I rose from my seat, slow, deliberate. I moved outside, my head in a fog and can hardly remember my walk from the theatre to the train station, except for seeing a billboard high above the Hollywood city streets with a young man riding atop a dragon as they burst through a circle of fire with the title scrawled above it How to Train Your Dragon.
It’s true. I have an affinity for fantasy, but a very grounded fantasy. Rules have to exist as do emotions. Simply because you carry a sword and wear a loin cloth doesn’t mean I’m automatically going to love you. In fact, I love fantasy so much, it has to work even harder to impress me. I feel that I can continue now with this review with absolute sincerity.
How to Train Your Dragon will be one of the most gratifying and intense experiences I have at a theatre this year. I worry now that if I continue the review the way I want to, I’ll build it up in your heads and you’ll go in expecting to see the gates of heaven open before you. That the experience is cathartic, is not a lie, but I want us to come at this on the same playing field.
Without giving away too much of the story, a young Viking boy, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel of She’s Out of My League), yearns to be like his dragon-killing father, Stoick (Gerard Butler, doing some great voice work here), and the rest of his dragon-killing Viking clan, only he’s the size of a toothpick and is as hapless as they come. He in fact, is trying very hard to be something he’s not, which is the central theme of the story. Don’t. And parents, there’s a lesson here for you as well, don’t force your children to be like you, love and nurture them regardless, they will surprise you. I digress… As events unfold Hiccup learns a thing or two about dragons and has to convince everyone he’s not lying. Like with all great stories, he doesn’t convince them through words.
I would love to talk about the visuals, as they made my eyes water. Though I can’t for some reason continue talking about this aspect without referencing Avatar. What Avatar did was show us what a technology can do to enhance a world, and in doing so heightened the experience of the story and the people and even plant life that inhabit it. Without the genius use of that technology it might not have been as wondrous. It helped that it was a combination of so many things from my childhood that I thought only existed on a playing field in my head. How to Train Your Dragon is all of this, plus no one can complain about plot holes, the dialogue is exceptional and the characters on all levels are easily related to and rooted for.
There are few movies in which my reaction to a film goes beyond an internal emotional response to become physical articulations of those responses. During Dragon I experienced involuntary tearing up at the beauty, not of the special effects or the 3-D alone, but at watching two creatures connect as their eyes met for the first time and an understanding was created, this occurred several more times throughout the film. I wasn’t crying, I was overwhelmed. This moment is the reason why the movie works. If honesty and authenticity had been avoided, say, for a simple laugh, the movie would have toppled. All other animators take note (except for Brad Bird and the creators of Kung-Fu Panda), you can’t make a great movie based on puns and pop-culture references alone. A story will get you there. Because of this story, I also felt my body involuntarily rise ever so slightly off the back of my seat. At what point this occurred, I don’t know, but I realized I was no longer sitting back. I found myself taking short controlled breaths for about 20 minutes to keep from, I don’t know, hyperventilating maybe. I felt my arms tremble as I followed Hiccup deeper and deeper into his story. Sitting here thinking about the film a day later, I can feel traces of these reactions tickling at my senses.
A movie like Avatar did what it needed to do, and it did it very well. It advanced technology and it made a butt load of money in the process while telling a story that was terribly familiar, and bordering on illiterate (though for me it worked). Alice in Wonderland took advantage of that technology (and did so poorly) made a nice portion of money, and it stumbled all over itself in trying to tell a familiar story but a sequel to that story to the point in which it managed to make no sense at all. How to Train Your Dragon I can safely say will be one of my favorite films this year. It used the technology to envelope us into it’s world and used the art and skill of writing to bring us into the hearts of it’s characters.
What’s at the center of this movie that makes it work so well? I’ve already spoke of the themes of parenting that permeate, but the emotional core lies within the love between a human and their pet. Remember that first pet you had as a kid? Or maybe the pet you have now. Multiply it by all the money Avatar made world wide! The fact that in the end Hiccup becomes even more inseparable from his pet (in ways that were so emotionally charged and in ways I would have never guessed) is a testament to how well the creative team understands this bond between humans and animals. It also helped that Hiccup’s dragon pet (who’s name I will not give away) resembles my cat Mario.
This is also the movie that has reawakened my desire to write about movies, and has reminded me why I want to make movies. As the credits rolled, my thought was, “I can do this. I want to do this.” It’s nice to come across these every now and then…usually about once, if I’m luck, twice a year.
Tags: 3-D, Alice in Wonderland, Animation, Avatar, Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois, Dreamworks, Film Review, Gerard Butler, Hiccup, How to Train Your Dragon, Jay Baruchel, Movie Review, Tim Burton, Toothless