Wednesday, October 30, 2013

FI: How To Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon
US, 2010
Directed and co-written (with Will Davies) by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois

Let me dispense with something right up front: there may be no more common plot in children's film—or particularly, children's animation—than that of a misfit kid in a narrow-minded culture who eventually impresses his/her distant parent(s) by proving his/her worth in an unexpected way (but at a great potential cost). It seems to happen in nearly every film, and while repetition hardly makes it "bad"—clearly, people of all ages still relate to resourceful underdogs overcoming parental disappointment—it's still a well-worn trope that doesn't add much to a given movie. That being said, Dreamworks's digi-mation How to Train Your Dragon overcomes the familiarity of its plot by virtue of a well-realized setting, a handful of interesting characters (with solid voice performances all around), and an inescapably sentimental relationship between said misfit kid and his adorable dragon pal.

The film, based on a series of books by Cressida Cowell, takes place in the land of Berk, a craggy island country peopled by inexplicably Scottish vikings. The leader of this clan, Stoick (Gerard Butler), is your standard macho warrior type, and he leads the villagers in their battles with the various dragons who raid their farms and attack their homes. His son, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), is an awkward, clumsy jinx who wants to impress his father but can't seem to do anything without imperiling himself and everyone else. At the prodding of his right-hand man Gobber (Craig Ferguson), Stoick allows Hiccup to train to fight dragons along side kids his age, like book-smart Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), braggart Snoutlout (Jonah Hill), and fetchingly deadly Astrid (America Ferrara). But what they don't know is that Hiccup has injured a rare Night Fury dragon and, unable to kill it, learns from it instead and strikes up a close friendship with the beast.

I'm sure you can already imagine most of the beats the film will hit, and hit them it does. But although it isn't breaking any new ground in terms of storytelling, it does have an incredible visual style (thanks in part to the terrific cinematographer Roger Deakins, here credited as a "visual consultant," who no doubt provided invaluable pointers to the animation team). Berk really springs to life, and feels like a lived-in place where man and dragon have battled for ceaseless ages. The other main saving grace for the film is its stellar voice cast. It's rare that I give any praise to Gerard "This is SPARTA!" Butler, but he does well capturing both Stoick's machismo and the underlying parental love. Baruchel adds enjoyable sarcastic notes to Hiccup's personality, and his adenoidal voice fits well with the character. The real standout is Ferguson, whose amiable, avuncular charm makes the boisterous Gobber really come to life. The character designs don't stray far from the realm of "generic fictional viking," but a good amount of the personality of each comes through before you even hear them speak. The dragons themselves, in their variety and adorableness, work quite well. A cynic might say that this is a merchandising decision, but even so, the distinct types and designs seem logical and organic. Overall, How to Train Your Dragon is exciting, funny, and cute enough to keep adults and children engaged, and though the plot is conventional, the film's heart should pull even the snarkier viewers into its world.

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