Action Movie Friday: How to Train Your Dragon

It is time for Action Movie Friday, where I treat an action movie like an action movie and not like a drama and stuff. All movie reviews are subjective and while I may like something, you might think it’s shit, and vice versa!

Title: How to Train Your Dragon
MPAA Rating: PG
Release: 2010
Genre: action, animated, fantasy, adventure, family
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig
Director: Dean Deblois, Chris Sanders
Writer: Will Davies, Dean Deblois, Chris Sanders, Cressida Crowell (Book)
Distributor: Dreamworks
Budget: $165 Million
Box Office: $495 Million

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 98%

Gingersnaps Rating: Five Cookies!

Summary:

There is nothing more in the world that Hiccup wants than to be a dragon slaying Viking and make his father proud of him. But he’s just not built to match up to his mighty father, Stoick the Vast. Hiccup doesn’t stop trying and when he succeeds in downing a rare and never before seen dragon, a Night Fury, he can’t bring himself to kill the beast. Unwittingly having injured the dragon, Hiccup studies him, befriending him, calling the dragon Toothless. Together, they learn the truth about the dragons and the huge misunderstanding that is happening between them. Now, they just have to get the other Vikings to listen.

Review:

How to Train Your Dragon was a fairly successful movie financially. It did well enough that it got a television series (I’m like two seasons behind, drat,) a (glitch ridden) MMO and a sequel with talks about a third movie to explain why there aren’t any dragons in the world anymore. (Sad face.) I’m not sure what the merchandise was like, but I do remember at my local family dollar there were plenty of activity books (right next to My Little Pony.)

I’m actually surprised at the box office numbers for this movie. I thought they were higher. But given the return rate versus the budget rate, this movie was a financial success and the DVD, Blu Ray sales as long as the-numbers.com were tracking them weren’t that bad either.

How to Train Your Dragon is one of those movies that grabs me and enthralls me the whole way through every single time I watch it. I have a very difficult time coming up with bad things to say about this movie. And you know, I like that. I like having a movie I can point to and go “more like this please.” Given it was from the same minds as Lilo & Stitch, Beauty & the Beast and Mulan, this really shouldn’t surprise anyone.

You see, the brilliance of the movie is that it grabs you from the very first scene. I watched one of the extras where they talked about how complicated that first scene was to do given that they had to introduce setting, all these characters, and the conflict all at the same time. However, they managed to pull it off by both telling through Hiccup’s narration what was going on, and then backing it up by showing through an awesome action sequence with lots of explosions and character interaction what was going on.

Narration gets a bad rap. Narration, or voice over, is Hollywood’s latest obsession and it’s a short hand way to set up a story by having the main character tell you what’s going on, where you are and everything Hollywood thinks you need to know before the movie’s story really gets going. It’s gotten so out of hand places like CinemaSins mock it very effectively. Narration is a very powerful tool in a storyteller’s arsenal when used effectively.

See, the key to good narration that most movies fail at is that the narration has to be entertaining and an expression of the character thinking or saying what is going on. If you’re using narration as the opening of the story, it has to grab you and make you sit up and take notice. Most narration in movies nowadays is just so boring and unnecessary that it would be better to leave it out entirely. There are two movies that I can think of that use narration effectively, How to Train Your Dragon and Pitch Black.

Both movies use their narration to establish character. When you hear Vin Diesel’s gravelly voice telling you about cyrosleep and the animal side and how he can smell everyone else on the ship, you know you’re dealing with some primal tough guy. When you listen to Jay Baruchel as Hiccup, you get dragged into that cynical, fatalistic, self-deprecating humor of a teenager. (It helps that both Vin and Jay loved their characters.)

And then just as Hiccup finishes his narration, the main conflict is revealed. Dragons! Dragons are attacking the village. And we get bombarded with the stereotypes of Vikings fighting… dragons. (Vikings didn’t really wear horned caps but it’s become such visual shorthand and children’s movie not historical reenactment.) We get introduced to all these characters in very individual ways and then when you think the whole thing is over, we’ve got the conflict all revealed and we’re good to go for story, bang, major reveal of the other conflict in the story, Hiccup vs. Stoick.

And the conflict of father and son is so personal and so emotionally visceral that it feels like it’s been ripped from every teenagers thoughts about expectations versus reality and not being listened to and feeling ignored and not loved for who you are and instead being held to a standard that you can’t possibly measure up to ever and how they want a child that is not you.

When I get done wanting to be Stoick over the head with the nearest boat oar, it really does make me want to cry. Because this entire movie has a very large underlying message of love the child you have and not the child you want. Plus the perils of not learning what motivates your enemy so that maybe they can become your friends and allies.

And the beauty of this story is that given the society we saw (which was actually relatively close to actual Viking society) Hiccup could have been a girl and the story would have played out the exact same way. Sure, there are moments where it’s definitely a father and son thing. But it doesn’t really hinge on Hiccup’s gender, it hinges more on the type of person Hiccup is versus the type of person Stoick is. (A lot of it having to do with physical qualities and Hiccup’s brilliant mind and general clumsiness factor.) Stoick did what his father said. Hiccup questions. Stoick is a brawler or a paladin. Hiccup is a thief or an assassin. The two are at odds because of ideology and physiology and not gender. It’s actually refreshing to see.

The movie gets a nice satisfying ending where the conflicts are laid to rest and hopefully Stoick accepts Hiccup and the two start listening to one another. Or else, the rest of the teen years are going to be just as full of arguments and hurt on both sides. (The television series tries to address some of this with mixed results.)

Obviously, this deserves the full cookie.

There are lots of explosions, there were plenty of places where they weren’t necessary and they had them anyways. It was awesome. I loved it. One cookie.

The fight scenes were entertaining. The first fight scene set a high standard for the rest. Then showing the training and how they learned to fight dragon was funny. So, the final battle scene, they do a fair job of keeping you engaged and showing how the characters use what they’ve learned. One Cookie.

But now let’s talk about Astrid!

Astrid has the unique position of being both Hiccup’s rival and his romantic interest. Okay, sure, there is Snotlout, who is everything that Hiccup isn’t but he’s  such a braggart it’s hard to take him seriously. But when it comes down to the dragon training, it’s shown explicitly that Astrid is the most serious about it. She trains and trains constantly. When it comes down to it, outside of Stoick, Astrid is going to be the toughest one to convince that dragons can actually be friendly.

There isn’t a huge amount of time devoted to her because this is Hiccup’s story but what we do see of her, she is Hiccup’s go to type of person. She is the one who isn’t afraid to give him a kick in the pants, metaphorically. She’s not handing him ideas because guess what, the main character does have to come up with their own solutions for the story to feel satisfying. But she trusts Hiccup enough to go along with his ideas while at the same time going “If this doesn’t work, I’m telling anyways because people need to know.” Overall, she feels like a motivated teenage girl. Could she and Ruffnut been bigger and not twigs. Yes. But here is Hollywood for you.

Now, if there is one thing I don’t like, it’s the punch then kiss thing. It isn’t funny when a boy shoves a girl down on the playground and the teacher passes it off as “he just likes you boys will be boys.” And it’s not funny for a girl to punch a guy and then kiss him to make up for it. This whole “they’re violent because they like you” has become such a ubiquitous and accepted part of culture that it’s barely noticed anymore except by feminists and abuse survivors. And here it is again in a children’s movie where in the end Hiccup is going “Okay, I’ll take a sock in the arm to get a kiss,” and accepting the violence. They tried to make it this “romantic” thing. Look, anything that involves hitting/shoving/tugging in any way shape or form is not romantic. This is the one sour note in an overall excellent movie and I’m not even sure it is “in character” for Astrid to be doing this.

“But Ginny, it’s there on the screen in the movie, of course it’s in character!”

Now, the real thing is here, is this a matter of it being about Astrid which is the cookie we are at, or storytelling romance in general. I feel this is more of a storytelling romance in general sort of question rather than about Astrid herself. The romance was such a minor subplot that it doesn’t really get addressed until you address Astrid.

So, I’m going to leave this cookie about women in How to Train Your Dragon whole. Just, with a caveat about how I don’t like the storytelling they used for the romance as it was a deliberate choice since they used it like 3 times.

The universe of How to Train Your Dragon was great. You can tell that they spent either a lot of time reading through the books (I have no idea how much is from the books and how much isn’t.) Or they spent a lot of time coming up with dozens of dragons and leaving lots of universe questions open (which they then spent an equal amount of time explaining in shorts and the television series.) The dragons are all fairly distinct while still be lizard type dragons. There is a ton of fire effects and despite the fact that you know some of those shapes wouldn’t be able to fly at all, they’re dragons. You want to hand wave it.

The Universe doesn’t feel strictly “Norse” despite the “Odin’s beard, Thor’s hammer” type of swearing going on. The music does help give it a more Irish/Scottish feel. (Yes, I put a slash between those, don’t hurt me.) And the art on the houses is a mix between Germanic, Norse and Celtic styles from the same time period. Mostly it’s pretty generic tunics and furs and trousers. Astrid has a little Roman Legionnaire/Greek Warrior thrown in. The colors are very natural and greens and golds that are pretty easy to get out of plant based dyes. Nothing really pulled me out. One cookie.

How to Train Your Dragon is an excellent and entertaining movie that really delivers on the conflicts it presents with funny and likeable characters. With the one caveat of bad romance writing. Five cookies.

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