Ever since Antz went up against Pixar’s A Bug’s Life twelve years ago, DreamWorks Animation (then called PDI) has been the distant second of Hollywood’s two major producers of computer animated film. But with Dreamworks’ newest feature, How To Train Your Dragon, ardent Pixar supporters are going to have to admit a difficult truth – the other guys in the room, for once, absolutely know what their doing.
Dragon takes place in a Icelandic Viking village long ago, in that godforsaken age that never knew the glory of Twitter. Fortunately (or unfortunately,) the villagers do know, quite well, the glory of Dragons, who frequently swarm the island village scavenging for food. As such, the Vikings’ lives are defined by their never-successful attempts to exterminate the dragons – which come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and breeds, from stubby overgrown bumblebees to double-headed serpents. There’s even a Godzilla.
Main character Hiccup (played quite appropriately by potential next-big-thing Jay Baruchel) is a clumsy teenager that can’t figure out how to aid his people in their struggle against the winged fire-breathers, until by some stroke of mad luck he captures the most elusive dragon of all – the Night Fury. Rather than kill the beast, Hiccup lets the dragon live, and over time he’s able to build trust and a friendship with the animal, who is eventually dubbed Toothless.
These scenes are the film at its best. Without needing a scrap of spoken dialogue, the film is able to say everything that’s so great about interacting with pets (Toothless frequently resembles a puppy more than a fire-breathing lizard). In particular, scenes where we ride along as Hiccup rides Toothless across cloud and sea are uplifting and exhilarating, even if Avatar did the same thing just a few months ago.
How to Train Your Dragon is directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, who created the last great animated Disney flick Lilo & Stitch. After John Lasseter fired the two from the company (they didn’t impress him with their work on Bolt), they moved to DreamWorks to work on Dragon. Lasseter better have had a great fucking reason to kick these guys out, because it’s clear they’re the smartest guys in American animation that aren’t on Pixar’s payroll.
They know how to put together an animated family film that isn’t all about laughing a farting fatties (I only counted two mentions of underwear in the film, neither being very egregious). This thing is excellently plotted and paced to hit all the right notes and keep the audience totally involved and invested in the characters. When the climactic scene rolls around that could seriously be described as a “Dragon War” (what a beautiful phrase,) the movie effortlessly shifts into one of the better action movies of recent, animated or not.
It feels exactly like how a kid making friends, saving his people and learning to fly should. Without ever needing to say anything, it just grabs you, and you’re in for the ride until the credits role.
The only aspect that falls flat is the art direction. Possibly hoping to create a more realistic world that would lend to the less child-centric (though still child-friendly) world of belligerent Vikings and deadly monsters, How to Train Your Dragon forgoes much of a visual style and sticks with a blander stock of character designs. They aren’t innately ugly like the ones from the Shrek movies, but they are just as uninteresting. Even the dragons, which are varied in their designs, always feel firmly within world of the CG animation aesthetic.
But I’m an animation nerd, and this sort of stuff probably just bothers me. Anyone else – child or adult – aren’t just getting a really good film out of How to Train Your Dragon, they’re getting a great experience.