I’m reviewing this DreamWorks movie in the middle of my Pixar segment because my How to Train Your Dragon 2 non-spoiler review will most definitely spoil my opinions on its predecessor. You can hear my thoughts on How to Train Your Dragon 2 on Friday, June 13th.
The expectations were high. 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. #157 on IMDb. I don’t even like DreamWorks. In fact, I almost hate them. I long avoided watching the movie that I thought was bound to be tossed in my bucket of highly overrated movies.
The expectations were high. How to Train Your Dragon soars higher.
I’m not usually a fan of dialogue-driven introductions. You know, when you’re inside the main protagonist’s head, listening to all the things he/she has to say in order to set up the story? Yeah, not very creative. But in How to Train Your Dragon, it works for two reasons. One, it is actually how the film ends, providing a sense of completion. Two, it perfectly sets up the mystic of one of the most feared dragons, Night Fury.
It is in this introduction that all of the major underlying subplots are hinted at. A father and son conflict. A romance. An outcast story. What wasn’t quite revealed yet was the core of the story. A friendship.
Our main protagonist, Hiccup, miraculously manages to capture a Night Fury during another chaotic encounter with the town pests: dragons. But since Hiccup is the joke of the town, nobody believes him. Hiccup traces the location of the captured Night Fury and has his chance to slaughter the beast. It is here when Hiccup has a change of heart, spares his life, and lets him free. The Night Fury also spares Hiccup’s life.
What follows is Hiccup’s dragon training, which I thought was going to really bog down the story. Instead, it is not used as cheap entertainment, but rather, world building.
Through a series of training sessions, certain dragons are introduced and their weaknesses explained. Dragons can be disorientated by noise. Certain dragons can actually expend their ability to unleash fire balls at their opponents. There is this two-headed dragon, one head that spews gas which the other head can light up. This is all summarized in a thick book which has yet to obtain any meaningful knowledge on the Night Fury.
Hiccup takes it upon himself to learn more about the Night Fury. He finds him stuck in a rocky valley of a large forest. The Night Fury has his tail wing injured. What follows is the film’s most wonderful scenes. The film meticulously builds their relationship, starting with Hiccup’s attempt to feed the Night Fury. Hilariously, the Night Fury regurgitates half of it and expects Hiccup to eat it. Hiccup names the Night Fury Toothless, since it can actually retract its teeth inside his gums.
Through Hiccup’s interaction with Toothless, he learns much more about dragons in general, allowing him to excel in his dragon classes and become a local celebrity of sorts. Dragons are actually afraid of electric eels. They love playing with grass. If you rub them in a particular spot, they’ll fall asleep. Hiccup learns that dragons are not the monsters he was told they were.
To write Toothless as a menacing, mysterious dragon only to turn him into a cute dog-like creature was quite the risk, but I think they pulled it off masterfully. Sure, it’s a 180 degree change for us, but wasn’t it also a 180 degree change for Hiccup? I adore Toothless. He’s intelligent, he’s playful, he’s appreciative, he’s protective, and when it comes down to it, Toothless kicks some serious butt. I’m sorry, Stitch doesn’t come close. Ariel is my favorite traditionally animated character. Toothless is my favorite computer animated character.
And I’m sorry if this analogy is lost on some of my readers, but the world of How to Train Your Dragon has the same appeal as the world of Pokemon has to me. There are certain Pokemon that are more powerful and more rare. In order to catch these Pokemon, you need better Pokeballs. Toothless is noticeably harder to “catch” than any of the other dragons that get ridden on. Towards the end of the movie, all of Hiccup’s classmates readily catch a dragon. In fact, they learn how to fly them rather easily. Not with Toothless. Toothless has a broken tail wing, so it takes Hiccup quite a bit of time to construct the proper attachment for his new friend. Riding him proves difficult, since Hiccup must adjust the constructed wing in the right way at the right time. This makes Toothless feel like he’s one of a kind in this dragon Universe. Much like I hate sending off my starter Pokemon to the PC, I feel Hiccup’s dedication to his wide-eyed, toothless friend. It is their struggles together that make their bond one of a kind.
The character of Toothless, his relationship with Hiccup, and the movie’s ability to build its world without ever slowing the story down easily places How To Train Your Dragon into great movie territory (90% or greater). However, I haven’t gotten to the visuals or the soundtrack.
The movie flies every time Toothless flies. The flight sequences are so good that not even a single bone in my body ached for some dragon to dragon combat. Dragon to dragon combat! This could have easily been the main selling point, but DreamWorks actually displays confidence in their story this time around. This film exudes with confidence.
The soundtrack accompanying Hiccup and Toothless’ intimate interactions is absolute perfection. The perspective shots during flight scenes dazzle. The last battle at the end is not long-awaited, but rather, the dessert of a grand, 3-course meal. The stakes are as high as they can get, and yet, the relationships are down to Earth. The world-building is crucial in understanding the plot. The animation itself is right up there with Finding Nemo, Up, and WALL-E. 2010 was the best year for animation, and How to Train Your Dragon was 2010’s best animated offering. Better than Tangled. Better than Toy Story 3.
Cast aside in the shadow of Pixar, DreamWorks finally decides to compete with Pixar at their own game. Not with pop cultural jokes. Not with out-of-nowhere dance numbers. But with story. Sure, there are some botched elements, such as the cartoonish designs for the other dragons (besides Toothless and the huge dragon) and Astrid’s quick turn-around for Hiccup, but rarely does this film botch any of its story elements. I award a 95% or higher to movies I believe are masterpieces. Disney has given us 3. Pixar has given us 2. Shockingly, DreamWorks has given us 1.
The chances of DreamWorks producing a film like How to Train Your Dragon is equivalent to the chances of Hiccup capturing Toothless. There is nothing DreamWorks about it except for possibly the animation style, the strange side-characters, and Hiccup’s sense of sarcasm. So naturally, there is the question of DreamWorks’ identity. How do they keep on producing good films if this is one of the few times they have done so?
In arguably the film’s most beautiful scene (there are plenty), Hiccup is helped by Toothless as he adjusts to his amputated leg, just as Hiccup helped Toothless fly on his amputated tail wing. I wouldn’t expect such an amputation from Disney. Maybe not even Pixar, although some may rebuttal this claim with Nemo. The DreamWorks formula has always featured out-of-norm protagonists. An ugly ogre. A fat panda. A giant lady. How to Train Your Dragon continues to promote being different, except this time, DreamWorks actually likes their own characters! How to Train Your Dragon is written with care, respect, and dignity. It’s as if How to Train Your Dragon trained DreamWorks to reach their hand out for something greater than themselves.
Final Grade: A (95%)–DreamWorks fearlessly rides on mystical creatures for endless, breathtaking adventure.