I have to confess that How To Train Your Dragon surprised me. I knew almost nothing about the movie going in — I mean, I knew there were dragons, and I supposed someone was going to learn how to train one — but I didn’t know anything about the story or who made the movie or even who did the voices. But I was almost a totally clean receptacle for whatever this flick had to give me. And man, did it give me a lot: Dragon is very probably the best not-by-Pixar CGI movie yet, and it even surpasses some of Pixar’s. This was a damn good movie.
On the island of Berk, located somewhere that looks to be very, very far north, a clan of Vikings spend their nights fighting off random attacks from dragons that attack their island and steal their sheep. (All of the adult Vikings inexplicably speak with Scottish accents. The younger ones speak with American accents. Maybe it’s a puberty thing? You come of age, your testicles drop or your breasts grow, and as a consequence you develop a thick Scottish brogue?) The scariest of these hated dragons is the near-mythical Night Fury, a dragon so fast, so vicious that none of the Vikings have ever actually seen one.
Until our hero, Pancho or Hippo or Pustule or something (I never could remember his name, even while watching the movie) shoots one out of the sky with a slingshot-like contraption of his own invention.
You see, while all of the adult Vikings have muscles on top of their muscles and fearlessly fight off the constant dragon attacks with enthusiastic machismo, young Pinochle (Jay Baruchel) has brains on top of his brains. He’s scrawny and smart as hell, but inherited the fearlessness of his Viking forbears and wants desperately to earn the approval of his father, clan leader Stoick (Gerard Butler). So Peanut takes out this dragon using his big brain, goes to find it and discovers he hasn’t killed it but only injured it — and that’s where his journey to self-knowledge begins.
How To Train Your Dragon (2010)
(out of a possible five)
How To Train You Dragon features some fantastic characterization, especially with the catlike dragon Toothless — but that shouldn’t come as a surprise given that the movie was directed and co-written by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, the guys behind Lilo and Stitch, a movie that featured one of my favorite characterization sequences in any movie, animated or not. Somehow I didn’t realize they were the ones who made this movie, or I’d have been much more enthusiastic about going to see it. (I thought I was just doing something nice for the kids.) Toothless even has some Stitch-like characteristics, though none of that character’s mania.
Sanders here comes up with some solid character design — we know just from looking at Pencil or Peggle or Giggle or whatever the kid’s name is exactly where he stands in his society. (The quivery voice Baruchel gave him annoyed me a fair amount, but it actually fit the character’s fourteen-or-so-year-old-ness, so overall I guess I won’t complain too much.) Sanders also plays a neat trick with the designs of several other characters, a gag understated enough that I didn’t catch onto it at all until he revealed what he had done — there was a level of subtlety at play that’s unusual for a kids’ movie.
Also unusual for the genre was the ending, which was absolutely fantastic and surprisingly thrilling in a true “holy crap, I’m really not sure what’s gonna happen here” way. I assumed that a kids’ movie wouldn’t kill off its main character, but Dragon did a superb job of keeping up a sense of suspense and keeping me on edge. Some of the visuals during the climactic battle at the end — a raging fight between dragons that we see only as far-off flashes of light inside clouds — stayed with me for some time after I left the theater.
One of my favorite things about this story was the way it subtly encouraged thinking and questioning as, you know, a Good Thing To Do. Most of the Vikings assume the dragons are evil and launch their attacks because they don’t understand the dragons — they’ve never asked the question why. Human nature, as has been detailed in countless movies, novels, and Arizona laws, is to hate and fear that which we don’t understand. Once Pinhead has the opportunity to see an actual dragon for himself, though, he starts to question — the dragons, his culture and even himself, what he believes and what he’s capable of.
That’s a pretty subversive idea for a kids’ movie to teach, if you think about it. This isn’t a Harry Potter-esque “oh hey, here’s a new world totally unlike the one you know.” And it’s more than just “be accepting of those different from you because you’re more alike than you are different,” which is a fairly standard trope in movies aimed at kids. Dragon really does say “your entire society may well be wrong about one or more of the fundamental assumptions on which it’s built, so you need to think for yourself.” I can’t right off hand think of another kids’ movie that preaches the same idea. It’s certainly an idea I want my own kids to learn, and while I’m happy to teach it to them, I’m more than happy to let this masterpiece reinforce the idea.
(Hiccup, that’s his name. Hiccup.)