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How To Train Your Dragon (2010,USA)

25/03/2011

Directors: Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders     Starring: Gerard Butler, Jay Baruchel, Craig Ferguson

I want you to forget, for a moment, that Pixar have ruined computer generated 3D animation for everyone else by being so damn good at it. For anyone else trying to break into this lucrative market the likes of Monsters Inc., Wall-E and Up serve as towering obstacles, proving time and time again to be impossible to better. Few companies will feel this pain as acutely as Dreamworks, a company whose attempts to break into the genre have never really had the polish and spirit that make Pixar’s output so definitive. Dreamworks fans will point to the likes of the Shrek franchise (a franchise that is three films too long) in their defence but as loved as the big green troll is, nobody can try and claim he is a patch on Sully or Buzz or Nemo. What has this got to do with How To Train Your Dragon? Based on this evidence, Dreamworks may be starting to close the gap.

Like the other non-Pixar movie that recently impressed me (Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs), How To Train Your Dragon is based on the children’s book of the same name. It’s based on a fictional island where a tribe of (strangely Scottish) Viking marauders spend most of their time fighting off the multitude of dragons that beset them on a daily basis. Most of their culture centres around the war with the dragons, to the point that as kids they begin their training to become dragon slayers. By and large the Vikings take after their chieftan Stoick (Butler) as far as being tough and fearless is concerned but Stoick’s son Hiccup (Baruchel) is far from a chip off the old block, being very much a thinker rather than a fighter. When he comes across an injured dragon he can’t bring himself to kill it, despite the glory this would bring him among his tribe, choosing instead to study it and learning some interesting and life changing things in the process.

It’s funny and heartwarming (what more do you want from a family film?) and it also has a very strong moral message. Actually it has several. There are comments here on the futility of war, the dangers of relying on violence as the answer to problems, the power of fear and how fear is a symptom of a lack of understanding. Sure, it’s fantasy Vikings and dragons in the film but you could easily replace both factions with any two warring factions and the message would be the same: love begets love, hate begets hate. In my opinion all kids films should have moral fibre like this (Toy Story 3 is lacking in this department, one of my main complaints with it as a film).

Visually it also delivers in spades. The animation is of excellent quality, even down to the Viking’s beards and the variety to be found in the dragon design is superb. This is one of the few films I would have quite liked to have seen in 3D. Some of the flying sequences, especially the aerial battles look like they would be equally at home in The Battle Of Britain as a kids cartoon. The climactic battle sequence is particularly impressive.

Without giving too much away it also has one of the most satisfying conclusions I’ve seen in a kids animation (at least a Dreamworks one at any rate) in a long time, an ending that somehow manages to be happy and dramatic at the same time. I have no idea why this film didn’t do better when it was released on DVD, perhaps it was a marketing failure, because it really is good. Lassiter and Co. need to take this as a warning not to rest on their laurels because while it still has some way to go to meet the standards set by Pixar, Dreamworks have got the closest they have ever been to that level of quality with How To Train Your Dragon.

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