Pesky dragons.  All they wanted was…

Well, I can’t spoil that point, can I?  Actually, I can, since you see it in the trailer.

Anyway, How to Train Your Dragon is the latest creation from Dreamworks, and coupled with Kung Fu Panda (I haven’t seen 2009’s Monsters vs Aliens, but given the lukewarm critical response to it (which, even at 72% on Rotten Tomatoes, it isn’t bad, but animated films generally tend to rate higher), I’m not missing too much), they have definitely stepped up their game.  They haven’t reached Pixar level yet in terms of overall animation and storytelling, but they’re getting there.

Then again, I imagine Dreamworks is the antithesis to Pixar: they aim for a target audience (primarily children) and they have a pop culture catalog that’s only good for six months (you see how quickly Shrek lost relevance?).  Disney is also like that, at least with their own computer animated features (though, unlike Dreamworks (and Pixar), Disney hasn’t had a solid self-produced hit yet).  Pixar, meanwhile, aim for the children, but storytelling trumps everything: see just about everything they did, from the mature romance in Wall-E to the opening fifteen minutes of Up to practically all of Ratatouille to… you got it, right?

Anyway, I digress.  Dreamworks is stepping up their game, and Dragon is clearly evident of that.  It’s not perfect (perfection obviously being Pixar), but it’s quite good, almost spectacular at times.

The animation is great, if I can begin with that (as in probably all animated movies, the first thing you have to consider (like I do now and what I did earlier this week with Secret of Kells) is the animation).  Everything moves fluidly, from the human and dragon interactions to the detailed hair animation on several of the characters (namely Hiccup and Astrid).  The dragon flying sequences are amazing, from the opening sequence in a clash between them and the Vikings to the final climactic battle (though… no, I won’t get into that, avoiding spoilers with this one).  The best one though comes around halfway through the film, when Hiccup and his dragon Toothless (a Night Fury, I think) are finally able to take to the skies.  Everything in this sequence is breathtaking: the diving through the clouds in the sky and the skimming of the ocean water, and the peril inherent at times when some things do go wrong.  A second one with Astrid doesn’t come as close, though that sequence also does advance the plot, so it has a purpose.

The dragons themselves come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and special tricks.  Though, while there are hints that there exists a broad variety of dragons, we only get to see six or seven unique types of them.  It’s enough, since anymore would overwhelm the screen.  The animators do quite a good job differentiating between the dragons, even if some of them don’t make much sense (like the small bug-like one or the two headed one, even if that does have a neat trick).

The story itself works: your typical growing up story with plenty of depth in it.  That’s probably what Dreamworks needed to do, was to add more to the story than just what was on the surface.  Hiccup is the skinny Viking who is a bumbling fool and doesn’t want to kill dragons.  He stumbles upon Toothless, injured in that opening clash, and they eventually gain a trust in each other which allows Hiccup to heal him and to successfully ride him.  Meanwhile, the big and burly Vikings, led by Hiccup’s dad Stoick, like to go off and kill dragons whenever they can.  Stoick doesn’t believe that Hiccup will amount to anything as a Viking, but allows him to train with Gobber and a batch of young Vikings in order to eventually join the village in hunting and killing dragons.  Hiccup, in all of this, as a crush on Astrid, who is more committed to being a true Viking than anything else.  She gets quite angry when Hiccup starts excelling in the dragon training: instead of killing the dragons (which is what the kids are supposed to do), he tames them with tricks he learns along the way.

There’s more, but I’ll stop there.  As you can tell, there’s a lot more than normal, and it’s greatly appreciated.  Some of the characters are sufficiently developed well enough to care about (Hiccup, Astrid, Gobber among others), though some are too flat that their overall plots don’t really work out too well (mainly Stoick: he’s almost completely one-dimensional).

The voice acting, I would say, is one area that Dreamworks can probably improve on.  Save for America Ferrera, I wasn’t completely convinced by anyone.  Jay Baruchel as Hiccup worked decently enough (he was pretty good at times), but Gerald Butler channeled too much King Leonidas, and other actors were only serviceable.  I’m wondering if it’s me: I’m so used to Pixar (hell, Disney as well, even when they do Ghibli films) getting the truly good character actors that it makes Dreamworks pale in comparison.  None of the primary actors used here are bad, mind you, but they just don’t work well for voice acting.

Oh, and the 3D worked for the most part.  I wasn’t irritated by it, and it wasn’t really gimmick-y either.  I imagine some background colors were flat, and some of the images didn’t pop out like they should, but I’m not complaining.  It worked.  Better than it did for Alice in Wonderland.

Now, I realize that I spent a lot of time comparing Dreamworks to Pixar.  It’s not my full intent, though I’m sure you can understand why: Pixar is the pinnacle in terms of computer animated movies, and Dreamworks still has a ways to go to reach that benchmark.  Or maybe they don’t.  Who knows.  If they keep pumping out Shreks like they do (which I will not see, by the way) or other films that really don’t appeal to me, then I won’t bother with them.

Continue giving me something like How to Train Your Dragon though, and you got me hooked.

B+

Note: the Vikings were amusingly Scottish and not Scandinavian.  Don’t ask me why.  Maybe the accent was too thick or not funny enough?  I don’t know.

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