Saturday, April 3, 2010

Review: How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon (2010, Dean Deblois and Chris Sanders)

Dreamworks’ ventures into the realm of feature length animated films have produced mixed results. While the Shreks, Madagascars, Antz and Kung Fu Panda are earned the benefit of box office success, my feelings towards each vary greatly. The trailer for How to Train Your Dragon caught my attention for the setting of the story and its lead actor, Jay Baruchel (who grew up not far from where I live), of whom I’ve been a fan of for many years.

To put it bluntly, were I a 7 year old boy, I would have been performing back flips while parading out of the theatre room after having seen How to Train Your Dragon. I’m not 7 years old, so that shot of pure joy and excitement did not result in any acrobatics on my part, the film left me very happy and with the sense that solid family entertainment and quality storytelling can be derived from relatively simple plots. In the case of How to Train Your Dragon, the story is very simple, but it holds the right degrees of emotional depth within the characters and presents some timeless but nonetheless well utilized themes that can serve as lessons for all. No child or teenager wants to be an outcast, relegated to the outskirts of their community or circle of peers. The challenge to fit in while still retaining one’s individuality and uniqueness can be a trying task, and that’s the exact situation young Hiccup (Baruchel), a teenage Viking whose awkward and nerdy demeanour leave on the outside looking in when it comes to none other than Dragon killing. His hometown of Berk is frequently attacked by armies of fierce dragons, thus continuing the vicious and endless cycle of Viking-dragon warfare. Not being much of a hunter or warrior, much work needs to be done if he wishes to earn the full respect of his father (Gerard Butler) and the beautiful and heroic Astrid (America Ferrera). During one eventful battle however, Hiccup miraculously shoots down the most feared dragon in existence. Very soon, his notion of who he is, who he should be and what it can mean to be a Viking will change when, a few days later, our hero finds the wounded beast lying in the forest.

I’d be hard pressed to say what How to Train Your Dragon does that could be considered groundbreaking or stylishly original. Part adventure, part love story, part story of friendship and acceptance, the film offers a character driven journey that is, while a tad predictable, still emotionally satisfying. Much of the film’s success rests with the filmmakers decision to remain storytellers throughout and to respect the nature of characters they have set on the stage. The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless (named the hero’s dragon is baptised with) develops with at first out of fear, but then melds into caution, followed by curiosity, discovery, respect and ultimately friendship. The relationship between the teenage Viking and the beast is, essentially, the beating heart of the movie even though there always remains the issues of the boy’s father and would be love interest. The link between this unique duo is explore at a proper pace, with the script opting to explore what can come of their flowering bond rather than jump to easy jokes or the next action sequences. In fact, there is a series of action sequences involving dragon killing training with Berk’s youth, Hiccup being one of the many students taking the classes. These are very nicely integrated into the overall story and some plot points that occur later on, but they also serve to further develop the character of Hiccup and his growing understanding of the long thought enemies to his society. All of the major and minor story elements flesh together with ease and a little dose of cleverness.

This is no small character study drama however. Once Hiccup has earned Toothless’ trust, he makes several attempts at strapping on the prefect saddle to ride the dragon into the clouds. From this point onward, their friendship begins so soar, quite literally. The moments when, at long last, Hiccup gets to be like a bird and explore the skies and geography of the land all the while riding on the relative safety of Toothless’ back are spectacular and had me forget that I’m currently XX years old. As a film lover I was returned to a purer state of mind, or at least a far more innocent one. At the risk of breaking my personal rule by which I refrain myself from utilizing hyperbole in my reviews, I felt the magic which the character of Hiccup was blessed with. The sense of wonderment and adventure that I was teased with in the earlier scenes of battles and dragon training suddenly increased tenth fold. More impressive still was how the filmmakers kept the adventurous quality of the experience rising, with bigger, more sophisticated dragon riding sequences, concluding in one of the best action scene climaxes I’ve witnessed in quite some time. There is a sense of scale to the flying scenes and to the overall world in which the story takes place that feels just right.

To help provide this sense of epic sweep to the adventure is John Powell’s brilliant score. Powell has worked on a tremendous amount of films throughout his career and I would consider him one of my favourite composers for his skill in consistently crafting something fresh and very appropriate for whatever material he is working with. His work here really does add that Norse type of flavour to many of the scenes. It’s catchy, thrilling and I more than glad to consider it some of the artist’s best work ever.

Finally, there is the voice acting, without which none of the characters really would come to life on the screen. It’s no secret that Jay Baruchel is playing an animated version of himself. Hiccup is small, skinny, nervous and sort of nerdy, much like some of the characters Baruchel has played throughout his career. While I do hope that he isn’t typecast into the same role over and over again in the years to come, I was convinced by his performance. He plays all of his character’s personality traits very well, as do many of the other voice actors. Gerard Butler (a mighty Viking), Jonah Hill (a cocky and annoying rival to Hiccup) America Ferrera (as the battle ready and beautiful Astrid), Craig Ferguson (as Hiccup’s teacher at dragon killing school) all play versions of their real life selves, which I don’t mind per say. It would have been interesting had some less obvious casting been done for the film, but as long as the actors are doing a good job, I’ll be more than willing to hop along for the ride, no pun intended.

There is more than enough entertainment value to be had here. How to Train Your Dragon is exactly the type of family adventure film I would have loved to see as a child. The setting, the fantastic flying sequences and the splendid voice acting all make for a worthwhile experience and, if I may add one last little comment, it was the first time I watched a film in 3D in which I was completely immersed. There was great depth to the picture and the sequences in which Hiccup takes to the skies were stunning to see unfold.

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