How to Train Your Dragon is a story about defying expectations and learning to accept a world in which everything you know turns out to be wrong. Like, for instance, a world in which Vikings and dragons can peacefully coexist. Or a world in which a 3D animated DreamWorks movie is something you’d make a point of seeing in the theaters, even if you don’t have children.
I was surprised to see several ex-coworkers raving about how great the movie was, and even more surprised to see the movie getting such a good reception on Rotten Tomatoes. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so skeptical: it was co-directed and co-written by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, and Lilo & Stitch remains my favorite Disney (non-Pixar) movie. There’s obviously a little bit of Stitch in the design of the titular dragon, and a good bit of Lilo & Stitch in the rest of the movie. It’s definitely a bigger-budget, bigger-scope action-oriented movie, but the heart of it is similar. Start with a personal story, and keep it close and familiar until it builds into something epic.
Plus they pretty much nail the tone. It’s all light enough to feel relevant instead of stuffy or self-important, but not so enamored of its own in-jokes and pop-culture references that it becomes Shrek-ified and dated seconds after you walk out of the theater. They move from the boy-and-his-pet moments to learning-to-become-a-man moments to father-son bonding moments to the obligatory “A Whole New World” flying sequence and on to the epic conclusion, and each moment works without seeming forced or unnatural. Just looking over the list I just wrote, I shudder to think how this script could’ve turned out if they hadn’t gotten the tone exactly right.
The character design is terrific as well. In stills, they look pleasant enough, but kind of generically cartoony — still a lot better than most of the early DreamWorks character design, which looked as if they’d made it different just for the sake of differentiating itself from Disney and Pixar. When you see them in motion, though, the cartoon just fades away and they seem completely natural. The best work is on the main character Hiccup, who’s perfectly expressive. I know what the voice actor looks like and instantly picture him when I hear his voice, but he completely disappeared after a few minutes and became a completely new character.
I called the post “How to Launch Your Franchise” because I’m all cynical like that, but it’s not really fair for this one. The DreamWorks marketing machine is going to be in full force, no doubt, but you’ll be missing out if you let the marketing turn you off what is actually a good, rousing, and genuinely heartfelt movie.
And sure, yeah, I did cry a little bit at the end. Which is a compliment, but it doesn’t take that much to make me cry at a movie. The more impressive achievement: I really had to go, but waited until after the credits because I was completely wrapped up in the ending. Which I guess is my new movie rating system. I give How To Train Your Dragon “One Bladder Held, Way Held!”