OUTSIDE OUR COMFORT ZONE: “How To Train Your Dragon” (2010)

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I hate Dreamworks.

I really despise the studio. They crank out the worst kind of tripe, which they claim is for kids, but in fact it’s full of winking pop-culture references for adults - most of which are dated before they even hit the screen - and a lot of stuff that’s kind of inappropriate for kids, who are ostensibly their target audience. I say ‘ostensibly’ because it’s pretty obvious Dreamworks doesn’t really like kids. They could just go for it, and make cartoons entirely aimed at adults, and I’d be cool with that - there should be more cartoons aimed at us grownups - but they refuse to be honest. And beyond that, their movies suck. They’re entirely derivative, they lack any of the quiet dignity, humor, and genuine fun of the Pixar films, and worse yet: hey entirely enfeciate anyone they touch.

You wanna’ know when Mike Meyers stopped being a genuinely funny guy? Shrek II. Now the guy can’t get a job *outside* of the Shrek series. You wanna’ know when Jack Black stopped being funny in a stoner/slacker kind of way, and just became a tedious pain in the butt? That’d be Kung Fu Panda. When did William Shatner’s self-parody bit stop being funny and start being annoying? “Over the Hedge,” and now the guy is a talk show host! A talk show host for Pete’s sake! (To be fair, he’s a really good one, though). It’s as though they have a list of things that will annoy me more than anyone else (Oh, great! More fart gags! Can we get some pro-environment fart gags? Great! Run with that!), and then they use that as a template for every film.

I’m serious, here. This isn’t my general low-grade resentment and annoyance that’s continually simmering away in the background, this is actual real anger. If you were to put me in a room with Dreamworks’ Board of Directors, I would never stop punching them in the face.

And then…

They surprised me last year by releasing “Monsters Vs. Aliens,” a film that *didn’t* suck out loud, and was actually kinda’ fun. (Review: http://www.republibot.com/content/movie-review-%E2%80%9Cmonsters-vs-aliens%E2%80%9D-2009 ) Not only did that movie *not* follow the pattern of traditional Dreamworks fare, but there were enough passive-aggressive self-referential gags in it that I began to suspect at least *some* of the folks who worked there were aware of the problem.

And now: “How To Train Your Dragon,” which is beyond any shadow of a doubt the best movie they’ve ever made. Not only is it their best movie ever, but it’s good enough to actually pass for a good movie by a *real* studio. It’s also their first movie that feels wholly original, and not entirely derivative of something else.

(Yeah, yeah, I know, I know: this isn't even *remotely* an SF film. It's fantasy pure-and-simple. We have no intention of becoming a Fantasy site, but on occasion we allow ourselves to talk about things that are Outside Our Comfort Zone. Rest assured it won't happen much.)

The plot is simple: It’s sometime in the 10th century*. There’s a Viking village under constant attack by dragons. A teenaged screwup named “Hiccup” invents a machine that takes down a dragon, but he finds he can’t kill it when he gets close. He befriends it, helps it recover from its wounds, and learns to ride the thing, all the while hiding it from his people. Concurrently, he and several other Viking teens are being put through Dragon Killing Training, which Hiccup is less and less enthused by as he bonds more and more with his own dragon. He also learns more and more from it, and becomes, essentially, ‘The Dragon Whisperer,’ able to break the will of these beasties simply by being around them.

This leads to trouble when the others find out his secret, and the other Vikings launch a massive, suicidal attack on The Dragon Nest. Can Hiccup rescue his dragon and save his people before it’s too late?

Well, duh.

Thing is, all this works. We’re never supposed to take this whole thing too terribly seriously, but it’s not a complete blow off like every other film out of the studio to date. It’s not a complete waste of our time, either. We take it seriously enough to be invested in Hiccup and his vaguely-creepy pet, but non-seriously enough that it’s easy for us to accept the ludicrous premise.

And it’s funny, too. Craig Ferguson is absolutely hilarious in every scene. Gerard Butler is less hilarious, but more nuanced. There’s a great one-two punch in here of his character’s excitement at finally having something to talk to his loser son about, coupled with the look of pain on his face when he realizes he has to disown him. Jay Baruchel - whom I’d never heard of before - is pretty much spot on as the smart yet ineffectual yet undefeatable Hiccup. He’s obviously Canadian, but he’s got an interesting speaking voice and delivery. It’s a bit like Christian Slater, if Slater was capable of talking fast and resonating self-deprecating intelligence. Christopher Mintz-Plasse is great as Fishlegs, the guy who won’t stop talking like he’s in a D&D game. All of the Viking adults are inexplicably Scottish, but that just adds to the goofy charm of the film. And everyone knows the Scots are, as a people, comedy gold. Comedy gold that will stay funny right up until the moment they kill you, so, you know, it kind of works.

There are missteps, of course. America Ferrera is just wrong for the part of “Astrid,” the only person in town without a stupid name. Her rivalry/romance with Hiccup just never comes across as believable. TJ Miller and Kristen Wiig are just terrible as the Nut Twins (Which I can only assume is a rude joke [However Miller sound a lot like Dennis Quaid from “Dragonheart,” which I can only assume is intentional]), David Tennant is in the movie, but is wholly underused. Aside from Fishlegs, the other teens are supposed to be rakish and boisterous and fun, but mostly they’re typical crappy DreamWorks “I want to punch the producers in the face” nonsense.

John Powell’s score is probably the best music to ever come out of this studio. It was so good that one of my kids leaned over to me and said, “Daddy, this is *really* good music!” I expect we’ll be picking up the soundtrack.

The 3D is…merely OK. Perhaps I’m still riding the buzz from Avatar, but I didn’t feel like they fully made use of it here. It felt like this movie was conceived of as a traditional flat film, which was ‘3Dified” during production, with a few POV shots tacked on to make us go ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh.’

So, bottom line: I really liked it. Between this and “Monsters Vs. Aliens,” I had some hopes of a late redemption for the studio, a hope that they themselves might aspire to be something more than a repository of groin-injury humor. But then I look at their slate of upcoming films, and I see Shrek 4, Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss In Boots (Shrek 4.5, basically), and Madagascar 3. Basically this was merely the eye of the crapstorm, not the beginning of nice weather.

Oh well.



* - How do I know this? Because everyone in the film is still obviously pagan (“Oh my gods!” and “Oh, for Odin’s sake!” etc), but they still look like we’d normally think of Vikings, which kinda’ standardized in the 11th century, by which time most of the Norse had been Christianized, so it must be close to - but before - then. Though of course I’m not really expecting veracity from a movie like this - everyone wears pointy hats, which the real Vikings never did, and “Viking” is treated like a racial group, when in fact it was more of an occupation held by about 3% of Norse society. “Viking” means “Pirate.” Still…