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Film Review: How To Train Your Dragon

How To Train Your Dragon (2010; Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders)

If you have the patience to plow through the thick rubble of recycled jokes, narrative cliches, stock characters, and conventional emotional themes that is strewn across the screen, How To Train You Dragon rewards with the occasional sequences of wonder and exhilaration. If the entire film displayed such cinematic deftness, I’d have no complaints. But, as is often the case with Dreamworks’ animated extravaganzas, the film wants for nothing more than consistency.

Toothless phone home?

Still, the good is quite notably good for a film of this sort. The cartoon design of the cartoon Vikings is loving in its stereotyped silliness, and there’s a quirky individuality to the different looks of the various dragons that is amusing and endearing (the rotund Gronkles are particularly goofy, tumbling through the air like reptilian bumblebees). Awkward Viking outsider Hiccup’s gradually warming acquaintance to the awkward dragon outsider Toothless is told with sweet, wordless charm in a very nice silent-comedy sequence, and their first flight together is far more badass than one ought to expect from a fuzzy kids movie.  Indeed, every airborne scene crackles with a visual verve that the earthbound scenes distinctly lack. Co-writers/directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, with a noticeable consulting assist from master cinematographer Roger Deakins, tune to a different, more exciting frequency in these moments, as John Powell’s score revs up to epic overdrive. Everyone seems well aware that these will be the memorable showpieces of the film, and up their game in response.

Glorious as these scenes are, they are surrounded by the detritus of kiddie-epics past. This is most clearly exemplified in the design of Toothless, who bears a considerable resemblance to Stitch, the cute, toothy alien from the Hawaii-set Lilo & Stitch, which Sanders and DeBlois directed for Disney. It’s only a minor, nagging point which less savvy viewers might not even register (though I’ll bet that more than a few kids caught it well before their parents did), but it suggests a certain laziness from a design perspective.

Bad Boys 3: Ragnarok, Bitches

Much more laziness abounds in the themes and character beats, which are ripped almost wholesale from the Guidebook to Plucky Heroic Children’s Movie Plots. Hiccup’s whole story arc is exceedingly familiar: a quirky, brainy inventing nerd who’s an outsider in the man’s man culture of his island small town wins the day, the girl, and his doubting father’s respect with his ingenuity and original thinking, reinforcing the importance of individuality and difference for all those potential middle-school pariahs in the audience. The formula is almost exactly that of last year’s far superior Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, itself not exactly a narrative innovator in the genre (while possessing a much sharper comic sensibility). Dragon pushes the ideological gap between generations a little more (which was done better by Brad Bird’s masterful Ratatouille), and does at least mark Hiccup with a permanent indicator of the deadly peril he faces, a mark that further aligns him with his similarly “different” dragon friend.

But the filmmakers can’t resist throwing in other kid-flick mainstays like an irritating gaggle of wacky sidekicks (arguing twins, a chubby nerd spouting RPG terms, a vain lunkhead, a feisty blond babe) and a climactic hero-falls-to-his-death fake-out (another beat that was also featured in Cloudy). It also gives its adult Vikings Scottish accents (Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson employ their native brogues in voicing the two most prominent ones) while the adolescent Vikings speak in suburban American slang. This discrepancy never gets explained and never quite jives, nor does the description of Hiccup’s home island of Berk as a hard and barren place when there are lush arboreal landscapes a few minutes’ walk from the hardscrabble settlement. All of these elements eat away at the warm glow left by all of those fine airborne set pieces, but aren’t quite enough to dissipate it entirely. When How To Train Your Dragon soars, it surely soars, but far too much of its running time is spent loitering repetitiously on the ground.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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