This is less of a review, and more of a tribute. I felt I had to talk about this movie eventually, and, since we’re wrapping up “A Study Of Film”, now seemed like the perfect time to do it. Please note that this review will contain mild spoilers.
I saw this movie back in March 2010. I wanted to see Alice In Wonderland, but my family kept saying, “The dragon movie looks cute.” Dreamworks films up to that point were a mixed bag. They were good films for when I was in that age range. Shrek 2 was the closest to a masterpiece that the studio was ever going to dish out. They weren’t going to make something truly extraordinary, like Pixar. And wouldn’t you know it, they make a film superior to every single Pixar film. They make my all-time favorite movie.
The year is 1010. In a Scandinavian island known as Berk, Vikings are taught to fight as early as their teens. But not against each other, for it turns out that the mythological dragons of Viking Lore are more than just bedtime stories… they are living, dangerous creatures and the Vikings are at an all and out war with them. One particularly scrawny teen, named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) looks on in envy, as killing a dragon is viewed as a sort of ritual, and he’s never even come close. One night though, by pure luck, he shoots down a Night Fury, the rarest and and most mysterious of the dragons. But when he goes off to find where the dragon landed, he begins to discover that there may be more to these creatures than he first assumed.
WHERE. DO. I. BEGIN?
What grabs me about this film is that even though it is technically a fantasy, I can’t help but get the feeling that everything I’m seeing really happened at some point in history. And not in a dull, preachy way. On the contrary, there’s never a dull moment in the film. I don’t know how they do it. Is it the screenplay, which brilliantly weaves the spoken word with the unspoken word to convey emotions and relationships? Or maybe it’s the look of the picture. Roger Deakins was a visual consultant on the film and his experience shows throughout the film. And Berk felt so amazingly real. This world wasn’t just a place for the characters to appear in. It feels lived in, and their culture is felt at all times.
I like to think that the two things that grab us are precisely the two things that should grab us in a film: the story and the characters. Now you can argue that this is just a kiddy cartoon all you want, but you KNOW that’s a lie. There was a moment at the end of the film that made my jaw drop the first time I saw it. Without giving it away, DreamWorks does something that they never would have been able to do in the past, and it works extremely well.
But on top of all of this is the characters. We have the other Viking teens and Gobber, who pretty much come off as comic relief, but they don’t feel out of place. Gobber is like that weird uncle you only see on holidays, and the teenagers are just as weird as the teenagers at my school. Then there’s Astrid, who doesn’t get as much development as the film’s three major players, but part of the beauty of the film is that it knows what to focus on and what not to focus on. For the screen time she gets, Astrid makes quite an impression, and she has some really great dialogue.
The main character, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, gets some good development and dialogue (especially his narration at the beginning and end of the film.) While he’s not an especially complex character, he doesn’t really have to be for this story to succeed. Plus, I love characters like this who keep getting pushed down and keep getting right back up. But even though he is the main character, and a very strong one at that, there are two characters in particular that make this film succeed.
The first is Stoick The Vast, the Chief of Berk, and (mild spoiler) Hiccup’s father. I marked it like that because the way this character is introduced is just brilliant. Hiccup basically introduces him as an extremely tough and rather violent man, and the fact that he’s Hiccup’s father is almost an afterthought. There are several extremely well written scenes between Stoick and Hiccup where we see their fragile and borderline abusive relationship. And although Stoick is a foil throughout the film, he’s never a direct antagonist. He’s simply a human, nothing more. And it’s important to have a realistic depiction of humanity in order to balance out, well, what comes next…
Okay, there’s no getting around it. You all knew this was coming. Let’s talk about Toothless. This could very well be the greatest portrayal of an animal, fictional or otherwise, in cinema history. I would like to point put that in the children’s book that this film was very loosely based on, Toothless and Hiccup could speak to each other, and it would have been REALLY easy for the movie to do this, too. After all, this is a kiddy cartoon, so the animals have to talk, right? Wrong.
The film basically revolves around the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, and there is virtually no dialogue between these characters. That alone is incredible. But the scenes that these two characters share take on a profound level of their own merit. Many people who talk about this film say that the flying sequences are the main highlight, and while those scenes are incredible, in my opinion, the Forbidden Friendship scene is my favorite movie scene ever. I’m not going to say too much about that scene.. for now anyway, but let’s just say it’s the centerpiece of the film.
Oh, and did I forget to mention the fact that this movie has my favorite score of all time? Just watch this video if you don’t believe me. Once you’ve watched it – get this. You haven’t even heard the two best tracks. The 2nd best track is this. The best is this. And now realize that ALL OF THAT lost the Oscar to this.
And get this – Usually when an animal doesn’t talk in an animated film, they just get Frank Welker to do the voice. But not here! According to IMDB, the vocalizations for the dragons were created using a mix of elephant seals, elephants, horses, tigers, domestic cats, and even the voice of the sound designer. Add that to the Viking weaponry and ships and it’s a wonder this film doesn’t get enough recognition for Sound Editing or Mixing.
A little personal fact about me, I always enjoyed going to the zoo and watching the animals, particularly the dolphin shows. I’ve always been interested in animals, in fact, if I don’t end up in show business, my second choice would easily be ‘animal trainer.’ Because we don’t know what animals are thinking or even how intelligent they are, we can’t help but wonder what really goes on in their heads. And it seems to me that in all other animated films, animals either talk or they veer towards too humanistic or too cartoony. They don’t act like real animals, and their relationship with the people they’re with doesn’t seem to be particularly real either.
How To Train Your Dragon conveys the relationship between beast and man in beautiful, yet surprisingly realistic way. The animation is flawless. The music is flawless. I’ve seen it a hundred times, and I’ll probably see it a hundred more. I could probably do a play by play of every scene in this movie, discussing in depth why it’s such a masterpiece. And maybe I will someday. But for now, I think I’ve said enough. If, for any reason, you have NOT seen this movie, I implore you to do so – and on the biggest screen you can find. It is, without a doubt, my favorite movie of all time.
Let’s hope the sequel doesn’t ruin it.
(First of all, there’s no need for a rating here. Second of all, if you’re wondering how the heck I wrote this so fast, I’ve actually written this a while beforehand, in preparation. There’s just so much to say about it.)
Lovely, lovely compliment for this movie. I’ve seen it too with a very special grandson, and I couldn’t agree more.