Remember Dino-Riders? They were awesome. it was about a bunch of dudes that traveled back in time and put big ass guns on a load of dinosaurs and, if I remember correctly, they put mind control things on their heads to enable them to control them. Dinosaurs with giant lasers is an awesome idea but that mind control thing is the wusses way to ride a giant lizard. Real warriors train their lizards by earning their trust. And then people don’t understand and things look bleak and eventually the day is saved thanks to that warrior and his dragon. Sorry, just spoiled the whole of How To Train Your Dragon there.
Don’t worry, I haven’t spoiled the film for you. You know full well that that is the story arc. That the film will be about a bumbling kid who isn’t as big and strong as the rest of his people but will eventually win them over with his inventiveness. It’s formulaic stuff. But it is also very good. There seems to be a bit of hatred thrown at films that follow formulas. Personally I think it’s unjustified. There are only so many ways to tell and effective heroes journey tale and some of the best adventure films of all time follow those formulas. Star Wars does it, Aladdin does it, even Tank Girl does it…. just not as well. How To Train Your Dragon is as formulaic as they come but it is so well written and paced that I would challenge anyone to dislike it.
How To Train Your Dragon is the story of Hiccup, a young Viking who lives in an island village that is constantly under attack from an army of dragons. They steal their animals and burn their town every few months and it’s become a tiresome, yet oddly enjoyable, ordeal for the villagers. Hiccup is too small and weak to take part in battles but all he wants to do is prove his worth to his community but most of all to his father. He’s a smart, inventive, young lad who along with making the towns armaments is a bit of a creator of contraptions. He uses one of these to bring down the most feared of all dragons, the Night Fury. No-one believes him though and he heads out to the woods to find and kill the Night Fury dragon to show what he can do. When he finds the dragon though he can’t bring himself to kill the injured beast. He cuts the dragon free it runs way. Gradually Hiccup find and befriends the dragon, naming it Toothless, and learns how to ride it with the help of a prosthetic tail wing he made to replace the one Toothless lost. At the same time Hiccup is being trained to fight and kill dragons and is using what he has learned from Toothless to get through his training.
The film tells it’s story very well, albeit with the exact arc you’d expect it to. What makes this film stand out is that the characters are given genuine depth and nuance which is what is needed to make a world and it’s inhabitants believable on screen. A lot of film makers these days confuse archetypes for characters. This is not one of those films. You believe the relationship between Hiccup and his father Stoic The Vast (Voiced by Gerrard Butler). They have a strained relationship that I think any child may be able to identify with. Stoic doesn’t understand why Hiccup won’t stay put and can’t accept that he’s not strong enough to fight dragons. Obviously it is that very denial of his potential that makes Hiccup want to prove himself. It’s a well put together relationship that is coupled with a good vocal performance from Butler.
Jay Baruchel’s performance though leaves a lot to be desired. He provides the voice of Hiccup but does so in a manner that sounds like he really can’t be arsed to be involved. Especially with the narration. It’s not like he’s terrible, he manages to hit all the right notes when needed. He just sounds as though he wanted to rush through the script and figured that because it’s animated he could get away with it. He’s a weak link in the performance chain as a result. Also his voice sounds too old for the character we are seeing on screen. Hiccup is around 14-16 but his voice is that of an adult’s. It sounds out of place to me at least. Jay should have put more effort into his performance because he is just not good enough to wing it like a pro.
Visually the film is very good. There’s been a lot of attention paid to detail especially on fur and hair. It’s like they rendered the hair and then found some magical program that makes it look like a mess. Just think about how you see hair in computer animated films and how glossy and false it always looks. Here Stoics beard is unkempt and knotted and no-ones hair looks like it’s made of plastic. The flight scenes are handles with real skill and never fail to be visually interesting. The design on a whole is excellent too. the dragons look mean when they need to be but with the slightest shift in their expression they look fun and friendly when it gets to the point in the film where they need to be.
The musical score needs a special mention. It’s sweeping action packed and subtle at every moment it needs to be and, most thankfully for my sanity, does not include any pop songs shoehorned in to sell a few cds. Any animated film that avoids that trap of terribleness deserves praise. Did I ever mention how much that 1 Owl City song annoyed me in Legend Of The Guardians? Yes I did. There is a song on the end credits but it is from an artist that couldn’t be more suited for the film in the form of Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi. Well maybe amon Amarth would have been more suited to a Viking themed movie but I don’t think that would go down so well with the parents. The films score was nominated for an Oscar but lost out to The Social Network, which is also a tremendous score.
Overall there is little to take issue with in this film. I’ve mentions Jar Baruchel’s laxidasical performance already. There’s the odd pop culture reference, such as the Dungeons & Dragons style stats on the dragons themselves, but they never really intrude on the film. This isn’t like Shrek where every 2 minutes there’s the reference to a film or a tv show to get in the way of an actual story. This is easily the best of the Dreamworks films that I have seen so far and it fully deserved it Best Animated Feature nomination last year.