How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBloid. Featuring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill, America Ferrera, Craig Ferguson.
A new U.S. Godzilla film is on the way! One that will do it right! Rejoice!
Sorry, had to get that out of my system. Now, where was I . . . something else about giant monsters. . . .
I avoid most CGI animated films that don’t have the name “Pixar” in front of them; last year’s Monsters vs Aliens was just another reminder that nobody else seems to even try to reach Pixar’s level of story quality and characterization. “Those Who Are Not Pixar” are quite content just to wink at the adults with pop-culture jokes and coast on celebrity voices. However, when I saw the trailers for How to Train Your Dragon, I was intrigued. The movie appeared to be mostly ironic fantasy—not a genre that does much for me, aside from an occasional Terry Pratchett novel—but it also seemed to have some genuine heroic sword-and-sorcery going on in it. Vikings and dragons . . . I thought there were some juicy possibilities.
Okay, so I was wrong.
I am going to be a dissenter among critics, who have mostly embraced How to Train Your Dragon. (A 97% positive rating at RottenTomatoes? Seriously?) The critical accolades are probably because other DreamWorks Animation films have so consistently lowered the bar for quality that topping them is as hard as putting on a pair of sandals. There’s no question that How to Train Your Dragon is above the crop of non-Pixar CGI movies; it isn’t packed wall-to-wall with the nudge-nudge humor, and it has spectacular fantasy views of flying and fighting dragons. But it still has too much annoyingly cute fantasy clichés, such as the most generic Vikings you may ever see outside of a Monty Python sketch: big horned helmets, silly names, and for some reason Scottish accents. The hero of the film, Hiccup (told you about the silly names), is portrayed as a whiny little twerp who’s hard to get behind and support for even a moment. The outsider archetype goes too far here; Jay Baruchel’s weak voice performance creates a character whom I wished would simply shut up. As a total movie experience, How to Train Your Dragon is forgettable pap.
But the title creatures do work. I’ve loved dragons since I was a child, so a chance to see a fleet of them realized in a variety of species is a treat. A few look like they were modeled on spiny blowfish, but the featured dragons are beautiful sights and animated with majesty. Foremost among them is “Toothless,” the Night Fury dragon whom Hiccup befriends after he knocks off the dragon’s caudal fin and limits the creature’s ability to fly. Toothless is a gorgeously designed beast, combining ferocity, cutneness, and elegance in a great package. When Toothless is in flight, the film really flies along with him. He deserves a much better master than Hiccup. The “queen” dragon in the finale is also an awe-inspiring monstrosity that would fit well in a Japanese monster movie because of its tremendous girth.
The movie is based on a book (and subsequent series) by Cressida Cowell. I haven’t read any of the novels, but my research shows that the film version makes major departures in its plot and characters, such as introducing a female romantic interest named Astrid. (Hey, a genuine Old Norse name!) The Vikings of the town of Berk have to constantly fend off dragon attacks, as well as avoid ramming each other with their ridiculous horned helmets. Hiccup, son of chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), wants be a great dragon killer as well, but just when he starts to change his mind about the creatures thanks to his meeting with Toothless, his dad at last gives in and lets his son take part in the dragon-fighting training with the other hopeful youths. This means a series of gladiatorial scenes with some unusual dragons and far too usual juvenile humor among “funny” kid Vikings—which is exactly what you might expect from using the voice talents of Superbad actors Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. No criticism of their work—it’s is what they were hired to do—but it’s so ordinary a choice. Some of the challenges and obstacle courses in the training are clever, as are Hiccup’s ways of defeating the dragons using information gleaned from his secret work with Toothless. Again, it’s too bad I that really wanted to kick Hiccup in the groin most of the time, since this made it tough for me to appreciate his hard work becoming a dragon fighter. For once I’m on the side of the overbearing father figure.
Sigh . . . look, dear readers, let me be honest with you. I can’t stand the stereotypical comedic Vikings. I can only take them for the length of a parody skit, and even that taxes my patience. How to Train Your Dragon can’t escape on the excuse that it’s parody, since much of the movie wants you to take its adventure and setting seriously, and this makes the Scottish-accented big bearded guys with horned helmets and oversized axes and hammers that much more annoying. If you’re fine with the wacky Vikings, please discount my opinion here; but they really killed a large part of the film for me.
All this left me wishing that DreamWorks had instead done a serious CGI adaptation of one of Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” novels instead of entering the more commercially safe zone of kid-friendly material. How to Train Your Dragon made it to the #1 spot this weekend, and although not as large an opening as Monsters vs Aliens this time last year, it’s still enough to make sure that DreamWorks stays with the kids. (Now that I’ve brought it up, I really want to see an animated Dragonquest movie. I love that novel.)
Perhaps I’m being unduly harsh on this film, which is still superior to other CGI animated children’s fare: stack it up against Kung Fu Panda, Monsters vs Aliens, and (shudder) Planet 51, and How to Train Your Dragon looks like Frank Frazetta. But I wanted more from a dragon-centered epic fantasy than a chuckling attitude and a few nice vistas. I wanted to love this film, and just being better than Monsters vs Aliens is not enough. I probably would have adored this movie when I was twelve years old. But I’m not twelve, I like to read Mervyn Peake and Robert E. Howard, and I get critical about my fantasy entertainment. Besides, I don’t write columns on Black Gate to provide you with watered-down opinions. How to Train Your Dragon is at best mild entertainment. Better than the rest of the pack, but that’s still not a recommendation for adult fantasy fans—unless they’ve got kids who were like me when I was twelve.
(If you do see the film, it’s worth your money to check it out in 3D. Unlike a flood of other 3D movies engulfing our screens, How to Train Your Dragon was actually designed for the process and not converted after the fact. The film makes the most of the third dimension, especially in the spectacle of the dragon flights, which are the reason to see the movie in first place.)
See you next week with a Clash of the Titans Take 2 review. I really, really hope I don’t have to get mean with that one.
Godzilla! Godzilla! Go-ji-ra!