“The Dragon Whisperer”
DISCLAIMER: I viewed an early screening of this movie. Not all of the animation was completed in spots. That said, my capsule review is: boy + Vikings + dragons = WIN!!!
When you hear words like “computer animate” and “Vikings”, your first thought might be Beowulf. From DreamWorks Studio (Shrek, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda) comes How to Train Your Dragon. Based on the book by Cressida Cowell, the movie tells the story of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), who doesn’t exactly fit in with the rest of his Viking tribe. Whereas they have what he demurely calls “stubbornness issues”, bred early on in the craft of warfare and dragon slaying, he meekly goes about failing at trying to live up to their expectations. His world is both really turned upside down and given direction when he encounters an oft-whispered about, but never encountered, Night Fury species of dragon; and has to challenge his fellow Viking to see things from an entirely new perspective.
The focus of the movie revolves around two relationships: Hiccup and his father, the Viking chieftain, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler, 300) and Hiccup and his dragon, Toothless. (Okay, three if you count Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera, Ugly Betty)).
“I need to make my mark.” –Hiccup
Our hero, point of view character, and narrator, Hiccup has a modern voice, full of snark and sarcasm that gets him through life. He wants little more than to do something with his less than ordinary life that will get him notice, status, and/or a date.
“I know what I was and I knew what I was meant to be.” –Stoick
Because he is such a laughing stock to his community, and a disappointment to his father, he is constantly told that to make his life, to find his true calling and purpose, he has to “stop being all of you”. It’s a frustrating lesson to be formed by, to be seen strictly in terms of potential or calling, yet offered little guidance to become what he’s meant to be. So much so, that it becomes easy to be afraid of being different. He also walks a line between longing to be accepted and having the courage to think differently, because his choices have the potential to cost him his family and community.
“It’s who I am, dad.” –Hiccup
How to best form others is the dilemma faced by parents and teachers. Stoick is no different. He struggles to find a way to talk to his son without the burden of expectation (the lessons learned from his own father, no doubt) believing that he knows who and what his son is meant to be. Just like he struggles to learn his son’s actual gifts and skills and personality and talents; appreciating him for who he is and his existence, not what he can do.
“I looked at him and I saw myself.” –Hiccup
While there seems to be no place for the non-conformers or those outside the mainstream, a benefit to Hiccup being so different is that it helps him to relate to those who are also different. His life had provided him with a skill set and lessons on how to reach out to others who find themselves on the fringe or outcast such as Toothless. Like the journey of the missionary, rather an initial missionary attempting to relate to an indigenous people on their terms, Hiccup had to learn to communicate without words. He had to walk, talk, and think like his new friend. By learn to communicate and being open to learn from one another, he found that he was able to appreciate The Other. Bring something new to the conversation in turn, he was able to show his people a new perspective and a new way of doing things. Allowing both of them to overcome all manner of handicaps, which becomes an important theme in the movie.
“Everything we know about you guys is wrong.” –Hiccup
As for the animation itself, the lush production work is apparent from the first minute of the film.
Its detailed work and great use of shadows added another layer to the movie. The animation proved superior even to the lavish setting of Kung Fu Panda. The aerial scenes of soaring dragons are breath taking, the combat scenes are fierce (say about the same as a The Incredibles level of intensity), and the movie maintains a snarky tone (say about the same a Shrek) yet manages to not be impressed with its own hipness. It’s wickedly funny, with fully realized characters (one in particular there to give some of us some Dungeons & Dragons gaming flashbacks). In the DreamWorks versus Pixar animation battles, usually DreamWorks gets the nod for cheekiness and being an enjoyable ride, while Pixar tends to have more heart and depth to their features. With How to Train Your Dragon, DreamWorks finally makes that leap to fully embrace both and will stand the test of time.