pop-culture sass squeezed into every nook and cranny; stereotypical animated characters with smart mouths and shallow motives.
But like the ethereal mists that drapes the on-screen Viking lands, slowly bits of richness creep into How to Train Your Dragon, until eventually, almost accidentally, you realize you may be watching DreamWorks Animation’s first great film.
The story is still somewhat cardboard cut-out: Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is a scrawny Viking apprentice, an inventive tinkerer in a culture that values beefy, bullheaded brawn and would rather whack something with a broadsword than think about it. Yes, like all the journeying heroes before him, he’s stuck in his Norse village (or Tatooine, or Hobbiton, or the Dursleys’ closet), yearning for excitement and glory, and working out some expectation/disappointment issues with his father, the village chieftain (Gerald Butler).
Of course, Hiccup’s Scandinavian village of Berk has a pestilence problem of the flying, fire-breathing kind: How to Train Your Dragon opens in the midst of a dazzling, daring night raid by a variety of soaring lizards—seems medieval dragons are no strangers to Darwinian variation: they’ve evolved into a glorious menagerie of sizes, colors, and destructive specialties. Most mysterious—unseen, even—is the Night Fury dragon, there and gone in a deadly blur before its sonic boom is heard.
The Vikings of Berk bear their flame-broiled fate with stubborn pride, continually rebuilding torched buildings, secretly relishing formidable foes against which to beat their giant hammers and macho aggression; a common enemy to define themselves and their might. So when one of Hiccup’s martial inventions actually works and he wings a Night Fury, he rejoices at the prospect of his first, rite-of-passage dragon kill. Except seeing the elusive beast in the daylight, wounded and resigned to its fate, Hiccup can’t make the final cut. Instead he slowly befriends and mends the dragon—a feline Stealth jet he names Toothless.
Yep, like Old Yeller with brimstone breath or Black Beauty with a wingspan, this is a tale of a boy and his deepening bond with his wild pet—and of course of the inevitable clashes with his people who embrace Fear over Understanding. Dog-eared as it may be, that’s still a potent story, and Hiccup and Toothless’s friendship provides something most DreamWorks Animation carnivals have lacked: a warm center.
But that’s not all How to Train Your Dragon has under its horned helmet. Brilliant live-action cinematographer Rodger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James, Revolutionary Road) was brought in as a visual consultant, and the result is spectacular. While the character designs are still a bit Muppety (Hiccup’s young peers look like Viking versions of the animated band Gorillaz), the landscapes and skies that fill the screen are lush and layered; sun-dappled wood, leaf, and stone are richly textured; and even the costumes, tools, weapons and buildings are, for the most part, historically accurate. The result is much more Lord of the Rings than Shrek—not counting the former’s Riders of Rohan, this may be the best Viking movie since the woefully underrated and unseen 13th Warrior.
And the flying scenes… well, the flying scenes are just jaw-dropping, heart-lifting, joyfully amazing. They may not be as show-offy as Avatar’s (and the more I think about it, in 5-10 years the flying scenes in Avatar will be all most of us remember of it, just as all we remember now of Titanic is that stern tilting into the sky), but in many ways How to Train Your Dragon’s CGI, 3D dragon-riding sequences are better, more emotionally, majestically resonant. There is depth and perspective to Dragon’s soaring scenes, as DreamWorks finally learned the Pixar lessons not just about character and story but about quiet and space.
DreamWorks still relies too heavily on star voices, but it’s not a problem here. Baruchel’s nasal voice, gangly physicality, and earnest loserdom—adored by some of us since the too-short-lived sit-com Undeclared and the best thing about She’s Out of My League—work nicely with Toothless’s mute inscrutability.
Butler is fine as Hiccup’s warrior father. (James Caan voiced the exact same role in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.) Craig Ferguson does no harm and brings a bit of funny to his Viking arms maker and trainer (yes, it seems Scottish accents were all the brogue among the Norsemen), and Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera is likable as the usual romantic interest. Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and TJ Miller (who previously worked with Baruchel in League and battled a giant monster in Cloverfield) all do the right thing as Hiccup’s bullies-turned-buddies: they put their voices to service of their characters rather than lazily playing themselves.
There’s still a bit of the bratty, Shrek-style adolescent humor in Dragon, but for the most part the pop-culture riffing is keep to a minimum so the movie can focus on nobility, heart, and the notion—sadly as subversive now as it may have been to Viking hoards—that sometimes knowing and understanding your sworn “enemy” beats letting aggro warrior pride and fear-fueled hatred blindly swing your sword. Thanks to Dragon’s story and charm, its Love Thy Enemy/Give Peace a Chance message goes down even easier than Avatar’s hippie eco-lecture. Not that it’s all Hugging and Learning in Vikingland: there’s a terrific slam-bang action finale with Viking warriors, a fleet of longboats, and a Godzilla-sized brute.
Too often with animated films of a certain calibrated mediocrity, we shrug and say, “Eh, it was a fun way to pass the time and babysit the kids.” So it’s nice to welcome DreamWorks Animation into that special circle where you can say, “Animated or not, for kids or whoever, this is an entertaining, thoughtful movie.” Maybe even a great one.