4 April 2010

Avoiding THAT Face

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

Vikings love killing dragons in the latest from Dreamworks Animation, How to Train Your Dragon. The black sheep of the island community of Berk is Hiccup, son of chieftain Stoick the Vast, who's more interested in making things than killing. After a lucky shot during a dragon raid on the island's livestock, Hiccup ends up befriending Toothless, a rare dragon whose tale he managed to damage. As he learns more about Toothless, he comes to realise that Viking dogma about dragons is entirely wrong, and that there may be a way for both to co-exist. But as the pressure mounts on Hiccup to continue the Viking legacy in light of his new understanding, their friendship becomes difficult to maintain...
From the outset, I have to say that How to Train Your Dragon should really be the criterion for Dreamworks Animation. Under bean-counting Jeffrey Katzenberg, the studio has had more misses than successes because they just rehash animation's greatest hits and their own back-catalogue. When I say misses, I mean creatively and not just the contribution to the studio's bank balance- no one will persuade me that Madagascar 3 is being made for any other reason than to capitalise on the box office returns of the first two. Instead, Dreamworks frequently brings in anachronistic pop-culture references and less than talented voice actors who just have bankable names, dating their output considerably.

How to Train Your Dragon on the other hand is just a revelation, and it's potentially the best thing the studio has ever made. Yes, possibly better than Shrek, a film which has suffered in my reckoning for being dated and of course the multitude of sequels. This isn't a film where a bunch of talking animals pull that expression. You know the one. Yeah, THAT one. This is a film that does have sequel prospects from the follow-up books in the series this is based on, but operates entirely fine as a self-contained story. Also, the voice cast are relatively suitable for their roles as opposed to putting Jack Black in as a Viking- even though one of the young characters actually looks to have been modelled on the Dreamworks stalwart.

There are various recognisable tropes and staples, but then most films have those, and How to Train Your Dragon treats the "going native with the perceived enemy" plot with an approach that is distinct to Avatar, which was in production at the same time as this. There are a lot of coincidental similarities with that film actually, but not distractingly so. The upside of this is that it is just as visually bedazzling, with the unlikely choice of Roger Deakins as cinematographer elevating the look of the film to truly spectacular heights. The script is also strong, even if it's not as typically comedic as fans of Dreamworks may expect. What's good about this is that it's more witty than funny, and I found that much more preferable to having a horde of gags that miss the mark. And when it was funny, I really laughed out loud.

Of course, it's not perfect. I do still have a couple of complaints with the voice acting, specifically that the Scottish tones of Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson work well with the adult Vikings, but why then have all the young protagonists been Americanised in dialect? This is by no means a new thing in Western animation, but Jay Baruchel's vocal performance as Hiccup is more reminiscent of Woody Allen than of anything even approaching Norse. David Tennant became a fan favourite amongst readers for narrating the audiobooks and some of the film's promotional material- could they not have got him into the film too? In that much at least, I think Katzenberg's influence is detectable, as he also runs a couple of through those greatest hits of animation in a couple of sequences that seemed inspired by scenes in Aladdin.

For the most part, I have next to no complaints. It's not up there with the best of Pixar, but you should know that the trailers for How to Train Your Dragon really don't do justice to this exciting family adventure that's very easy to like. The character design and script are both nearly flawless, and if it's let down by some of the voice acting, it doesn't bring the whole venture down. Although the final setpiece somewhat contravenes the film's central morality, it's still a sound morality for the most part- don't be afraid of what you don't understand, and try to learn about it instead. It's more thoughtful and gripping than I could have hoped for, and it's a truly unexpected pleasure to watch it.

How to Train Your Dragon is in cinemas nationwide now, showing in 2D and 3D. I saw it in 2D, obviously, because I really believe 3D doesn't add anything. In this case, I really don't mind how you see it, so long as you do. Films like this from a studio like Dreamworks deserve to do well- let me know what you think in the comments.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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