Friday, December 17, 2010

Film Review: How To Train Your Dragon (2010)

The over-riding narrative of DreamWorks Animation over the last decade has seen them cast as an infinite number of monkeys banging away at an infinite number of typewriters to Pixar's Shakespeare. Whilst DreamWorks has delivered a great deal more product than Pixar in the same amount of time - often releasing between two and three films a year to Pixar's one - and has ensured that they have maintained their position amongst the upper echelons of modern animation, they have rarely if ever released films that have met with the sort of deafening acclaim that Pixar's films have (rightfully) received. They seemed to turn a corner with the fun and inventive Kung Fu Panda in 2008, but if we are to return to the analogy of monkeys and typewriters, How To Train Your Dragon may very well be their Hamlet.

The story takes place in Scotland many hundreds of years ago, a world of Vikings and dragons. Within the Viking community depicted in the film, there is only one barometer by which someone may be judged as a worthwhile member of society; their ability to fight and kill dragons. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is the son of the chief (Gerard Butler) and he, unlike his peers, is unwilling to fight dragons, at least in a conventional sense. Hiccup is an inventor, and whilst everyone else is devoted to using traditional arrows and axes to tackle their dragon problem, Hiccup develops a catapult that, upon its first trial, successfully wounds an incredibly fast and dangerous dragon. Unfortunately, no one believes Hiccup because the dragon was moving so fast and landed so far away that they didn't see anything.

In order to prove his worth, Hiccup sets out to find the dragon, only to discover that his attack grievously injured the black, incredibly cute creature - who he names Toothless - by destroying part of his tail, preventing him from flying. Stricken by guilt, Hiccup creates a prosthetic tail for Toothless, and the two form a unique bond; Hiccup nurses Toothless back to health and helps him fly again, Toothless inadvertently teaches Hiccup valuable lessons about how to defeat dragons which he then uses to become a sensation in his village.

There is a simple, unalloyed joy to How To Train Your Dragon that is too often missing from animation, particularly the kind aimed at children. After an opening which leans a little too heavily on the sort of arch and self-aware humour that has become DreamWorks irksome trademark, the film shifts its focus to tell a simple, earnest story wrapped up in stunning animation.

The sequences in which Hiccup and Toothless fly together are some of the most gorgeous and spellbinding work that DreamWorks has ever done, largely because directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBois (who previously directed the terrific Lilo and Stitch for Disney) allow these scenes to breathe, in doing so giving the audience opportunity to marvel at the beauty of flight and movement rather than cutting from one story point to the next or trying to cram in another pop culture reference. They also make good use of the celebrity voice cast, which also includes America Ferrara, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Jonah Hill, by ensuring that they give real performances rather than trading on voice recognition for laughs, instead delivering genuine emotion and pathos.

The film's story is pretty conventional, in that Hiccup has to keep Toothless a secret, which creates tension between them and ultimately leads to Hiccup being found out and shunned at exactly the time when he could be of most use to his clan, but it plays out in such a winning way - and with at least one surprisingly dark and unusual conclusion - that this doesn't really matter. There's something to be said for the fact that all of us, deep down, wanted to ride a dragon when we were children, and How To Train Your Dragon perfectly understands the allure of that fantasy and wonderfully conveys the glee of someone who actually gets to experience it.