Enter the Dragon
How to Train Your Dragon is directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois and is loosely based on the 2003 book of the same name by Cressida Crowell. The film stars the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, and Kristen Wiig.
DreamWorks Animation has been largely hit or miss in their twenty one-something years of making animated feature films. Although Shrek may forever be their definitive film in regards to studio identification, the acclaim gathered by 2010's How to Train Your Dragon has completely wiped away any and all tag lines that say something to the effect of, "From the studio that brought you Shrek." If we can conclude anything given the next ten or so years of the studio's history after How to Train Your Dragon, we might as well say that the How To Train Your Dragon trilogy is the best thing DreamWorks Animation has ever produced. The Shrek films only got worse over time, and no one seemed to get all bent out of shape about the Kung Fu Panda trilogy. Is anyone still talking about the highly acclaimed Chicken Run or Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit?
I'm not sure if I can say it's a little easier or a little harder to review How to Train Your Dragon here in 2019, when two sequels have come out and you no longer have the capability of reviewing it upon initial release. Honestly, I don't think it matters in the slightest: a great animated film is, and always will be, a great animated film, and How to Train Your Dragon is a dazzling work of action, character, screen writing, and, well duh, animation.
Taking place in the Viking village of Berk, How to Train Your Dragon tells the story of the clumsy Viking teenager named Hiccup (Baruchel), who happens to be the son of the village chieftain, Stoick the Vast (Butler). The village is constantly under attack by a swarm of dragons, and Hiccup tries to contribute by inventing and using various mechanical devices, all of which end up only making things worse. During one of the dragon attacks, Hiccup manages to shoot down a dragon claimed to be one of the deadliest breeds of dragons ever: a Night Fury. Hiccup later ventures into the woods to find the Night Fury, but instead of killing it, he lets it go free. The dragon is unable to fly away however, due to an injury to its tail. Meanwhile, Stoick and the rest of Berk make preparations to find the dragons' nest and end the dragon threat once and for all. At the same time, Hiccup befriends the Night Fury, giving it the name Toothless and creating new inventions in order to help the dragon fly again. As he spends more and more time with Toothless, Hiccup uncovers something about the dragons that may change the way of life for Berk forever.
- It's not every day that you can praise the action scenes of an animated film, but that's something I very much can do for How to Train Your Dragon. With dragons zipping through the air left and right, the action in How to Train Your Dragon is always fast and fiery, yet Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois make sure everything stays conceivable and in focus. Scenes with dragon action are executed in ways that never lose sight of how much space is involved and how characters are moving here and to. Something else that goes on in the story is that Stoick signs Hiccup up to participate in "dragon killing" classes, all of which take place in a fighting pit. The scenes of Hiccup and his peers doing their training with the dragons show off a nice mixture of POV shots and wide-scale shots to give us ideas of both what the characters are seeing through their eyes and what kind of environment that their training is taking place in.
The use of wide shots during the action is critical for making it all work. By keeping everything at a distance, it's much easier to discern the fast moving objects flying around the frame, as well obtain a clear picture of who is where. Every little thing, whether it's someone throwing an axe or a dragon spitting fire, nothing is left to chance with the shot composition during the action scenes. It's beautiful work, and the kind of execution that all action-based movies should strive to achieve.
- Being based on a series of children's books, Sanders and DeBlois must have thought it was in their best interest to make all the dragons look as cute and cuddly as possible. When you realize what the big secret about the dragons is, it makes sense to have them be designed the way they are. Unfortunately, I still found myself a tad disappointed that several of the dragons don't look at least a little bit intimidating, something that would especially benefit the early scenes of the Vikings fighting the dragons. Animated or not, a dragon is a dragon, and something that can be a destructive force of nature ought to at least look the part a little more. Basically, this is me criticizing the dragon designs. A lot of the designs look too similar in regards to the dragons' snouts, fangs, and horns, as if there are secretly only two dragon breeds: Night Fury and non-Night Fury. Toothless' design is perfect, given his relationship with Hiccup in the movie. The other dragon designs, however, leave a bit more to be desired.
So to conclude, I'm not sure how "original" my praise for How to Train Your Dragon can be, since it's been almost a full decade since this movie first hit theaters. Some of the praises are worth repeating: How to Train Your Dragon is full of heart and exciting action, and it flies to the top tier of DreamWorks' animated features. The action especially should be singled out, for the masterful way that Sanders and DeBlois put it all together. It's an animated film that offers something special to people of all ages, from kids loving the cute dragons, to older folks appreciating the true meaning of Hiccup and Toothless' budding relationship. Now with a full blown trilogy in existence, we can look back on How to Train Your Dragon and understand that a long, wonderful journey was in the works. Other animated films can have their toys, insects, mice, whatever. DreamWorks has freaking dragons. Hard to go too wrong with them.
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