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"How to Train Your Dragon" on DVD Almost Soars

For better or for worse, DreamWorks Animation has built up a reputation for making a specific kind of animated movie defined by celebrity stunt-casting, more adult-oriented humor, gags awash in pop culture references, and an endless array of sequels and follow-ups. I do not think it’s a coincidence that Kung Fu Panda eschews nearly all these elements, and that I think it’s the best movie the studio has done so far. My thinking that DreamWorks should really ignore its gut instincts more often is reinforced by How to Train Your Dragon, which showed surprising legs at movie theaters earlier this year and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. Based on the popular children’s books by Cressida Cowell and co-written and co-directed by Lilo & Stitch‘s Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, How to Train Your Dragon even ditches the more overt celebrity stunt casting and turns in a solid and enjoyable movie, even if it doesn’t quite make it to the same levels of greatness as Kung Fu Panda.

The island of Berk is home to two residents: a town of burly, surly Vikings and a band of dragons. For generations, these two sides have battled each other, with the dragons raiding the Viking encampment regularly to make off with livestock and leaving behind only wreckage. When Hiccup, the scrawny, accident-prone son of the village leader Stoick, manages to down one of the fiercest, most dangerous dragon breeds of all during one of their raids, he finds he can’t bring himself to kill the creature. Instead, he gradually befriends the dragon, who he names Toothless, going so far as to build a prosthetic attachment to mend Toothless’ damaged tail that allows him to fly again. Along the way, he learns much about how dragons think and act, soon realizing that most of what Vikings believed about dragons is wrong. Hiccup’s knowledge of dragon-wrangling soon makes him the star of his dragon-fighting class to everyone’s surprise. However, Hiccup and Toothless’ bond is put to the test when they are discovered, leading to an expedition led by Stoick to exterminate the dragon’s nest. It falls on Hiccup and his friends to save both Viking and dragon alike from each other, and from the horrific surprise that threatens them all.

The good news is that the fundamentals to How to Train Your Dragon are very strong. Like Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon doesn’t really break any real new ground in its genre, but it executes the story turns in its coming-of-age tale remarkably well. Hiccup is brought to twitchy, nervous life by a wonderful vocal performance by Jay Baruchel and wonderful character animation. His nervous tentativeness is set off by the two far more assertive characters on either side of him: his father Stoick and the dragon Toothless. It is a real achievement that Stoick can serve as the main antagonist for almost the whole movie without ever becoming intensely unlikeable or unsympathetic—a credit to both careful scripting and Gerard Butler’s fine vocal performance. He gets an invaluable assist from Gobber (Craig Ferguson), with the real-world friendship between the two actors carrying over easily to their screen personae and humanizing both even though they’re both played rather broadly. It is even more of an achievement that How to Train Your Dragon can make Toothless into such a powerfully defined character without ever giving him a word of dialogue. Indeed, the most powerful scenes in the movie are usually those when Hiccup and Toothless are getting to know and trust one another, and almost all of these are conducted without any dialogue whatsoever. Many of DreamWorks’ earlier movies almost seem afraid of silence, filling up the air with mile-a-minute jokes that stink of desperation more than humor, so it’s even more remarkable that How to Train Your Dragon is willing to just stop talking and let the images (often beautifully reinforced by John Powell’s wonderful score) do all the work.

How to Train Your Dragon is also easily the best looking movie DreamWorks has put out to date, creating a powerful sense of place. The co-directors got famed cinematographer Roger Deakins to act as a sort of “light wrangler,” pushing the art of CGI to new heights strictly through specific lighting effects. Similarly, the character animation is wonderful, most visibly in the charming characterization of Toothless, who “speaks” purely through body language and occasional animalistic sound effects. This sense of place is brilliantly exploited in the movie’s many spectacular flying sequences, when Toothless and Hiccup take flight and soar through the richly detailed environment. They are strikingly beautiful scenes, even if they don’t quite achieve the same buoyant exuberance of a Hayao Miyazaki flying sequence. I did not get the chance to see the movie in 3D (which comes as an exclusive pack-in with a 3D Blu-ray/HDTV set), but I can imagine that these flight scenes would be worth the price of admission to see with the added depth.

Where How to Train Your Dragon really falls down is in its supporting cast, and while it’s not a terribly serious stumble, it’s big enough to keep it from being truly great. Once we’re past Hiccup, Stoick, and Toothless, nearly everyone else in the cast feels like an afterthought, especially the gaggle of teenagers who are going through dragon-fighting training with Hiccup. They don’t feel like people as much as they feel like actors’ doing schtick. If one looks at Kung Fu Panda or Lilo & Stitch, the supporting cast may be cartoonishly exaggerated, but none of them feel as tacked-on as the Viking teens do. This is especially pronounced in the movie’s female lead Astrid (voiced by America Ferrera), an overachieving Viking’s Viking who Hiccup has an understandable crush on. It will come as no surprise to find that Hiccup and Astrid will become romantically entangled by the end of the movie, but it doesn’t feel like an organic development as much as something that happens because That’s The Way These Stories Go. I can understand how Astrid would change her views on dragons as the enemy so quickly, but remain unconvinced that she’d change her views about Hiccup. Also, while a very late movie plot twist is both surprising and surprisingly effective, it also still feels a bit out of the blue. None of these problems are insurmountable, and I suspect that the cast and crew behind How to Train Your Dragon would have overcome them if they had just a little more time and money, so perhaps the sequels will manage to do better in this regard.

How to Train Your Dragon comes in one- and two-disc DVD editions, as well as on a single Blu-ray. The DVD is quite good, presenting the movie’s imagery with sharp clarity and with a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack that doesn’t overwhelm and makes judicious use of surround sound effects. The movie disc also has an informative commentary track where co-directors Chris Sanders and Dean Deblois are joined by producer Bonnie Arnold. It is an excellent commentary track, even if it did cement some of my issues with the movie. The track has few dead spots and, if anything, only whets one’s appetite for more information. Some of that is satisifed by the two “making of” featurettes on this disc: one focusing on the voice actors one on the “technical artistry” of the movie. There’s a little bit more if you spring for the 2-disc set, as the second disc also contains a “Story Behind the Story” featurette where Cressida Cowell discusses the origins of the book series while the filmmakers talk about bringing her world (if not her exact story) to the screen. Several deleted scenes are also included on disc 2, which are mostly alternate takes or extra bits that were best left out of the movie. One last behind-the-scenes featurette has supervising animator Gabe Hordos giving a surprisingly detailed tutorial on how to draw Toothless.

Disc 2′s real headline draw is a new short film “Legend of the BoneKnapper Dragon.” While How to Train Your Dragon is fundamentally dramatic and centers on Hiccup, “Legend of the BoneKnapper Dragon” is fundamentally comedic and centers on Gobber, who recounts a series of increasingly outrageous tall-tales about the spectral BoneKnapper dragon of the title. The short is pretty lightweight, and Toothless fans will be disappointed to know that he only appears in a glorified cameo at the start of the short. Still, it is quite entertaining, largely due to Craig Ferguson’s energetic performance and some wonderful hand-drawn sequences depicting Gobber’s fanciful yarns. If the TV series can be this witty and entertaining, it will be a welcome addition to Cartoon Network’s lineup. This disc also contains a set of five very funny “Race for the Gold” ads that ran during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Disc 2 is rounded out by a “Which Viking Are You?” personality test, a DreamWorks jukebox of musical numbers from other DreamWorks movies, and a set of activity pages accessible from your home computer. While DreamWorks didn’t send us a Blu-ray screener, I did manage to watch one of the special features on it during the How to Train Your Dragon virtual roundtable and can say that it’s a very interesting look behind the curtain of moviemaking as it films what turned out to be a major story session.

Lilo and Stitch abd How to Train Your Dragon both share the theme of an outsider who finds acceptance not by changing to fit the world’s expectations, but by altering the rest of the world to better suit their own sensibilities. While I still think the earlier movie is the more successful one, How to Train Your Dragon is still quite a solid and enjoyable movie with strong fundamentals and flaws only in the details. Most of the movie’s problems are also not insurmountable, and odds are that they would have been resolved much better if they only had a bit more money and time. However, there is certainly little to complain about for its DVD release. Fans of the movie will find much to enjoy, especially if they splurge for the 2-disc DVD or the Blu-ray.

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