Sunday, 4 April 2010

Film Review: How to Train Your Dragon

(Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, running time 98 minutes)

Looking back at the many animated films I delved into, I can only sneer at the sugary AND cheesy onslaught that insulted my intelligence, if I had any that is, I was 6. I my view, a good children’s film is one you can look back on fondly and even enjoy once you’re all grown up... and the same applies today. So as a huge cynic, any children’s animated feature I can enjoy must be worth a glance for the bigger hearted regular audience. So far, only Pixar seems to be able to charm my critical attitude... but How to Train Your Dragon is a DreamWorks production and I did not enjoy Shrek. Before I get this review underway, let me briefly explain why I paid the price of admission; one, the reviews to mine and everyone else’s surprise were phenomenally positive and two, I’m a sucker for Vikings... with that child like remark, now I don’t seem so negative as a person.

The oddly named How to Train Your Dragon follows the endeavor of Hiccup, also oddly named, voiced by Jay Baruchel, a weak and young Viking blacksmith who supplies the weapons to the rest of his more typical fat, drunk and horned Viking clan who are under constant attack from an array of monstrous and cartoonish dragon archetypes. After inadvertently bringing down one of the harder to slay beasts, being the lesser Viking he is, he instead helps it heal before learning to ride and eventually befriending one of the dragons his people have been fighting for so long...

...yeah, it does sound familiar, more so to anyone who read my Avatar review. The story of of a hero switching sides is a tired out formula but as strange as it sounds, this animated feature isn’t the overhyped cliche spectacle some “other” films turn out to be. The prime difference is in its characterization. First of all, the dragons aren’t innocent creatures, they’re violent fire breathing behemoths, basically they’re real dragons. Secondly the Vikings aren’t even villainous, they’re just defending their homeland. In fact, neither the dragons or Vikings are the protagonists or antagonists, it’s about Hiccup and his juggling of caring for a dragon in secret while trying to train himself back at his village in a rather comically blunt series of Viking duels, all of this before an epic climax that you won’t guess from the trailers alone.

Might sound simple enough, but it’s the characters and humor that stand on its own feet. The dragons come in different shapes and sizes (and methods of attack) ranging from the simple design of the lead dragon to both cartoonish and menacing with their entire personality shown through their movement and facial expressions. In short they don’t talk or try to act like humans, which the animations of old did... excruciatingly. The Vikings themselves are also more typical of their kind, enjoying to drink, eat and fight and we’d expect nothing less. When Hicupp’s overbearing father and chieftain of the Vikings, Stoic the Vast (voiced by Gerard Butler) was introduced in the opening, I couldn’t help but grin for minutes afterwards at that name alone. Another Viking of note is Gobber the Belch (voiced by Craig Ferguson), sporting artificial limbs and an unconventional and downright dangerous training technique for new dragon slaying recruits.

The story is somewhat formulaic and there aren’t that many surprises outside of the characterization making for a somewhat predictable flow in a couple of instances, but what you do get is a series of excellent set piece scenes and epic battles with subtle humor and charm. Further more, the Viking setting is a fresh change of pace from talking animals and inanimate objects, which also allows for a pleasant orchestral score accompanied by Celtic pipes, which isn’t the most common thing to hear in an animation... except Beowulf, but I have it on good authority that may not be for children.

It might sound odd at first to enjoy such a film at my age but how many of you are planning to see Toy Story 3 hmm?

Also stars America Ferrera, Jonah Hill and David Tennant (yes, that one).

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