2010: How to Train Your Dragon
Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois
Written by Will Davies, Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Things used to be so simple. You had Pixar up at the top, then the vast gulf of time and space, then DreamWorks Animation. Oh, DreamWorks’ films would make money, but they were the worst kind of product, filled with recognizable celebrity voices spouting out instantly dated pop culture references with all the subtlety of a punch to the face. While in 2o04 Pixar gave us the slice of perfection that was The Incredibles, DreamWorks brought us Shark Tale, whose main selling point was Will Smith as a fish. Pixar was the artist, turning out films with depth and emotion, while DreamWorks was the annoying little brother holding up his crayon drawings shouting, “Look what I made!”
Then along came 2o10. Pixar was capping off what it had started back in 1995 by releasing Toy Story 3. Meanwhile, DreamWorks was rolling out the awkwardly titled How to Train Your Dragon, with a predictable voice cast featuring a batch of current “it” names like Jonah Hill and Kristen Wiig. It looked to be a slaughter. And it was. Because if you ask me, DreamWorks mopped the floor with Pixar this time around.
Not that Toy Story 3 was a bad film. Pixar would have to try really, really hard to make one of those. But the plot felt recycled from Toy Story 2. And while the ending had the requisite nostalgic tears, it felt like it was trading on the past two films rather than creating any emotion of its own. Granted, it was capping off the entire trilogy, but the previous entries had felt self-contained. This one didn’t work at all unless you’d seen the first two. I liked, but didn’t love it.
Because I’d fallen in love three months earlier. With absolutely no expectations other than some cool 3D visuals of flying dragons, I walked out of How to Train Your Dragon completely floored. The celebrity names? They were playing actual characters! They weren’t just cartoonified versions of themselves making wisecracks. There was actual emotion! Both in the relationship between Hiccup and his father and between Hiccup and Toothless. It was exciting and thrilling without being empty spectacle. The score by John Powell was absolutely glorious, filled with adventure and danger and romance. And the cool 3D visuals? This went way beyond that. It was breath-taking, and thankfully something that held up in non-3D formats, thanks in no small part to the presence of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.
But when you strip away the dazzling sights and the soaring score, it’s the characters that carry it. At the core is the very real connection between Hiccup and Toothless. Anybody that’s ever had a pet must have had a dozen moments in this film where they saw Toothless, but really saw their dog or cat. The dragon never utters a word, but his face is completely alive, from his frightened confusion when he’s first shot down to his fierce determination when he gives Hiccup a, “Come on, let’s go!” nod before launching into the final battle. And I love how the dragon designs didn’t settle for the blandly traditional, but went in some many interesting directions (something co-director Chris Sanders would bring to a later project, last year’s The Croods). The overwhelming impression that comes from this film, that I never got from any of DreamWorks’ earlier films, was that this wasn’t simply created as product to appeal to the least common denominator in order to make the most money possible. It felt like it came from the heart.
Now some will argue the DreamWorks turnaround really started two years prior with Kung Fu Panda. And they could be right. But I didn’t see Panda until after I saw Dragon, and there was no way Panda was going to top that experience. I probably watch this more than any other Pixar film outside of The Incredibles. When the film I ended, I thought to myself, “That wasn’t just good for DreamWorks. That was Pixar good.” That was the highest praise I could give it. And to be honest, I don’t think Pixar has put out anything as good since. Granted, neither has DreamWorks; they went back to the Shrek and Madagascar wells almost immediately, but have shown some signs of life with Rise of the Guardians and The Croods. And we’re getting a sequel to Dragon later this year. I’m definitely looking forward to it, but I doubt it can capture the same magic of that first viewing of the original film.