By Ian McCabe
Steven Spielberg’s old buddies at DreamWorks Studios, boasting a catalogue featuring the likes of Shrek, Madagascar and Kung-Fu Panda, are back with their latest instalment of animation wonderment. However this time around the studio has opted to give their latest offering How to Train Your Dragon the fangle-dangle 3D treatment.
How to Train Your Dragon is, in essence, your typical paint-by-numbers fantasy/adventure/buddy/coming of age film (plenty of sub-genres!) The story takes place on a mythical Viking island beset by a rather fierce dragon infestation. An island built upon a legacy of the slaying of said dragons.
The film follows the whispy and incompetent (and humorously named) Hiccup, voiced by Jay Baruchel. His main ambition is simple; he wants to capture a dragon, thus making his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler) proud and gaining respect and acceptance from his village.
However, there is one problem. Stoick is actually the strong and mighty leader of the village’s burly Scottish Viking Tribe. And Hiccup, well, he’s basically the polar opposite of his father. Seeing his son as weak and hopeless, Stoick would rather have Hiccup work as a blacksmith than fight in the daily dragon raids.
Hiccup of course manages to capture a dragon (a mysterious, never before seen Night Fury dragon might I add), but in doing so discovers that he is unable to bring himself to kill it. In fact, the dragon appears to be more scared of Hiccup than he is of it! This leads Hiccup to the conclusion that dragons aren’t quite the fierce beasts that his tribe believe them to be. He soon strikes up a secret and rather charming friendship with his new companion, even naming him Toothless due to his retracting teeth – reminds me of my grandma without them but my ex-girlfriend with them. Look into that what you will!
Back in the village, Stoick has sailed off to find and destroy the main dragon nest, but not before enrolling Hiccup in dragon slaying school. And thereafter the story continues, but I’ll keep quiet now because I’ve probably already spoiled enough!
I’ll be honest; I was slightly sceptical about the film beforehand. I find most DreamWorks films oversaturated in pop culture, striving a little too hard to achieve that wink to the older members of the audience. However, How to Train Your Dragon marks a departure from such references, with the script and dialogue feeling surprisingly witty in places. One example in particular comes to mind – Stoick gives Hiccup his first Viking helmet and states “Your mother would have wanted you to have it… it’s half her breast plate.” The idea provokes a quick laugh at the absurdity of it all, but then it is revealed that Stoick is wearing the other half, thus connecting the whole family. As profound and poignant a scene as you’ll see in any recent family film.
The plot itself is more than a little predictable to say the least and you get the impression that you’ve seen it all before. How many films involving – deep breath – an outcast aiming for acceptance, or a son’s relationship with an ignorant father, or a human befriending an animal or beast (or even specifically a dragon!) and keeping it secret – exhales – have we seen? So don’t go into this film expecting to witness anything new plot wise.
Luckily, the characters and their relationships are always interesting enough to keep you on their side. For some reason every member of the tribe is given a Scottish accent … except the kids. But it works. The film must also be applauded for not going down the easy route of giving Toothless the dragon a human voice; all emotions come through his actions and distinctive roar.
Stoick is especially interesting and doesn’t completely fall into the prototypical ‘ignorant father’ category that you tend to find in films dealing with this issue. He does of course have some bouts of ignorance and stubbornness, even disregarding Hiccups feelings more often than not, showing signs of embarrassment. But it is obvious that he cares for his son and wants what is best for him, albeit on his terms.
Elsewhere, the film takes a leaf out of Hayo Miyazaki’s book by using the sky and flight as a sign of freedom. Toothless is a dragon without the ability to fly due to a broken tail and is distressed by being grounded. Hiccup repairs the tail, enabling Toothless to fly. It is when in flight that Hiccup and Toothless are at their highest – in every way. The token crush in the film also finally falls for Hiccup whilst in flight.
Certainly, the themes throughout aren’t really anything new or groundbreaking; they’re slightly on the preachy side actually. Hiccup is the only person who has taken time to truly study the dragons and learn that everything the humans know is wrong, falling into the ‘what I know is right and therefore I’m better than you’ category. The film is also very critical of humans as the typical overpowering, brawn before brains narcissists with very little respect for nature and ‘lesser’ species. You know the type, people with very little appreciation of knowledge of the universe around them, who would rather destroy something than take the time to understand it. Yeah, you’d be forgiven for saying ‘hey, isn’t that Avatar?’
The animation itself redeems the predictability of the story. The scenery is gorgeous; particularly the forest and lake where Hiccup visits Toothless; the light and water animation would make even Pixar proud. A lot of emotion is shown in the character’s facial expressions – in particular Toothless. It does a pretty decent job of showing and not telling.
The 3D aspects are as strong as any release of this nature so far and find a way of remaining eye catching without becoming a distraction. The climactic battle scene, including an explosion with dust and debris flying everywhere, personally awed me (I wanted to grab the rocks as they flew by my head). However, like most 3-D films it doesn’t quite use this medium to its full potential.
The soundtrack itself is above average and the upbeat and inspirational ‘Sticks and Stones’ by Sigur Ros’ Jonsi is a very nice touch which is bound to leave the audience with a smile on their faces as they leave the cinema.
In summary, and forgive me for being quite blunt, How to Train Your Dragon isn’t anything spectacular. Still, it will please those who like emotional films that tug at the heart. It’s actually a very good family film in the conventional sense. In the end, you get what you would expect from a DreamWorks animation, warts and all, but with less cultural references and more … err … Vikings – warts and all!
How to Train Your Dragon may not teach you anything plot wise, but it’s a great example of how to animate a story effectively and is fun while it lasts.
6.5 OUT OF 10