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How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon came out at a time when I still thought that Dreamworks was just Pixar-lite. Keep in mind, this was back in 2010, when Up had come out the year before and Toy Story 3 was only a few months away. Compare that to Dreamworks, who released Dragon somewhere in between Monsters vs. Aliens and Shrek Forever After. But oh, how times have changed.

In the past four years, Pixar has released Cars 2Brave, and Monsters University, all of which failed to meet the (admittedly high) bar of quality we’ve come to expect from the company. Even worse, Pixar’s Vancouver studio shut down last October and displaced 100 workers. Last but not least, 2014 will be the first year since 2006 without a single Pixar release.

So how are things going over at Dreamworks? Well… okay. I can’t claim to have seen every one of Dreamworks’ animated offerings since 2010, but Rise of the Guardians, The Croods, and Mr. Peabody and Sherman all struck me as pleasant and instantly forgettable mediocrities. Still, the Kung Fu Panda franchise is surprisingly good, and the Madagascar franchise is still making a ton of money for whatever reason. And then there’s this:

…DAMN.

It’s been a year since I first saw that teaser and it still blows my hair back. When I saw that clip, I knew I’d have to go back and see the original film before I saw the sequel on opening weekend. So here I am, making up for lost time.

Right off the bat, How to Train Your Dragon irked me. Don’t get me wrong, there was a ton of energy to the proceedings, the comedy was okay, and the central relationship of a viking boy (Hiccup, voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his dragon (Toothless, brought to life with wonderful animation and sound design) was very well-developed. The partnership with maestro Roger Deakins did the visuals all sorts of favors, and John Powell’s music was positively soaring. But I still had some problems.

First of all, the animation looks just a touch dated. That’s not to say it’s bad, but the characters definitely look a bit plastic in comparison to CGI animation four years later. But that’s really just a pet peeve, and the animation otherwise looks fine.

No, the real problem here is Hiccup. For one thing, his voice is terribly grating, though I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of Jay Baruchel’s voice to begin with. More importantly, his treatment as an underdog makes no sense in context. As a boy growing up in the village of Berk, where social status and worth depend entirely on dragon-slaying, the denizens should be going out of their way to groom Hiccup into a first-rate dragon killer. Instead, even when Hiccup wants to go out and prove himself, everyone wants to hold him back. The characters talk about how much they value conformity, and Hiccup genuinely wants to conform to the village’s expectations, and no one else wants him to? What kind of sense does that make?

Okay, maybe it’s because Hiccup is so scrawny. He’s not allowed to go out and fight dragons because he’d be killed instantly. That would be an acceptable excuse, except that Hiccup is eventually allowed into dragon training and we get to see his peers. We see firsthand on multiple occasions that the other children of Berk are no more competent than Hiccup is. None of them would last five minutes against a dragon. Hiccup is no less inferior than anyone else his age, so why is he the bully target and the underdog?

Moving on to the individual vikings, Hiccup’s father merits a bit of discussion. Though Stoick the Vast (played with an impenetrable brogue by Gerard Butler) is the local chieftain, he’s not a straight-up villain. And he isn’t a cardboard disapproving father, either. No, Stoick is very elegantly sold as a thick-headed oaf who’s also a brave and badass warrior. More importantly, he genuinely wants to be a proud and loving father, and Hiccup clearly wants to be a good son, but neither of them know how. The two of them are so completely different that they don’t even know how to talk with each other, much less make each other happy. There are quite a few scenes that perfectly express such an awkward relationship, straddling that line between humor and heart in a way that feels authentic.

Conversely, we have the other vikings. Gobber (the local blacksmith, voiced by Craig Ferguson) spends most of the film alternating between comic relief and exposition machine, though he does get a few good moments here and there. Astrid (America Ferrara), the love interest, is a badass who’s very hostile toward our protagonist and jealous of his success, so she’s basically a rehash of Tigress from Kung Fu Panda. Hiccup and Astrid have a few other fellow trainees, but they’re all so annoying I won’t even bother discussing them.

(Side note: The adult vikings are voiced with Scottish accents, but the children aren’t. Interesting.)

But of course nobody cares about any of that. No, the real star of this movie is Toothless.

When the Hiccup/Toothless arc finally gets going, that’s when the movie really starts firing on all cylinders. Toothless is a brilliant character from conception to execution, precisely because he doesn’t start out as an innately friendly dragon. It’s genuinely interesting to see how Hiccup befriends and tames Toothless, especially since the two of them need each other. Toothless needs Hiccup’s assistance to fly (as Toothless has a damaged tail and can’t fly without Hiccup’s prostheses), and Hiccup’s discoveries about dragon behavior earn him respect in his community. Which of course leads to the inevitable moment when the people of Berk discover the secret pet dragon that Hiccup’s been keeping.

And so, at the third act, we come back to the vikings’ mindset and how it makes no sense. We’re clearly shown that the mere act of killing a dragon is an impressive feat in itself. Yet the vikings can see for themselves that Hiccup has managed to tame a dragon. And not just any dragon, but a mythical Night Fury dragon so stealthy and lethal that no one has ever seen one and lived to tell about it. Yet Hiccup has figured out how to tame these massive and lethal creatures, which is a feat that no one else in seven generations (as clearly stated in the film’s prologue, by the way) has apparently tried.

This begs the question of why the hell Hiccup was ever ostracized for it. They know for a fact that Hiccup’s methods work, so why isn’t everyone begging to learn about them? Why the hell wouldn’t the vikings want domesticated dragons? Why wouldn’t they want creatures that could be trained for warfare, transportation, construction, or any number of other uses? I know this is supposed to be some kind of commentary on how we fear what we don’t understand, but that doesn’t work here. In this movie, Hiccup has famously passed his dragon training with flying colors without killing a single dragon. He’s presented concrete evidence that the old way of thinking is wrong, and everyone else just throws it out the window. That’s just being stupid.

But of course, all of that counts for nothing when the climax rolls around. Because it’s awesome. I know it’s all just empty and predictable spectacle, but that final action scene is so much fun to watch.

How to Train Your Dragon is a deeply flawed movie, but when the filmmakers got it right, they had it fucking nailed. Hiccup’s arc with Toothless works perfectly, his father/son arc with Stoick works just fine, and he even has a few moments with Astrid that make a satisfying click. Plus, the dragons are uniformly staggering in their presentation and the action scenes are all tremendous fun, though that fantastic John Powell score helps a lot. It’s just a shame that so much of it is built on paper-thin characters and nonexistent logic in the service of an overly simplistic plot.

Basically, the film is a lot of fun and its heart is in the right place, but its brain was left somewhere on the cutting room floor. The movie’s strengths are very compelling, and I’ll be interested to see if they’re built upon in the sequel. Based on how Kung Fu Panda 2 turned out, I have reason to hope.

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