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Non-Review Review: How To Train Your Dragon

How To Train Your Dragon is, at its core, the story of a boy and his dog. Except his dog happens to be a dragon. It is a well-cast, well-made and well-written little film that actually manages to have a lot more emotional depth than the majority of Dreamworks films, even if it doesn’t quite approach the wonderful sophistication that Pixar manage to produce about once a year. It’s big, it’s bold and it’s fun – a wonderfully crafted piece of family entertainment.

An all-time high for Dreamworks?

The movie follows Hiccup, a young Viking in a village plagued by dragon attacks, as he struggles to find his way in the world. He’s not what one might imagine of a Viking offspring, seeming especially skinny and nerdy when measured against the rest of the cast who look like hairy boulders. He’s not content to work his life in the town’s armoury, out of harm’s way, and his father can’t help but feel a little disappointed at how un-warrior-like his son has turned out to be (it’s implied the two never really connected after the death of Hiccup’s mother). So, while Hiccup begins his training to become a mighty dragon slayer, he also discovers a wounded dragon in the woods. His curiosity about the mysterious creature simply grows from there, while – back in his home village – the day he’ll be expected to kill a dragon in the arena (with the whole town watching) draws ever nearer.

I should confess, before I continue, that my family all own pets. And we all love each and every one of them. It’s hard to think of a time, in the family household, when we didn’t have a dog. I remember each and every one of them, their own quirky personality traits – how some were smarter than others, some were louder, some were more affectionate, some were cheekier. None of them were the same, they were all individual – and they were all part of the family, getting leftovers from Christmas dinner, going on family trips down the country, cuddling up during a movie (or waking us up in the morning). So I think How To Train Your Dragon really struck me on that level – it really captured that sense of loyalty and companionship one can feel with an animal.

A beast of a movie...

It’s a very tough bond to capture on screen, as animals are – like children – prone to be treated as emotional leverage to essentially force an audience to feel a particular way. This can backfire horribly, as with Marley and Me, when it seemed that the production company didn’t especially care too much about the film, counting on the dog’s presence alone to engage viewers. It’s very easy to overplay that strong emotional connection, and really knock the audience out of the film. Thankfully, How To Train Your Dragon actually executes it remarkably well.

I think part of the credit has to go to the animation team. While the actual animation itself doesn’t exactly redefine the possibilities in computer-generated film-making from a technical standpoint (though the hair in the beards looks amazing), the characters themselves move in remarkably organic ways. The lead character, Hiccup, has not only Jay Baruchel’s voice, but also his mannerisms – which are captured with remarkable fidelity. Similarly, the Dragons actually move like household creatures – dogs and cats – which makes the beasts seem strangely familiar, despite their wings and the fire on their breath.

Looking danger in the mouth...

The story is actually really sweet. Gerard Butler plays Hiccup’s father, the chieftain of the strangely Scottish-accented Vikings (I blame David Tennant, who narrated the audio book), and there’s some genuinely nice moments of father-son interaction, as it becomes clear that neither character really understands the other. “We finally have something to talk about,” the father proclaims, joining his son (and giving him a family heirloom as a gift), when Hiccup proves himself remarkably formidable in the ring. It’s an awkward moment, when Hiccup realises that no matter what he does, he’ll disappoint his father – who is showing his affection the best way a manly Viking knows how.

The movie does occasionally over-play its hand a bit, where some of the interactions between Hiccup and the wounded dragon (somewhat misleadingly named “Toothless”) do stray into the realm of excessively cute. For the most part, though, it’s hard not to smile as Hiccup and his companion take to the skies, dance through the clouds and rest together at night. The film’s action sequences are exceptionally well-handled, with the climax in particular seeming epic in scope.

Good dragon!

There are, if you’ll pardon the pun, a few hiccups along the way – but they are relatively small. The most superficial complaint is that this magical fantasy is portrayed as something remarkably close to a video game. The way the movie seems so intent to codify everything about these magical and mystical creatures (with one character rhyming off nerdy statistics, ranking their attributes with numbers) takes away from the movie a bit. We’re informed, for example, that a dragon has six shots (and six shots only) before it had to (presumably) reload. Then there’s the fact that Toothless is essentially trapped by a rather convenient artificial altitude restriction, like something from a flight simulator.

There’s also the issue of the movie’s moral. As one might expect, the movie suggests that we shouldn’t blindly hate those we don’t understand, and that creatures acting on instincts we can’t comprehend aren’t necessarily evil. Despite their repeated raids against the village, we come to see that the dragons themselves are not inherently evil, and Hiccup builds up an understanding with them. The implication seems to be that creatures are preying on the village’s livestock in order to protect themselves from another larger predator, and are simply trying to survive. As such, it’s wrong for the Vikings to seek to wipe out the dragons.

A Tuff nut to crack...

However, this reasoning becomes a little tricky once we’re expected to accept that the dragons are acting out of a survival instinct. If the damage they’ve caused (including maiming and killing Vikings) can be excused based on the fact they were only trying to survive, then how come that logic isn’t extended to the predator manipulating them? From what we see of it, it’s no more intelligent than the dragons, no more capable of judging right from wrong, and it is – like the dragons – only doing what it needs to do to survive. If provoking and killing the dragons is wrong, why is provoking a killing this creature right? Surely the same “live and let live” logic applies in that case?

I know the movie needed a big climactic action sequence to wrap everything up, but it seems a little strange that killing one natural predator is portrayed as an act of misunderstanding, while provoking and killing another is an incredibly just and noble act. It seems like the movie’s central point might have been distorted just a little bit. I can’t help but get the feeling that, had Hiccup spent some time with the super-predator, killing it might have been presented as wrong as well. It’s also worth noting that, while the movie is critical of the Vikings for hunting creatures they don’t understand, even Hiccup doesn’t fully understand the relationship between the dragons and the creature at the climax. Is it controlling them? Is it the queen? Is it threatening them? Wiping it out could potentially have serious implications for the local eco-system, in a movie which has the central point that we need to look at environmental factors in context.

The movie soars...

Still, these are relatively minor complaints. It’s a well-made animated film that should be entertaining for the whole family. It’s smart, it’s funny and it’s powerful. Truth be told, it’s also one of Dreamworks’ best. Well worth your time.

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