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"How to Train Your Dragon": Slap It Hard on the Nose

by on March 29, 2010

I’d sure like to think that all the nasty things I’ve said over the years about DreamWorks Animation and its pseudo-entertainments have shamed its employees into finally doing better. Of course, I must reluctantly admit that I’m not important enough for them to have noticed me, let alone to have started taking cues from my reviews. Be that as it may, in its latest CG-animated feature, How to Train Your Dragon, DreamWorks has shed many of those habits I’ve found most off-putting, and it is far and away the best of the studio’s animated features that I’ve seen. But it is still not nearly good enough.

The story concerns Hiccup, the barely teenaged son of the leader of a Viking settlement that comes under recurrent attack by dragons. He is slight, nasally, and very passive-aggressive in his demeanor, which doesn’t keep him from wanting to be a great Viking fighter. He is skilled at mechanical work, though, and with one of his devices he fells an elusive dragon. But he finds he cannot kill it, and instead secretly nurses it back to health. As he wins its trust he learns many small tricks about how to manage dragons—what frightens them, what distracts them, what strokes and touches will put them to sleep—and uses this knowledge to survive and ultimately triumph in his dragon-training exercises with the other kids in the settlement. Eventually, of course, there comes a showdown between him and his father, who made his name killing dragons.

I’ve not read the book it is based on, so I can’t say how faithful it is to the original in tone, spirit, or detail, and so I can’t assign praise for what it does right or blame for what it does wrong. Still, what it does well is almost entirely technical. This is far and away the most beautiful and well-wrought DreamWorks movie I’ve seen. It is often stunningly beautiful in spots, with richly detailed and lifelike landscapes, seascapes and cloudscapes. The filmmakers also do a spectacularly good job at making the air and the ground feel like distinctive realms. Earth-bound life is slow and plodding and heavy; but when Hiccup saddles his dragon and takes to the air it becomes fleet and graceful and open. I saw the movie in 2D, so I can’t say how well the movie integrates 3D effects with the flying sequences, but even with its flat images the movie ably conveys vertiginous heights and receding depths. How to Train Your Dragon suggests a world that has geography and not just sets.

The filmmakers have also shown skill and imagination with the wildlife. Hiccup’s dragon (which he names “Toothless”) is handsomely sleek and solid and black, like a stealth fighter, but there are many other kinds on display. Some are a little too stylized to be fully believable, but they all look good, and the movie wisely puts them in enough moments of repose that we can give them an appreciative once-over.

If How to Train Your Dragon were a silent movie—or one whose images were only accompanied by John Powell’s vibrant, Celtic-tinged score—it would be an unqualified winner. Alas, this is a movie where the characters talk.

Thankfully, despite the rather smug title, this is not one of DreamWorks’ “irreverent” fairy-tale deconstructions, and so there aren’t any overt pop culture references or riffs. (Well, there is one fat little kid who constantly spouts off D-and-D-like dragon stats he has gleaned from a manual.) That still doesn’t keep the film from smelling of the standard DreamWorks funk. The adult characters, for instance, may be Norsemen but they all have Shrek-like Scots accents. (So stench-ripened has that cliché gotten that even the authentically Scots actors sounds fake.) Unaccountably, though, the kids have the flat vocal mannerisms and insipid vocabularies of contemporary American mall rats. You would think a Norse colony in the frigid Atlantic would be a fairly exotic place; and that a colony that has to scrape for its existence while battling dragons would have evolved lots of interesting little tics. You’d be wrong: it’s just another bit of blandenized Americana, full of people who spout off Oprahisms and Dr. Philisms, no matter how inane and anachronistic such things might be in the circumstances. The story itself is grindingly predictable, full of pat little lessons and apologies and opportunities for growth and understanding. Except for Hiccup, no one ever says anything characteristic or interesting; they may speak English, but they only talk in scriptwriterese, that ploddingly literal language in which you only say things that will advance the plot or telegraph motives in a way that five-year-olds would find condescendingly transparent. What little artistry there is comes out of Hiccup’s mouth: he has an occasionally endearing way of offering running commentary on what everyone else is saying to him. Unfortunately, those are the moments when Hiccup’s anachronistic mindset—you cannot believe this kid was born earlier than 1998—is at its most blatant, and even he is given little catchphrases that are obviously intended to function as landmarks showing how he and everyone else is maturing. This movie, perhaps because it was meant to be a relatively serious-minded studio offering, feels like it was drafted by a scriptwriting software program and then edited by a committee of “creative” executives intent on squeezing out any accidentally authentic juices it might have contained.

The result is a movie that falls flat on its ass between two stools. The frigid, empty, and very northern-feeling landscape tugs you into expecting a serious and maybe even an epic movie, one in which (maybe!) invocations of Odin and Thor might be other than sniggering little rib-nudges to the audience—or at least a movie that treated its characters and setting with the same respect that the Harry Potter movies treat theirs. But all the little gags, all the simpering little moral lessons, and (above all) the impoverished thoughts and speeches of the characters mark it indelibly as just another movie that can’t imagine any reality other than the one that exists in a California suburb.

I suppose I am now reduced to complaining that How to Train Your Dragon just isn’t the movie I wished it could have been: something fiercer and wilder. It is, after all, a kids’ movie. But—and this is why I can’t forgive it—it is DreamWorks’ idea of a serious-minded kids’ movie, which means it is as substantial and as disposable as a paper cup.

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