(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)
So how did Dean and Chris manage to whip the dragon movie into shape? Where did they start? Well, it seems that initially, the film was loosely based on the original children’s book of the same title, written by British Author Cressida Cowell in 2003. In the original story, the Vikings lived in harmony with the dragons, and the small children of the village collected dragon eggs, and raised the baby dragons to do trick. The rite of passage for the adolescent children was to catch a dragon. In the version created by Chris and Dean, the village is at constant war with the dragons. There is great conflict right from the get-go, and the rite of passage is not simply to catch a dragon, but to kill one. So the new directors upped the ante considerably, and doing so increased the excitement and adventure levels tenfold. From a smaller, friendlier film that seemed more appropriate for a pre-school aged audience, the film became an action-adventure epic for the whole family.
The film is by and large a film about a boy’s relationship with his father, and the desperate need for a boy to be recognized and validated as a useful human being by his father, as he comes of age and crosses in to manhood. Hiccup desperately wants to live up to his father’s expectations. His father ‘Stoick the Vast’ (played by Gerard Butler ) is the Viking tribe’s chief, and a pretty hard guy to live up to. But a big part of the conflict that needs to be solved, is one of fear, and not necessarily the young boy’s fear, but his father’s, and the Vikings as a nation, as it were. It seems that as far back as they can remember, the Vikings have been at odds with the dragons, and believe them to be evil creatures, that will “Always go for the kill” if they get a chance. There is a struggle to evolve going on here, and Butler’s Stoic character is a perfect example of a big strong man not having the strength to look his own fear in the eye. In the end, it is the tiny, thin, bookish geek Hiccup who is the bravest Viking of them all, and the one to take them to the next level of consciousness. Hiccup’s drawing and inventing abilities are almost Leonardo DaVinci-esque, and his clever problem solving is far beyond the mental abilities of the average macho Viking doorknob.
On a side note here, I’d like to mention that I did have a couple of ‘What the…?” moments, when I first heard the adult Viking’s decidedly Irish accents. And Hiccup, Astrid and the other kids in the film all have thoroughly American accents. So what gives? Are they born Americans, and then turn into Celtic warriors when they get big? It just seemed strange to me, and enormous, thick characters with big bellies and bulbous noses talking with Irish accents added to the Shrekiness of it all as well. Oh well. I still loved it!
The story has a very natural unfolding feeling to it. Early on we see that Hiccup has very well developed mechanical skills, and he has built a catapult contraption to try and snare the elusive ‘Night Fury’ dragon, that attacks so swiftly that he is nothing but a blur as he flies by like a jet fighter. We learn that for a Viking boy, killing your first dragon is a rite of passage, and also a one-way ticket to popularity, and a great way to get a girlfriend. As a small, weak Viking boy, Hiccup has to use his brains. Soon he is actually successful in snaring the black dragon, and when he finds him wrapped up in his snare, he takes out his life to take the life of the dragon. But as he raises his knife for the kill, he looks into Toothless’ eye, and can see that the dragon is scared, just like him. And even though he knows that taking this dragon’s life would probably instantly make him the most popular Viking boy in his town, he just can’t do it. This is the proverbial mouse taking a thorn from the lion’s paw, and from that moment on we know that he has made an impression on the ‘Night Fury’, supposedly the most dangerous of all dragons. When he cuts Toothless free from the snare, the dragon stands over Hiccup aggressively, and the boy senses he is dead for sure. After all, a dragon “Always goes for the kill!” But Hiccup learns that that is not so, and so his unique adventure with Toothless the Night Fury begins.
From then on, we watch as Hiccup returns to the dragon’s lair day after day, and slowly wins his confidence and friendship, eventually helping him with a severe tail wound, and training him to fly with him on board a beautiful custom made saddle. For me, the interaction between Hiccup and Toothless are the most priceless moments in the film. It is beautifully animated and directed, and believable.
As the story progresses, we see that Hiccups father, Stoic, is obsessed with wiping out the dragon’s main nest, forever destroying them all. and we also see Hiccup and a small group of kids his age going through their dragon slaying training sessions. The girl of his dreams, Astrid, is competitive and unsympathetic to Hiccup. As Hiccup learns how to control Toothless in his daily secret trips to hang out with his new dragon friend, he uses his newfound techniques to control the dragon’s he is learning to fight in a auditorium like ring.
Astrid is angry and suspicious as Hiccup steals the show more and more often, and finally Hiccup is chosen as the most successful student of the dragon slaying competition, which wins him a chance to slay a dreaded Nightmare dragon in front of the whole village.
From this point on, the film gets wonderfully complex and action packed. The awkward relationship between Hiccup and his Father, tries to right itself. The Father fells that now that his son has shown such prowess, they have something in common. What he doesn’t understand though, is that Hiccup has learned that dragon’s are not actually evil killing machines, but sensitive, wonderful creatures, and the last thing that Hiccup wants to do is slay a dragon.
Chris Sanders  and Dean DeBlois have done an absolutely wonderful job of keeping the story moving, growing, developing, and taking interesting twists and turns all the way through the film. I didn’t feel one single flat spot, overly long moment, or frustratingly illogical turn of events. When Astrid discovers his alliance with the Night Fury, Toothless, it unfolds naturally, and feels really good. When Hiccups public slaying of the Nightmare dragon goes awry and Toothless comes to his rescue, the adrenaline really gets going, and that climax of that scene draws us into a sticky mess. With Toothless now held captive by Hiccup’s father, and the secret Hiccup and Astrid discovered about the dragon’s out in the open (except for the all important reason that the dragon’s steal human’s food) the stage is set for a gripping climax, and a bittersweet resolution, with unexpected twists here and there that keep it all from being forced or overly clichéd.
I’ll hold myself back here, from giving away everything that happens in the climax and end of the film. My job here was supposedly to examine how Chris and Dean went about turning a film that wasn’t working, into a sweet little masterpiece, not tell the whole story. I am just still so captivated with the story and the feelings it evoked, that it feels good to mentally run through it…..and in doing so, I think I have learned more about what made the film great. It made me feel something. That’s it folks. Just like ‘Lilo & Stitch’ had an uncanny ability to make its audience feel, Chris and Dean have found their magic again in this film, drawing us into a story about family, coming of age, facing our fears and learning to accept our differences. It engages us, because even though we are in a fantastic fantasy setting in a mystical place, we can believe and resonate, for the most part, with the main characters in the film.
If I had to find something wrong with the film, I’d have to say that Astrid wasn’t the most compelling character. Initially, she is snotty and uppity, but I felt like we were being set up to like her later in the film. And I did, sort of. She became just endearing enough to not spoil the film for me, but she could have been a heckuva lot better. The other boys and girl that were part of the kid’s posse that took the dragon slaying training together, and later rode into action on dragons to save the day, were also just fun enough characters, and never dragged the film down.
So, this here is what I’d call a two thumbs way the hell up. I never expect to be this taken with a film, and it’s always a real joy when I am. Maybe going in I was a little bit biased, because of the fact that Chris and Dean directed this marvelous show. Whenever people ask me, “What’s the greatest animation project you ever worked on?” I always say Lilo & Stitch, and when they ask why, well, it is because Chris and Dean were the most wonderful guys I ever worked for in my entire career. While striving for excellence, they always find time to be patient and kind, and they understand the magic of allowing people to do their jobs, and empowering people to do the best work they can do, rather than trying to control and micro-direct everybody around them. And on top of it, both of them are absolutely incredible illustrators who can always show you what they want with a few deft strokes of a pencil, a skill sorely lacking in many directors. I wrote a whole column about the importance of these skills when managing an animation team, and These guys were a perfect example of how it works.
So besides all the incredible craft that they bring to the job every day, these guys exude energy to the teams that work for them, and as a result, bring out the very best in everyone. I’d be amiss not to mention a couple of people in particular who Dean singled out as a major force behind this film, Kathy Altieri  the Production Designer on the film, and Art Director Pierre-Olivier Vincent , both of whom Dean gushed about as having a truly brilliant, focused and consistent vision of how the film should look and be designed and lit.
Since ‘Kungfu Panda’, DreamWorks seems to have turned a corner, and can now be considered an animation studio that can give Pixar a run for their money. With beautifully written sensitive stories, gorgeous, tasteful art direction, and compelling animation, they are raising their own bar, and it is really good to see. Up until ‘Kungfu Panda, I was never a fan of the DreamWorks product, but I’m a believer now! And now I really can’t wait to see Chris Sanders’ next project that’s been in the ‘Dream’ works for some time now, ‘ The Croods  ‘ which will apparently be chock full of original Sanders designs. I can’t wait!