10 May 2010

Review: "How to Train Your Dragon"

Sometimes there are circumstances that lead to you seeing a film you thought you would never see. I have often made it clear that animated films are not my favourite, but I have only heard great things about How to Train Your Dragon. Avatar can be blamed for the 3D crap that is being shoved in theatres, but I will say that How to Train Your Dragon is the first 3D film I have fully enjoyed. I found myself fully invested in the film and immersed in the fantasy world alongside our hero, Hiccup. Pixar has something of a monopoly in the animated world, and DreamWorks has had success with Shrek (2000) and Madagascar (2005), but it is also the studio that released Bee Movie (2007) and Monsters vs Aliens (2009). I have complained a lot about the overabundance of stars doing voice work and I believe that it often detracts from the film. How to Train Your Dragon did great promotional work by making the film about the animation and not the voice talent, which includes Gerard Butler, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill and Craig Ferguson. The film is based on the fantasy picture book How to Train Your Dragon (2003), written by Cressida Cowell. She has written eight stories featuring Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III and the most recent, How to Break a Dragon's Heart, was published in 2009. How to Train Your Dragon is a great film with a heartwarming story whose fantastic animation make it a thrilling and touching adventure.

Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is the son of the Viking Chief, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) and he lives on the island of Berk. The island is often ravaged by a dragons who set fire to homes and steal sheep. Hiccup works as an apprentice to Goober the Belch (Craig Ferguson), the blacksmith, and he is not allowed to participate in the battles against the dragons because his father thinks he is too small and weak. During one raid he shoots down a dragon with his own handmade cannon and while no one believes him, he eventually finds that it is a Night Fury, a never before seen breed. The dragon, which he names Toothless, is trapped in the canyon because of a damaged tail and is unable to fly properly. Instead of killing it, he befriends the dragon and fashions a makeshift tail and control harness, which enables him to fly with Toothless. Hiccup is then enrolled in a Viking dragon training program and due to his interactions with Toothless he discovers certain tricks to control dragons. This amazes and enrages his peers, Astrid (America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), and twins Tuffnut and Ruffnut (T.J. Miller and Kristin Wiig). Astrid eventually finds out Hiccup's secret and the two discover the whereabouts of the dragons' lair, but upon discovering that the dragons actions are misunderstood he refuses to tell his father. As a graduation rite he must slay a dragon, and when he refuses his father and the Viking men trap Toothless. Stoick believes that Toothless with lead him to the dragon nest and is unprepared for the outcome. It then becomes Hiccup's duty to save his people and prove to his father that he is neither small nor weak.

I was actually amazed by the quality of the animation. Avatar did set a high bar for 3D graphics (not plot, acting, screenplay or directing), but How to Train Your Dragon did not distract me with its 3D animation the way Avatar did. The last DreamWorks film that I saw in theatres was Kung Fu Panda (2008), and while I enjoyed the film it left an unpleasant aftertaste in my mouth. Some movie studios are too quick to make franchises out of successful films and prefer to continue old ideas rather than create original stories. DreamWorks definitely suffers from this as there are three Shrek sequels (and a Puss in Boots spinoff set for release in 2011), a third Madagascar film set for release in 2012 and a sequel to Kung Fu Panda out next year. There is even a 2013 sequel to this film in the works. This is what drives me crazy about animated films. Studios prefer recycling ideas and believe that advanced animation is the only necessity to make a successful film. How to Train Your Dragon was fun and exciting, but it does not push the boundaries of current animation. How long do we have to wait for a studio to work as hard to develop a plot as they do on the animation?

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

EDIT Roger Ebert, in his review, claims that the 3D graphics are nothing but a distraction. I disagree. But he also says that Paramount threatened that theatres that do not make room to show the film in 3D would not be allowed to show the 2D version.

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