Wednesday, June 8, 2011

How To Train Your Dragon (2010)

Must Love Dragons

- We are living in a golden age of animated films. The past ten years has given us some of the best animated films ever created: Monster's Inc., Shrek, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, 9, Up, and more - never has the animation genre been so aesthetically beautiful, emotionally powerful, and all-around exciting! 2010's How To Train Your Dragon can surely be added to the list of fantastic animated films of the past 10 years: a terrific film about family, friendship, individuality, and the importance of understanding before action.

It all begins with a young Viking blacksmith's apprentice named Hiccup. In a land where the aspiration of all Vikings is to be a big bad dragon slayer, Hiccup finds that he does not quite fit in. A strong personal drive and a talent for forgery exists but Hiccup's scrawny physique and tendency for clumsiness and disaster makes dragon slaying very difficult - a problem furthered by the fact that Hiccup's father is the village leader and legendary dragon slayer Stoick. But Hiccup's desire to be a great dragon slayer is put to the test when he meets, befriends, and trains a rare and dangerous breed of dragon outside of town. This dragon (ironically dubbed "Toothless") gives Hiccup a new outlook on life as he learns the truth about dragons while everyone else in the village lives to kill them.

A story with some seemingly been-there-done-that elements is in fact told with care, uniqueness, humor, and heart as our main character Hiccup searches for a place in his world and acceptance from his father and entire Viking village. While a few supporting characters are of the more clich├ęd variety, the characters are one of the film's greatest strengths. The likability level of each character is increased by much of the voice talent behind them: although some stars are throw-aways (Gerard Butler, America Ferrera), as just about any actor could play the role as well as another, other actors - especially Jay Baruchel and Craig Ferguson - are crucial in the forming of their characters. Baruchel is particularly important for the character of Hiccup, providing the awkwardness and dry sense of humor that makes the character so likable, and Ferguson's quirky delivery alone makes the character of blacksmith/dragon slaying instructor Gobber so hilarious. Then there are the dragons: the many odd, lively, and unpredictable creatures that help make the film so enjoyable. Hiccup's dragon friend Toothless is a particularly strong character - undoubtedly the strongest in the film - the kind of endearing character that does say a word but communicates the most in the film.

How To Train Your Dragon is the embodiment of fantasy entertainment, creating a fun and lovely world of dragons and Vikings (to the point where one stops questioning why all of the adult Vikings have Scottish accents and all of the young Vikings have American accents). After doing such a great job helping the Pixar team create an amazing look for the 2008 animated film WALL-E, the best cinematographer of our day, Roger Deakins, reassumes the title of "visual consultant" for this 2010 animated film - and it shows. The animation is exciting and first-rate with action and beauty in every shot, making many modern animated films look like flip book animation. John Powell's fantastic score adds another dimension to the already epic film landscape by amplifying the sensations of every scene.

But where How To Train Your Dragon is pure movie fun and substantial in its quality animation and characterization, the film also packs an emotional punch. The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless has its funny and exciting moments but many simple sequences achieve very moving results. Particular poignancy exists in the relationship with Hiccup and his father, as the audience is reminded of the importance of not only accepting who they are and where their talents lie but accepting who other people are as well, and especially in Hiccup's relationship with Toothless and subsequent journey of learning the truth about dragons amidst a culture who strives to destroy them. As fun and exciting as some animated films can be, the films with such great themes as How To Train Your Dragon are the films that standout within the genre.

Produced by the teams at DreamWorks Animation - the same studio that brought the Shrek films, the Madagascar films, Over The Hedge, Bee Movie, and Kung-Fu Panda to the screen - How To Train Your Dragon is easily their best film yet. As good as they are, no other film that has come out of DreamWorks Animation can compare with the character, visuals, and emotion of How To Train Your Dragon. With so much heart and visual grandeur, How To Train Your Dragon is as meaningful for the individual viewer as it is an overall fun event for the whole family.

CBC Rating: 9/10

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