Saturday, March 27, 2010

Review - How to Train Your Dragon

This summer, DreamWorks will release Shrek Forever After, the fourth film in a series that had already become creatively bankrupt by the time of its first sequel. This week, however, the company will release How to Train Your Dragon, which is exactly the kind of film the studio needs to be producing if it is to ever match the standard set by the all-conquering Pixar. How to Train Your Dragon is not a film voiced by megastars, it's not a film full of gimmicky devices or pop-culture references, it's not a sequel, and its script isn't laden with knowing gags aimed at the adults in the audience. It is, quite simply, a good story told in an entertaining, imaginative and heartfelt way. Now come on, DreamWorks; was that really so difficult?

How to Train Your Dragon is set on the island of Berk, which is described as being located "twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death." For the Viking community that inhabits this island, life is tough, with harsh weather all year round to contend with, but the biggest challenge facing the Vikings is the frequent dragon attacks. The film opens with one such assault, as a horde of dragons swoop down from the night sky, setting homes alight and swiping sheep in a sequence that carries a thrilling rush thanks to the sharp and beautifully lit 3D animation. When the dragons appear, the Vikings, led by Stoick (Gerard Butler), are quickly into action, bravely charging into danger and showing no fear as they take on these marauding monsters. One Viking who would dearly love to be out there fighting dragons is Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), Stoick's clumsy, weak and generally useless son, whose fervent desire to prove himself a worthy Viking is constantly undercut by his inability to do anything right. What kind of Viking can't even kill a dragon when it's lying immobile in front of him?

Hiccup does eventually discover a method for controlling the dragon problem, but it's not one that would please his no-nonsense father. The teen inadvertently injures a dragon during a raid, and in caring for the wounded creature he learns that they are far from the vicious monsters that Viking lore has long claimed. It took a while before I realised who Toothless – the dragon Hiccup essentially adopts – reminded me of; its facial features are a dead ringer for Stitch, the alien from Disney's underated 2002 film Lilo & Stitch. That film was also directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, and How to Train Your Dragon again showcases this duo's ability to balance comedy and characterisation in a well-paced story. The script – adapted from Cressida Cowell's book – is cleverly constructed, with the bond between Hiccup and Toothless being established as Hiccup learns all of the tricks that can turn a fire-breathing dragon into a docile, puppy-like pet, and later putting these techniques to good use in the training arena, where young Vikings are exposed to dragons of every type.

The colourful array of dragons How to Train Your Dragon contains is symptomatic of the film's imaginative design. The characters are memorably drawn in cartoonish strokes, with Stoick sporting a huge red beard and his close companion Gobber (Craig Ferguson) having various wooden appendages where his limbs should be, and the voice acting fills out the characters in fine style. There is a slightly odd disconnect between the strong Scottish brogues that the elder Vikings sport and the American-accented younger generation (it smacks of a loss of nerve on the filmmakers' part); but Jay Baruchel brings the right amount of vulnerability and pluck to his performance, and the relationships that he has with both his disappointed father and lively love interest (America Ferrara) give the film an emotional resonance. That's the real secret of How to Train Your Dragon's success. Too many big studio movies today seem to be labouring under the delusion that spectacle is enough – just look at the rush of films hurriedly converting to 3D as that bandwagon speeds by – but it's not the extra dimension that gives a film depth. How to Train Your Dragon is an involving story that builds to a tremendously exciting climax, but the superb animation and staging of this final battle is only half of the story – ultimately, it works because we care.