Main Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
How to Train Your Dragon
I’ve found reviewing series to be a lot of fun and I’d like to write on more of them, but series are also very time-consuming and have to come out more or less sequentially. Since I’m also going to be releasing my Preacher reviews for the next few weeks and don’t want to commit to another one until that’s over. I’m fudging the formula a bit.
This is the first in my Special Series of 3P Reviews. The way these things will work is I’ll actively seek out an unspecified number of books, films, video games, and the like to group together, and I’ll add to them whenever I feel like it, kind of like the Quicklist Reviews. The Special Series will have the same format as the regular 3P reviews, but they’ll adhere to unique criteria. In this case, the Best Family Films Special Series will include my takes on some of the most worthwhile films that people can watch with their kids. That means films that are overall well-balanced, competent, and entertaining for adults and children alike, regardless of age or taste. At least, that’s the hope. I’m not an animated film aficionado, so what ends up in this series will probably be films you’ve seen or at least heard of before, but you might find something you didn’t realize was for more than just kids. These reviews are going to be PG-13 and mostly spoiler-free, just to challenge my usual format and better fit the theme.
Part One: I Guess We Have to Accept that Dreamworks Can Make Competent Films After All
I never had much more than a moderate awareness of the How to Train Your Dragon series of children’s books. From my brief encounters with them and a scroll through half of their Wikipedia page, the books are short adventure novellas probably aimed an age group younger than that for the first Harry Potter books, but older than that for the Magic Treehouse series. It has wacky characters with silly names and a fantasy world that bears a closer resemblance to Cartoon Network-style shows than most traditional fantasy. It’s a comedic series as much as it is dramatic.
The series’ established audience and edgy children’s fantasy style must have made it look ideal for adaptation by Dreamworks – after all, they could only make Shrek sequels for so long. All of that added up to make the film about as unappealing to me as possible; I took one look at the posters of grossly disproportioned, brightly-colored creatures and characters and decided the film looked stupid. It wasn’t anything I had interest in seeing, and even if I kept encountering people who insisted it was good, I figured it still probably wasn’t for me. I like animated films, but animated comedies are a much harder sell. I didn’t like Shrek much, even as a kid, and while I loved funny animated characters and jokes when I was younger, those tastes haven’t really stuck with me since. My sense of humor can be childish at times, for sure, but only in small doses. That’s part of what’s kept me from watching shows like Adventure Time and Steven Universe; even though I know they have value worth exploring, the narrative and especially the visual comedy keep me from getting invested.
How to Train Your Dragon is not Shrek. It doesn’t even really feel like a standard Dreamworks film. What it is is a heartfelt fantasy movie about friendship and coming-of-age. It’s well-structured, family-friendly, and occasionally quite funny, if a bit generic, but the animation and creature designs are honestly almost worth seeing the film for alone. Yeah, I know, the thing that made me resistant to watching the film is one of the best things about it.
The film opens in a Viking village, these Vikings of course being the sort who wear historically inaccurate horns on their helmets and fight dragons. The hero of the story is a boy named Hiccup, son of the chief and overall disappointment around the village for his lack of combat prowess. Like many physically unimposing protagonists, Hiccup is clever and fond of inventing machines to fight for him. Through sheer luck, he manages to shoot down a rare Night Fury dragon while trying to prove the worth of one of his machines. Nobody witnesses his victory so Hiccup proceeds to track down the dragon to prove himself, only to find the dragon injured and very much alive. Rather than kill it, he starts to study it, learning how to deal with dragons and the reason they steal the Vikings’ food in the first place. From then, the story revolves around Hiccup trying to make use of the knowledge he’s learned while keeping his new pet dragon a secret from the rest of the village.
Part Two: The Stupid Names Kind of Work
This film isn’t the most original idea in the world and relies heavily on tropes to work. The main character is a fairly standard shy young teenage boy, the characters are all archetypes of one form or another, all of the subplots have been done many times before, and if you replace the dragon with a dog or a horse, even the main story is a cliché. The film is working with a story arc and script that are so predictable, it’s easy to imagine them being tossed into a B-grade animated cave man film or something. Dreamworks in particular doesn’t have a reputation for handling story or dialogue well, often emphasizing visuals or jokes over structure, so it’s kind of surprising to see that this film overcomes the initial hurdles of a lackluster plot. Part of why I think it works is that everything in the story feels integrated; the characters, the world, the dragons, the designs, the animation, and the themes all stem from the main plot and grow organically out of it. Any of these elements might be associated with something else on their own, but sewn together as the film presents them, you struggle to imagine these characters or the art style outside of the film’s universe.
The decision to let the humor derive from character reactions to mildly distressing situations rather than try to make the characters actively “funny” means the humor is well-earned. There are a few comic relief characters and pop culture references, but both still originate in the world of the film and are subdued compared to the usual children’s film formula. I don’t know if a studio executive required the creators of the film to include either of these elements, but unlike in most major studio releases of recent years, they don’t feel tacked-on. The comic relief characters follow their own sort of story arc, and the few pop culture references (specifically the treatment of the dragons’ abilities like stats in a collectible card game) become relevant during the end battle.
The emotional core of the film is the relationship between the protagonist and three other characters: his father, his dragon, and his love interest. The boy-dragon relationship is by far the strongest in the film, and delivered beautifully through a series of mostly dialogue-free interactions where the two become codependent. The film makes the wise decision to keep the dragons non-speaking. They still emote, and some of the dragons’ expressions are priceless, but they act like animals most of the time.
The boy’s relationship with his father is one we’ve seen plenty of times before – “You aren’t manly enough, and I’m ashamed of that. Conform!” What makes it kind of interesting though is that halfway through the film, the father starts to come around when his son turns out to be oddly good at “fighting” dragon, and he’s genuinely happy that he has something to bond with his son over. The father character isn’t callous, he’s just very set in his ways and his character arc requires that he accepts his son for who he is.
The love interest is fairly underdeveloped in the film and mostly just serves to create drama for the first half as she tries to figure out why the main character is outcompeting her in the dragon arena. However, she’s also kind of an excuse for the film to flex its animation and orchestral muscles, and that’s something I can’t really complain about.
Part Three: Don’t Judge Animation by its Stills
This film is gorgeous. It has no reason to be as beautiful as it is, but it looks and sounds appropriately fantastic.
I mentioned earlier that the dragon designs pushed me away from seeing it, and they do look a bit odd in stills. The proportions are mixed up beyond what a three-dimensional cartoon would ordinarily do, with many of the creatures sporting ridiculous underbites and body parts that taper to points like in a child’s drawing. One type of dragon in particular, the potato-like Gronkles, look like six warty lumps mushed together with a pair of wings taped to their backs. It’s the sort of creature that looks barely able to fly, much less pose any threat. However, the animation makes the design work better than any other. See, Gronkles aren’t really meant to be intimidating. They’re sort of bulldog dragons that are only dangerous by way of being uncoordinated and huge, and those little wings mean that they fly around like bumble bees. They even stick their tongues out of their oversized mouths and snuffle.
The dragons’ appearances are very much intentional and feed into their capabilities, allowing them to look quick, devious, dangerous, cute, malicious, unintimidating, intelligent, or friendly. The main character’s dragon in particular has a sleek build, round head, and large expressive eyes that can make him look threatening one minute and harmless the next, much like a cat or dog. Great care is taken with the dragons’ faces and body language so the audience can tell what they’re thinking even though none of them speak. The sound design in this area is also apt.
While the dragons’ overall appearance and more delicate animations are respectable in their own regard, the real star of the series is the flight animation. The colors, the environments, the angles, and the simple way that the creatures move through the air is unlike anything I’d seen before this film. When you wonder why people love dragons and are willing to put up with all of the unnecessary nonsense of lesser films like Eragon, flying scenes like these are the reason. It’s a perspective most people never get in their own lives and even in films about things like superheroes, the emphasis is often on something other than the sheer beauty of the scene. The music that accompanies the flight sequences in How to Train Your Dragon makes up one of the most coherent and captivating scores you will likely ever hear. Between the sound, lighting, and animation, the unfolding of the flight scenes in this movie are well worth the price of admission.