Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois co-directed Lilo and Stitch (2002), one of the very few Disney features of the last couple of decades worthy of a second look, and so it is no great surprise that How to Train Your Dragon, their first feature for DreamWorks Animation, has turned out to be one of that studio's most enjoyable films. The usual DreamWorks stigmata—the endless pop-culture in-jokes, the fart gags, the schoolboy smugness, the pointless movie-star voices—are mercifully absent. The characters' names (Hiccup, Stoick the Vast, Gobber) made me wary, and at first some of the voices sounded too contemporary, but I was impressed by how quickly both names and voices just seemed to be part of the film's texture. To put it another way, if the voice acting is good enough, it ultimately doesn't matter if the actor's voice seems to come from another time. By the end of the film, I couldn't imagine the boy Hiccup having another name, or another voice besides Jay Baruchel's.
The story is about the conflict between Vikings and dragons on Berk, a wretched little island in the far North. That conflict is both comic and ferocious, and it's as if details of various kinds—the Vikings' otherwise inexplicable Scottish accents, for example—were carefully added to achieve a precise balance between the two. The character design is not wholly successful—as so often in CGI films, many of the human characters look either too self-consciously "cartoony" or not quite cartoony enough—but the greater part of the design effort seems to have gone into the dragons, anyway, and they are a splendidly repulsive lot.
The heart of the film, and what won me to it, is the beautifully worked-out relationship between Hiccup and the wounded dragon he calls Toothless. It is, of course, only the dragon's presence that's a new element in this story about a timid child who tames a wild animal and comes to love it. We've seen something similar in films as diverse as The Yearling and Sanders and DeBlois's own Lilo and Stitch, where the little alien Stitch has the dragon's part. But what Toothless really resembles, in his movements and in his gradually diminishing suspicion of Hiccup, is a very large, entirely feral domestic cat. Many years ago, I tamed just such a cat, who then became my best friend in the world for the rest of his life, and so I smiled in recognition as Hiccup and Toothless tiptoed through their courtship ritual.
Something else: the dragons in Chinese art are often drawn with sinuous lines and sly expressions that evoke house cats, and I wouldn't be surprised if such a connection was in the back of someone's mind at DreamWorks. (The dragons' resemblance to cats becomes almost too pronounced when they begin chasing moving pinpoints of light across the ground, for all the world like kittens mesmerized by a laser pointer.) In any case, the scenes between the boy and the dragon are sensitive and fully imagined, words that I never would have associated with DreamWorks, and only rarely with animation of any kind.
And then, when Toothless, his power of flight restored thanks to the boy, goes shooting through the air with Hiccup as his rider, the effect is truly breathtaking, far more so than anything similar in Avatar or Up. It's in such scenes, where any sense of technical restraints simply falls away—where, almost, any sense of watching a film falls away—that CGI animation and Imax 3-D fully justify themselves. (I've been impressed by the 3-D in both Avatar and How to Train Your Dragon, whose aim has been—as I know others have already said—to bring the audience into the film rather than dump it in the audience's lap.) But it's because it's Hiccup riding Toothless that their aerial circus is thrilling not just as a display, but also as evidence of how much they've come to care for each other.
Alas, as with Lilo and Stitch, which stumbles badly in its second half, How to Train Your Dragon becomes much more ordinary its last 45 minutes or so, when it descends into the sort of overwrought spectacle that seems to be required now for any CGI feature. Everything—hideous monster, Viking fleet, fireballs—is way too big, and the noise level is much too high. There's the suggestion of death on a massive scale, since the Viking fleet appears to be heavily damaged if not obliterated, but there are no dead bodies like those that litter Avatar. Given the scale of the violence, this seems less like the exercise of good taste than an annoying cheat.
I haven't read the book on which the film is based, and I have no idea how closely the film follows the book, but it seems to me that the natural path for the story would have been to extend the boy-dragon relationship to other characters more subtly than the fllm does. The hostility between Vikings and dragons could have given way gradually to warm good feelings on all sides. But a story along those lines might have seemed dangerously simple and low-key, and to make it more complex and interesting would have required a great deal of work. Ending the story with lots of explosions was more technically demanding, I suppose, but otherwise much easier. As it is, the rapprochement between a handful of Viking kids and a few captive dragons has to come too quickly and easily, because the story requires that the kids mount the flying dragons with minimal delay and join the boiling warfare a few islands over. The effect is to diminish the magical quality of the scenes between Hiccup and Toothless. Winning a dragon's confidence is, it seems, really pretty easy.
I have no idea if what I've described as Dragon's unfortunate second half is the way it is because Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois wanted it that way, or because Jeffrey Katzenberg or some other powerful person at DreamWorks decided it had to be that way. Perhaps Sanders and DeBlois merely anticipated what they were sure was already coming. Sanders, whose sensibility I suspect is dominant in the film's best scenes, has had good reason to keep an eye on his bosses: at Disney, his project American Dog was taken out of his hands four years ago and reshaped into the thoroughly disposable Bolt, and Sanders himself was canned. (I won't be surprised if, over the next few years, being fired by John Lasseter becomes a badge of honor in the animation business.) But the best parts of How to Train Your Dragon, like the best parts of Lilo and Stitch, evidence an artist's sensibility like no other recent animated features from the big commercial studios—except, of course, Brad Bird's.
Like Bird's two Pixar features, the best parts of How to Train Your Dragon are concerned with character—not "personality," since I hate that sort of tired Disneyspeak, but with character, with what propels creatures of flesh and blood through their lives. I'm a little more conscious of character than I might have been a few weeks ago, since I just got around to watching the "Marseille trilogy," the three French films—Marius, Fanny, César—made almost eighty years ago by Marcel Pagnol. How strange these old live-action black-and-white films look, compared with a modern CGI-enriched film like Avatar! How limited their settings—a tiny piece of the Marseille waterfront—and how obvious, much of the time, that they originated as stage plays. How petty the concerns of the denizens of the waterfront, the bar owner and his obstreperous son, the girl the boy impregnates, the middle-aged owner of a sail-making shop who wants to marry the girl! And yet how absorbing the films, as they open up the lives of these people and reveal the depth of their feelings.
Animated films can be absorbing in the same way, of course. I recently watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs again, for perhaps the twentieth time, in its gorgeous new Blu-ray incarnation, and I was struck by how little story there is in it—just about enough, probably, to fill up fifteen minutes of The Princess and the Frog. Snow White is as much about its characters, and about character, as Pagnol's Fanny, and it's even more wonderful. I doubt that there's room for such animated films in today's world, considering how conditioned audiences have become to excess of all kinds, and so I'm afraid that today's animated filmmakers will never have the opportunity to make films as durable as Snow White. Today's films are almost entirely about spectacle, and spectacle always dates; it's character that doesn't. I'm grateful that Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois embraced that truth in parts of How to Train Your Dragon, and I wish I thought they'd ever have the opportunity to do so in an entire feature.
[Posted April 19, 2010]