Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon- A Successful Accomplishment in 3D Atmosphere While Still Lacking an in Depth Narrative

Dreamworks Animation has always been more than two steps behind Pixar when it comes to making quality and in depth animation. This isn’t to say that the actual visuals are lacking because most of the time they are visually superb. However, when it comes to story Dreamworks has never been able to touch the multi-dimensional characters or well developed plots of Pixar Studios, and unfortunately Dreamwork’s new film How to Train Your Dragon still falls short on plot though the visual 3D experience makes it an engaging film in the long run. The complexities of the characters are not exactly evident since they fill some typical animation roles such as the lacking hero trying to prove something or the disappointed father expecting his son to follow his own footsteps. While this can be forgivable to tell the tale it’s the story that deals with drastic conveniences to allow the film to progress without a hint of struggle as though everything just falls into place that makes the weaknesses in How to Train Your Dragon leap out. Luckily the stunning visuals and innocent looking dragon named Toothless will probably be a distraction from most of these easy outs, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. How to Train Your Dragon is not Dreamworks best story nor is it their worst but it is a successful step in the delivery of quality 3D ambience.

We are introduced but never fully emerged into a mystical world called Berk, where Vikings are no longer raping and pillaging villages but rather focusing their energies on hunting and slaying the dragons that terrorize their land. Our protagonist is the son of the Chief Viking named Hiccup who is a weak and scrawny boy with a dry wit and quick mind more appropriate for physics than for dragon slaying. He wants to prove to his disappointed father that he can slay dragons while also trying to impress the prettiest Viking that he is a man. All of his plans go awry when he successfully catches an unknown species of dragon known as the Night Fury with his homemade catapult contraption, but ends up releasing it because it’s just so darn cute. But really, Hiccup looks in the dragon’s eyes and sees fear, and immediately connects with the dragon as he uses his abilities for building to fix the dragon’s tail. As he spends more and more time with Toothless, the name Hiccup has given his dragon, he learns secrets about how to tame the dragons and uses this inside knowledge in his dragon training making him an instant celebrity among the Viking folk. Of course nothing can ever go smoothly and the conflict comes when Hiccup’s father and the village learn of the dragon and use it to find the dragon nest in order to slay them all eventually leading to a big battle against a giant mother dragon. The story at many points of the dialogue sequences feels incredibly scripted, which can be a huge problem for animated films, but the flying sequences where there is no talking is done elegantly taking you out of the rigid story. There is an undercurrent of pacifism as well as attack the source of terror making a paradoxical message in the long run, but it is a children’s movie that many parents will enjoy for its roller coaster ride visuals and not necessarily for its uninventive narrative.

While this is no Pixar’s Up or Ratatouille it certainly is a better family film than many in the last year, especially when compared to Alvin and the Chipmunks. There is a visual elegance here that many films have yet to accomplish and the creators spent a great deal on experiencing the 3D rather than subject it to cheap tricks. Certainly the plot has some drastic conveniences, such as Hiccup’s love interest who is devoted to the Viking cause give very little argument as to informing people of the location of the dragon nest and threat, but that is an area where Dreamworks has always needed to develop. Even with their continuous box office successes they still can’t master the art of telling a good meaningful story with complex and interesting characters. Instead they choose their characters based on roles they need in order to just complete the story rather than have those characters guide the story. This is the drastic weakness in How to Train Your Dragon because of its overly scripted and unfelt dialogue exchanges, which are only convincing due to the detail of the animation and not the actual voice delivery. However, comparing this film to its successors, such as Megamind or Despicable Me, it’s pretty safe to say that How to Train Your Dragon is by far the closest film in quality, visually and constructively, that Dreamworks is going to get to a Pixar film till they can learn to tackle narrative complexities.

It’s strange when you hear the Vikings have Scottish dialect when all of their children seem to sound like the teenagers of the modern world. This is an odd choice though seemingly appropriate to separate the younger generation from the older one. The voice casting is slightly odd though Dreamworks is known for choosing actors to resemble their characters rather than actors who can make the characters their own. This is obvious with Hiccup, voiced by the geek of all geeks Jay Baruchel, who seems to get type casted now though his talent does range slightly further than what they give him one big example being Tropic Thunder. The two manly men of the Viking village are voiced by Gerard Butler, an obvious although slightly weak choice, and comedian Craig Fergusen who has a vast array of weird jokes that are stated at the most inappropriate of times, such as when they find Hiccup still alive and must interject at a meaningful moment between father and son. The rest of the teenagers are typical of teen comedies nowadays with Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse both from Superbad fame and America Ferrera from “Ugly Betty” notoriety. Everything about the voices works in the framework of what Dreamworks limits themselves to be, nothing but choosing semi-known actors to make the characters recognizable rather than allow truly talented actors to create their own characters. If this seems a bit much of a request then just take Ian Holm from Ratatouille as the perfect example, who doesn’t use his regular voice but rather creates what he deemed the character would eventually be like.

Those of you who are looking for a childish imaginary escape from the real world will definitely find something to enjoy in How to Train Your Dragon. It certainly has a lot going for it visually since its 3D makes the experience an atmospheric adventure rather than occasional items popping out at you. The flying sequences are incredibly well done and provide a momentary distraction from the convenient story development and role fulfilling characters. But when you begin to enjoy the segments that have no narrative progression and just provide for pure visual enjoyment than you have lost what is truly great about movies and that is an engaging and riveting story. How to Train Your Dragon is more of a Theme Park attraction than a film, because everything is revolving around the well developed flight and action sequences that are an experience to have but not necessarily to get caught up in. Ultimately, How to Train Your Dragon works despite the typical Dreamworks weaknesses, but certainly there are writers out there who deserve to have a unique and complex story for children that can be told and perhaps now that Dreamworks has the visuals down some time should be spent on finding those new talented writers.

Grade: B-

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8 Responses to “Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon- A Successful Accomplishment in 3D Atmosphere While Still Lacking an in Depth Narrative”
  1. eddie says:

    You, reviewer, are an idiot.

  2. Sj says:

    I thought this movie was amazing. Sorry, but I really, genuinely, cannot understand where you see fault in the way the story was told. The only understandable thing I could imagine being said about the story is that its not the most original story ever told. Yeah, yeah, I know, boy and his pet, failure son, blah blah, cry me a river. The fact that the story was told in such a unique, lovable, original way more than makes up for the less than original ideas its made up of. And I have to argue with you about it not being “deep”. The movie had plenty of depth. Were you awake during the forbidden friendship scene? Or the scene after his father found out about Toothless? Or when hiccup lost his leg?! I don’t know if you understand the significance of Hiccup’s loss of limb and I’m not going to bother explaining it because either you’re extremely biased toward Pixar (which seems likely in your case) or you seriously did not get this movie. Look, I’m not going to make myself look like a douche and try to argue for Dreamworks over Pixar, because we both know who’d win in a fight. But Pixar can’t win every battle, as much as you think it can. Just because it’s a Dreamworks movie doesn’t make it a bad movie and just because it’s a Pixar movie does’t make it a good one. In all honesty, How to Train Your Dragon easily holds its own against Pixar movies and if it weren’t for everyones Toy Story nostalgia/bias I guarantee you it would win best animated picture at the oscars. I think Dreamwork’s has really accomplished something great here, and if only they would continue with movies like HTTYD, they’d be at the same level as the geniuses at Pixar.

  3. Alex says:

    I think that You did a pretty good job asessing the film. I have always been a sucker for dragons in general, so I must admit that I fell rather head-over-heels for this movie on the first go-round. After watching it a few times more (my little sister got it for Christmas), I think I agree with you on a few points.
    Yes, the voices were rather lacking. I can’t stand Astrid’s voice, and Hiccup get’s on my nerves after a while. I agree about your comment regarding the jokes and interjections made by Stoic’s sidekick (whose name escapes me), and first fault that I recognized on the first view was that Astrid does not put up enough resistance to Hiccup’s plan once she discovers Toothless. I was rather disappointed that she just said “ok, fine, I’ll go back on the thing that has been my obsession for 16 years without even putting up a fight”. I also agree with you about not getting immersed enough in the Viking world.

    However, I noticed that you didn;t really adress the Soundtrack. As a professional musician, I gotta say, John Powell really pulled through on that one. I never was a huge fan of his compositions in the past, but I think if this becomes the norm, he will soon rise to become one of the best soundtrack composers there are, and take his place alongside John Williams, Howard Shore, and Hans Zimmer.

  4. Kay says:

    What I HATED most about the movie was the dragon’s weakness. Shoot fire in it’s mouth. Oh sure that makes a lot of sense. EXCEPT THEY BREATH FIRE!!! If that’s their weakness, how do they not hurt themselves every time they do this?

  5. kindlin says:

    The movie was fine, but the plot was terrible. Almost every scene had me going “What?” “Why would they do that?” “How could this happen this way?” “Who the hell thought that made any sence?”

    I was baffled by the plot. Truly, one of the worst plots I’ve ever seen.

    Some of the aspects that made the least sense to me included:

    How does having one tiny bit of tail make it unable to fly? However, it did fly, quite a ways, horizontally. All it had to do was just go up a little more and it escapes.

    How do the townsfolk not see from the ring that Hiccup is taming the beasts? He’s not hurting them into submission, hes freaking tickling them. “Oh he tickled them into submission, ok, NOW GO KILL IT!”

    “Oh look, the giant dragon can fly, but its wings suddenly start to disappear right before it needs them to save itself” “Oh look, he shot fire into the fire breathing dragon, and now it’s wings start to fall apart.”

    Or, how about, breaking through a wall of rock directly where it’s at the thinnest point and with only a couple other pieces of rock.

    And on and on…

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