Imagine standing on a cliff that hangs over the ocean. And imagine that the sun is shining brightly and the ocean waves are sparkling. Imagine that the cliff you are standing on is not the only cliff; many more line the ocean horizon. This is a beautiful, quiet day, probably around two in the afternoon. Maybe you are having a picnic on the cliff. In short, you are enjoying yourself immensely.
But suddenly, a loud cry, almost a scream, breaks the silence. You hear a sharp whistling, as if a plane is hurtling downwards. You see, far off in the distance, a black speck coming down towards you. As it gets closer, you realize that it is an animal, and there’s a person sitting on its back. And just before it hits you, huge black wings flare out. You see a flash of teeth, and certain death is avoided.
You might have had this very experience had you been living in DreamWorks Animation’s Berk, the fictional land in which How to Train Your Dragon is set. This is the latest in DreamWorks animated film repertoire, following the likes of Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, and Monsters vs. Aliens. In How to Train Your Dragon, actor Jay Baruchel plays the role of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, the son of the viking lord Stoick the Vast, voiced by Gerard Butler. Stoick, like any good parent, wants his son to succeed at what vikings do best: killing dragons. But the scrawny Hiccup has other plans. Instead of killing and fighting dragons with his bare hands like his father, Hiccup prefers to build contraptions in order to capture the dragons. His aim is to capture the elusive Night Fury, a dragon that no one has ever seen, but always wreaks havoc upon the viking village. However, Hiccup’s inventions often go wrong, hurting rather than helping. But by the time we see the story, Hiccup has perfected his invention, a crossbow/catapult weapon. He still causes damage, but this time, he’s sure he caught the beast. And the audience is led to think so too. As the viking warriors set out to find the nest of the dragons and destroy them once and for all, the viking children sat at home, to be taught dragon-fighting by Gobber the Belch, voiced magnificently by CBS’s Craig Ferguson.
How to Train Your Dragon has the potential to be yet another “follow your heart” film, made popular by 2000s-era Disney. A rebellious son knows more than his parent, and ends up being the better character as the father must apologize to his kid. But this movie takes a different track. Sure, Hiccup is not doing what his father wants (and there’s a penalty for that later, but that’s a SPOILER). But instead of Stoick falling to his knees in front of his son, both make amends. It’s refreshing to see good morals pushed in an animated films. For far too long, those types of films have been the threshold for rebellious kids and dumb parents who just don’t understand. However, DreamWorks is by no means the pioneer of such storytelling. Pixar holds that title.
In any review of an animated film, it’s hard to not compare the film with one of Pixar’s amazing efforts. DreamWorks has long been Pixar’s lesser rival, and in recent years, has been churning out some grand movies. Kung Fu Panda was epic. However, I believe it suffered from being released in the same year as Wall-E, a virtuoso piece of filmmaking. The more recent Monsters vs. Aliens does not even compare to the emotion-filled Up, either. It remains to be seen how How to Train Your Dragon will measure up to Toy Story 3. But in my opinion, at least, I think How to Train Your Dragon is a better movie than a couple of Pixar’s.
But this is a review of Dragon, so I best bring it back to that film. The plot, based on a series of children’s books, is well-written, as are the characters. Are they a bit stereotypical? Of course they are. Two of them are twins, named Tuffnut and Ruffnut, and, you guessed it, they fight a lot. One is named Snotlout, a chunky fellow who is brave but stupid. Yeah, they’re stereotyped, but it’s OK, because this is a comical animated movie about training dragons. They should be stereotyped. They represent all sorts of people, just trying to live.
One more observation before I finish this review. This is an epic movie. This is Lord of the Rings epic. Many scenes look like they were filmed in New Zealand, where Lord of the Rings was filmed. This has become DreamWorks’ specialty, taking fairly mediocre stories and turning them into epics.
Instead of crashing badly into the ocean waves, the dragon pulls up at the last moment, which is not too unlike this movie. I was afraid the movie would fall into cliche territory. But instead, it throws a number of curveballs, becoming quite a good movie.