Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders | 98 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG
I saw a trailer for How to Train Your Dragon at the cinema a few months before its release. Having never heard anything of it, I thought it looked to have basic animation and a too daft tone. I wrote it off, expecting the kind of animated movie that would be slagged off as a Pixar-wannabe… and probably still land an Oscar nomination because there never seem to be many contenders for the animated feature award. Imagine my surprise, then, when it garnered endless positive reviews and a huge box office. What?
My impression from the trailer was massively wrong. How to Train Your Dragon is, as everyone else has likely already impressed upon you, brilliant.
For one thing, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s magnificently animated and designed. What might appear smooth and simplistic at first glance actually has a lot of detail in full motion. A wonderful world is evoked with the design and the detail, of the humans’ lives and of all the different dragons. Even better is the cinematography (do you call it that in an animated film?) It’s genuinely beautifully shot. Roger Deakins — the Coen brothers’ regular cinematographer, not to mention all his other work and nine Oscar nominations — is credited as “visual consultant” and I guess that paid off.
Numerous action sequences are properly exciting, and well spaced throughout the film — it dives in at the very start and doesn’t let up. Intelligently, they’re used to build and reveal character rather than just provide an adrenaline boost. That applies to the supporting cast and the dragons as much as our hero. The flying sequences are particularly brilliant. This is one of the few made-for-3D films I’ve seen in 2D where I actually wished I’d seen it in 3D.
As noted, it skilfully finds room for characterisation and humour amongst all the battling and flying. While most of the story focuses on the relationships between Hiccup and his dragon Toothless, and Hiccup and his father, it deftly and quickly sketches in all the major supporting roles. That’s a sure hand in writing and direction, able to build whole characters and pay off their role with only a couple of lines or actions here and there. Plus, making you genuinely fond of and care for a cartoon computer-rendered fictional creature is no mean feat, and Toothless has all the personality to achieve it. Avatar wasn’t close to managing that.
Some plot beats and relationships are familiar and therefore predictable, but despite that they’re carried off with such emotion and humour that it really doesn’t matter. If you pause to think then you know how pretty much everything will pan out (though it may manage one or two surprises), but when you care about and like the characters, as I think you will here, that all becomes the stuff you hoped would happen rather than the stuff you roll your eyes at.
One thing, though: Scottish Vikings? And how did all the kids end up with American accents? There’s certainly some American Kids’ Movie Logic at work in the voice casting.
In the end, then, How to Train Your Dragon is the antithesis of my initial impression: gloriously animated and filmed (rendered?), with a perfectly pitched tone that manages humour, exciting action, soaring flight sequences and an emotional connection to its characters, both human and dragon. This would thoroughly deserve to beat most Pixar films to that Oscar, so what a shame it was up against the equally glorious Toy Story 3.
How to Train Your Dragon merited an honourable mention on my list of The Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.