(Warning, some plot details are given away in this review)
How do you take a film that is not working, and rebuild it in record time, creating in the process a modern day classic? It’s simple! Hire super directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, and let them work their magic!
But seriously folks, this is exactly what DreamWorks did with ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ and the results speak for themselves. Chris and Dean, working under an absolutely unrealistic deadline, managed to bring a gorgeous little film to the screen that, while it still has its minor pitfalls, will live on I believe as one of the few real animated classics of our time. When I think of the plethora of lukewarm, CGI cartoons that have inundated the market over the last decade, and try to remember how many of them could be considered as possible classics, well, the list is very, very short. Most of them were forgotten before I even got out of the theatre, but this one? No way! How to Train Your Dragon stays with you. At least it sure stayed with me, and I am looking forward to owning the DVD some day so I can watch the magic unfold again.
Having just seen ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ (referred to from here on in as H.T.T.Y.D) alone in a small theatre in the boondocks of Vancouver Island, the experience is still very fresh for me, and so I’ll write feverishly in an attempt to capture some of what it was that I enjoyed so much while in the dark theatre. Perhaps this review will be more stream of consciousness than my previous analytically surgical writings……
I was surrounded by children at this screening. The theatre was about 70% full, pretty much all parents with their children. The tickets salesgirl actually gave me a funny look when I asked for one ticket to H.T.T.Y.D. Around here, men are men, (big strong loggers, construction workers and such) and very few of them, if any, would ever consider going to see an animated ‘children’s film’ without kids in tow. But hey, the world needs writers and animators too, and so in I went.
I had heard some time ago that Chris Sanders and Dean Dublois were taking over this film, and one of my biggest hopes was that Chris would get a chance to redesign the characters in his own inimitable style. Having worked very closely with Chris and Dean on Lilo & Stitch, on which I was the head of visual effects, I came to love and admire Chris’ design sense and drawing style. Chris is a modern master, there is no denying that, and I love his style very, very much.
Incredibly, although I was under the impression that Chris Sanders had designed the main ‘Toothless’ dragon character, he did not, although he did have some input into the character’s final look. Toothless is nonetheless beautifully designed, and I could hear the children AND parents immediately resonating with his character. Toothless is incredibly charming and loveable, and I really think that his design gives more to the film than can easily be measured.
The first time Toothless responds positively to Hiccup, after he disarms himself and kicks his knife into the water, one could literally feel the audience squirm with delight when Toothless sits up perkily, quickly glances from Hiccup’s face to the fish he’s holding, and flicks his ear-like appendage expectantly. The warmth of his character combined with the beautiful animation and direction, hits home immediately. Apparently, the only input Chris had into the final look of the Toothless character, was some plates and ‘Stitch-esque’ appendages on his head that gave him far more emotional expression. It worked beautifully!
Apparently, once upon a time in the earlier stages of production of H.T.T.YD., Toothless was a tiny little character about the size of a small cat, very cute and something you could easily pick up and cuddle. The decision to move the main dragon character up to a mid-sized dragon in the black ‘Night Fury’ dragon, a mythical creature that attacks with lightening speed and has never really been seen, or been captured, was a great idea. Not only was Hiccup’s befriending and training of the Night Fury version of Toothless much more tension filled because of the potential danger that seemed to lurk just beneath Toothless’ surface, but his size opened up the possibility for Hiccup to learn to ride him, and that plays a huge part in the excitement and adventure of the film. I have already read critics claiming this to be a little too ‘Avatar-esque’ for them, but I think that’s splitting hairs, and maybe looking too hard for the connections. Kyle Smith of The New York Post gave the film 2/4 stars labeling the film as "Avatar for simpletons" Some people really should get out more. When you’ve got to stoop to name calling Kyle, well, ‘nuff said. I sat through this entire movie and never once even thought about Avatar. Never entered my mind. I don’t see why it would, really….(what a simpleton!)
The other characters in the film? Well, I could see clearly that Chris and Dean did not have anything to do with designing them, and I found myself wishing that they had. There was something, how can I say… very ‘DreamWorks’ about them, and I have never been a big fan of the DreamWorks character styling. Echoes of Shrek are everywhere in this film, from the extremely Shrek-esque bulbous noses of the Viking characters, to the incredibly ugly troll-like adult female characters, to the sadly unlovable child characters. Even Hiccup is a fairly flat looking character, nothing there to really latch on to.
The dragon character designs in the film were utterly fabulous. Again, I thought I could see glimmers of Chris and Dean’s design style here and there in the dragons, but it turns out that they were all designed prior to Chris and Dean coming on to the project. I have to give the DreamWorks character design crew a big thumbs up for these compelling, funny, and entertaining dragon characters. One of my favorite dragons was the granddaddy of all dragons, an impressively massive beast that was designed by character designer Ricardo Delgado. Apparently Ricardo had a hand in a lot of the dragon designs, and is an absolutely masterful character designer.
So for me, the dragons were truly the stars of the film, and the human characters were just average as far as their design goes. From Hiccup and the girl of his affections, Astrid, to the motley collection of brutish Vikings and their hideous wives, the characters did not have much going for them at all, with the possible exception of the ‘Gobber the Belch’ character, my favorite adult character in the film, brilliantly voice acted by Craig Ferguson.
But I must say, that the film was elegantly enough directed that these character flaws were for the most part very forgivable. I know that Chris and Dean were working on a film with the vast majority of the elements already designed, and given the schedule, there was not enough time to redesign the whole damned thing. According to Dean, who I recently had a chance to talk with at length about the film, they really started working on the film well after all the characters and sets were designed, modeled and rigged, and ready to go, so they really decided to focus on getting the story to work well. (it was so great to get a chance to talk to Dean, I refused to allow our conversation to become a dry interview, so I kept my annoying questions to a minimum, and we had a good time shooting the breeze)