How to Train Your Dragon
Director : Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders
Screenplay : Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders (based on the novel by Cressida Cowell)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2010
With the ascension of Pixar in the mid-1990s and its unparalleled run of critical and commercial smash-hits (even their least impressive films, notably Cars, are disappointments only insofar as they fail to live up to the sublime pleasures of their masterpieces like Toy Story, WALL•E, and Up), other studios were left scrambling to mimic (or at least grab a small share of) their computer-animated success, with results that were wildly uneven at best. The strongest competitor to Pixar’s throne has always been DreamWorks Animation, which has tended to lean more heavily on adult-tinged pop satire, which found its greatest incarnation in the Shrek movies (which have had increasingly diminishing results, making one almost dread this summer’s forthcoming fourth installment).
Perhaps recognizing that you can play witty and sardonic only so long before your irony starts looking genuinely bitter, DreamWorks has shifted gears with their latest, the 3-D action fable How to Train Your Dragon, and the result is not only one of their best films, but probably one of the best films that will be released this year. Written and directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, Disney veterans whose last collaboration was the two-dimensional hand-drawn Lilo & Stitch (2003), How to Train Your Dragon seamlessly merges the medium’s propensity for both action and sentiment. With each passing year the details and texture of CGI become that much more lifelike, and while we reap the benefits of individually flowing hairs and translucent leaves and water that looks improbably photorealistic, the real flowering is in the form of emotional expression, with each character taking on more and more nuanced means of displaying love and anger and fear and jealousy, even if said character is a black dragon with cat eyes and a head like a stealth jet.
Loosely based on the first book in a popular series by Cressida Cowell, the story takes place in a mythic medieval era in which a remote northern island is in a constant state of battle between the resident Vikings and marauding dragons that steal their livestock in the night. The Vikings’ entire existence seems to revolve around battling the dragons, which means that the biggest, burliest, and most violent of men (who are lovingly depicted in terms of hyper-masculine bulging bodies and masses of facial hair) are the most prized members of the village, which puts the film’s hero, an awkward teen named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), in a bind. Small and skinny and blessed with more brains than biceps, Hiccup wants desperately to join the grand ranks of dragon killers, but lacks the physical capacity to do so. Thus, he rigs up a sling-shot contraption to do the work for him, and even though no one believes it will work, he is successful in bringing down the most feared of all dragons, an infamous Night Fury, which is so fast that no one has ever actually seen one, much less killed one.
When Hiccup discovers the downed dragon in a small gulch not far from the village, he finds that he is incapable of finishing it off; however much he may want to be, he is not a killer after all. Instead, he lets the beast loose and begins to develop a tentative relationship with it, thus betraying everything his culture prizes. The dragon, which he names Toothless due to its retractable teeth, is unable to fly away because its tail has been damaged, an issue that Hiccup remedies with some fancy engineering that ultimately results in his being able to ride the dragon in dizzying scenes of vertiginous 3-D aerial acrobatics. The human/dragon scenario is reminiscent of both the delicate human/animal alliance in such films as The Black Stallion (1979) and the illicit romance of Romeo & Juliet (although here it is definitely a bromance). The situation is further complicated by the fact that Hiccup is enrolled in a training camp designed to teach Viking teens (voiced by Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, among others) how to kill all the various dragon species (of which there are many), an endeavor that he undermines by learning that dragons are really just big puppy dogs starved for attention and understanding.
The moral is writ large--violence and war are primarily products of misunderstanding, especially the kind of misunderstanding that has been cemented into unquestioned cultural practice--and it’s one that is all too appropriate to our current era (or really any era, for that matter). However, although writ large, the film’s ethical structure is not hammered onto the narrative, but rather flows effortlessly out of it, merging story and theme in ways that are both exciting and deeply touching. The scenes in which Hiccup and Toothless come to gradually understand and trust each other don’t offer anything particularly new, but they are done with such tenderness and generosity that it’s impossible not to get pulled into them. Without ever exchanging words (Toothless is left blessedly free of speech, which allows his body language to do all the talking), they come to a deeper understanding than either has with his fellow species.
DeBlois and Sanders deploy humor with an elegant touch, never allowing the story to devolve into simple-minded parody while at the same time recognizing the inherent humor of the film’s predicaments. They draw from teenage anxieties about fitting in and understanding the opposite sex (who is here embodied by America Ferrara’s Astrid, a mean girl who is destined to be the best of the best in slaying dragons until she figures out what Hiccup is up to), and also manage to work in a meaningful subplot about Hiccup’s strained relationship with his burly father (Gerard Butler), who has nothing in common with his son until he mistakenly comes to believe that Hiccup will be a great dragon killer. There is something inherently (and humorously) Christ-like in Hiccup, in that he is misunderstood as a warrior when he is actually peace broker, eschewing the sword in favor of understanding and empathy, a message we would all do well to take to heart. Dragons, as it turns out, are not always what they seem.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © DreamWorks Animation