At this point in the 13th year of the Disney Conglomerate Animation Studio War, it would seem that Pixar is emerging as the clear victor over Dreamworks (DW). In recent years, Pixar has earned an Oscar nomination for best picture (Up!) and created a group of hardcore fanboys and fangirls devoted to everything they create, including their non-theatrical shorts (which, thankfully, they finally released on DVD). But people have short memories and they may forget the early days when DW looked like the better company. In the first three years of the war, the only battle DW lost was ‘99/’00’s Toy Story 2 VS The Road to El Dorado. Ever since then, the only battles DW has been able to win were those in which Pixar didn’t even show up for (like in 2005 when DW released Madagascar to Pixar’s… errr, nothing). With the acclaimed release of Toy Story 3 last year I figured it was just a matter of procedure that I’d have to wait to actually see the films before I could declare a winner. Well, How to Drain Your Dragon may have just put a kink in my divinations; suffice it to say that this is DW’s best film since the original Shrek.
The story is set in a small Viking community on an island (or is it a peninsula?) where the villagers have built their lives around fighting dragons that continually invade, snatching up food and flying off with it. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is the son of the fearless, courageous leader, Stoick (Gerard Butler). Unlike his father, Hiccup is a scrawny kid and a major screw-up who can’t seem to do anything right. But when Hiccup ensnares an elusive Night Fury during a dragon raid on the village, everyone is incredulous. Eventually he tracks down the Night Fury, intent on killing it, but ends up letting it go instead. He names the dragon Toothless, proceeds to bring it food daily, while also engineering a fin to mend the dragon’s broken tail. The two forge a close bond as Hiccup learns more of dragon kind through their kinship than all his Viking brethren and ancestors ever knew about them. Their friendship proves extra tricky when Hiccup joins a group of Viking teenagers including Astrid (America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnut (T.J. Miller), and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), as they’re trained to fight dragons by Gobber (Craig Ferguson).
Thankfully, for the first time in years, DW has developed a scenario that’s different from their “Look! Cute animals/ogres/monsters/aliens TALKING and acting all human-y!” paradigm. Granted, the scenario isn’t exactly original (it’s basically a boy-and-his-dog story where the dog happens to be part of the group the boy’s family and friends are fighting against), but the real magic of DW and Pixar have always been their ability to find the humanism in everything they’ve done. The difference is a matter of approach. Pixar has appropriated the classic sentimentalism of Classic Hollywood, creating films as full of wistful poignancy as they are full of hilarity. DW, on the other hand, has been more cynical. Shrek rather set the more hard-edged tone that would define the studio over the course of its next several features. Another thing that separates them is that Pixar has always worked best on an intimate and emotional level, while DW always seems to be going bigger and grander, selling excitement and adventure over characterization and sensibility.
In How to Train Your Dragon, DW hasn’t really abandoned their modality, but they have toned down the cynicism in favor of something slightly closer to Pixar’s empathy. At the heart of the story is Hiccup’s eternally relatable childhood dream of being a great warrior to fit in with his family and friends, but the bond that grows between he and Toothless is closer to the relationship between Carl and Charles in Up! than it is Donkey and Shrek. On the one hand, this is good because it gives the film a greater gravitas and weight, but, on the other hand, it serves to highlight a general flaw of the studio and that’s that they simply don’t develop characters as well as Pixar. Hiccup is immediately likable as the lovable, ambitious loser who favors learning, science, friendship, even art over brute force killing, but there’s really no development for his character over the course of the film. As much could be said of most of the relationships. Yes, Hiccup and Astrid get closer when he brings her into his world, Hiccup and Toothless likewise grow closer, and Hiccup and Stoick experience a typical father/son reconciliation, but it all feels incredibly rote.
If the film’s characters feel a little static, the rest of the film is animated in the best sense. Firstly, this is the best action/adventure story that either major animation studio has told. It almost reaches Miyazaki levels in its rendering of fantastic aereal fireworks. All of the flying scenes are beyond spectacular and worth the price of admission alone. The first time Hiccup successfully rides Toothless, weaving at incredible speeds through salient water-cresting ridges, is one of the most triumphant moments in any film from the year and the epic final battle almost meets that stratum of kinetic and dramatic intensity. The romantic flight between Hiccup, Toothless and Astrid doesn’t quite match a similar sibling in WALL-E for sheer magic, but the superb visual artistry almost makes up for it.
Aiding the visuals is a truly cinematographic sensibility guided by the great DP Roger Deakins who was a consultant on the film. Deakins’ versatility is all over the lighting schemes of the film, effortlessly gliding from the luminous glows of fire in the night scenes to the eerie, low contrast fog and greenery of the forest. Even the interiors are given an attention to photographic detail in regards to candle lit shadow movement. If Deakins lends the film a visual touch, then John Powell’s phenomenal score helps to galvanize the film from beginning to end. The main triumphant theme soars to glorious heights in the first flying scene and the last battle. But the score is equally successful in the quieter moments, lending emotional texture to the romantic flight, or creating dramatic tension during the discovery scenes without every crossing into the realm of obvious manipulation (like too many modern scores).
If we can thank Pixar and DW for anything, the voice-over talent that both have helped cultivate has consistently lifted the medium to a much higher standard. Dragon might not boast the starriest cast in the world, but what’s here is perfectly tuned to the characters. I’d only vaguely heard of Jay Baruchel before this film, but his geeky, crackling voice is a beyond-perfect fit for Hiccup. Gerard Butler makes an appropriately strong and commanding Stoick. America Ferrera isn’t given as much to do as the other characters, but she manages to subtly shift between the strong and childlike sides of the character. Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse reunite (in a sense) to augment the adolescent cast. But it’s truly Craig Ferguson who steals the show as Gobber. I should admit my bias since Craig is currently my man-crush and his late night talk show is the only one I really care about, but he just can’t help but bring his effervescent personality to the character, really acting as the glue that holds it all together.
Guiding this massive production is the direction from Dean BeBlois and Chris Sanders. Both are relative newcomers with perhaps their biggest credit being Lilo & Stitch, but here they manage to orchestrate the hulking behemoth that any DW production must be with aplomb. Another thing I noticed about this film is that it’s the first DW that seems to get the “small” moments right as much as the major set-pieces. One great example might be the slight pause that Toothless gives before he places his head in Hiccup’s hands (their first sign of mutual trust), or the dazed stagger of Stoick after disowning Hiccup for refusing to hunt and kill dragons.
How to Train Your Dragon marks the much-needed rejuvenation of DW as something better than Pixar’s underachieving big brother. I can’t call it a perfect marriage of Pixar and DW’s sensibilities, but what I can say is that it’s the first DW film in years that maintained the best qualities of the latter while excising the worst and incorporating some of the best qualities of the former. The result is a supremely charming, genuinely funny,and grandly exciting film on a scale both majestic and intimate.