Sunday, March 28, 2010

Training Day: HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON

How to Train Your Dragon is a well-crafted and memorable computer-animated film. It has likable characters, crisp dialogue, and smooth, detailed, expressive animation. It has a rousing score and great widescreen compositions. It’s exciting and more than a little moving. I was pleasantly surprised. The film comes from Dreamworks Animation, but the creators are Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, who created Lilo and Stitch, the last genuinely great film to come out of Disney Animation. They bring with them all of the above, but also a deep sense of story and character that finds no need for pointless celebrity gimmickry or in-jokes laced with quickly dated references, the symptoms that have plagued most of Dreamworks’s prior output.

The plot feels familiar. In the past ten or fifteen years, nearly every animation studio has put out an epic adventure-comedy about an outcast young person whose unappreciated talent just might end up saving his community. That’s Disney’s Hercules, Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, Warner Brother’s Happy Feet, Sony’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and even Dreamworks’s own Kung Fu Panda. But what Sanders and DeBlois bring to this formula is energy and passion, resulting in a telling that feels so expertly realized that it becomes the kind of filmmaking that follows formula without ever once feeling stale.

Besides, the world the filmmakers create is interesting and fun all on its own. It’s hundreds and hundreds of years ago in an unspecified place and time in a Viking village that has a problem with big pests that carry off sheep and burn down buildings in the middle of the night. Those pests just happen to be dragons. The whole village trains to fight the beasts which flap their way out of the darkness on still and quiet nights. This feels like a fully realized fantasy setting, not just something slapped together out of spare parts.

The leader of the village is the most fearsome dragon-killer (Gerard Butler), but is ashamed of his wimpy son (Jay Baruchel), a weak Viking who is constantly building contraptions. The son is sent to dragon training with the other young people, including the cutie (America Ferrera) he has a crush on. The group of youngsters is led through training by a tough old dragon-fighter (Craig Ferguson) who has a peg-leg and hook-hand to show for his many years of experience. But the son has a secret. One night, he shot down a rare breed of dragon and has been visiting the creature in the forest. It has broken its tail so it can’t fly away. The two of them form a bond, with the son helping the dragon back into the air, and the dragon helping the son learn about dragons. The animation with the dragon is expertly handled. There is no dialogue; the creature remains an animal. All emotion and expression comes through with body language and the eyes. When the dragon finally takes flight, there are several scenes of stunning flight so perfectly realized that I felt like I was flying right along with them. This is a tender and well-told story of emotional interaction between man and beast.

The film leads, as it must, to an epic confrontation with revealed secrets, strong declarations, abrupt changes-of-heart, and fulfillment of romantic subplots all leading up to a huge battle against the true villain. But to say it in that way is to make it sound boring or unexciting. That’s just not the case here. The action is lots of fun; it’s incredibly energetic and well-staged with a great sense of space and energy. The gorgeous animation puts stunning images on screen, not just in terms of detail, but in composition and framing as well. I wasn’t even bothered by the 3D. It seems to work well, and I write that as someone who is still a firm septic when it comes to the longevity or usefulness of the gimmick. The 3D here shames even the much-hyped technique in Avatar in effortlessness and usefulness. It never once pulled me out of the experience.

This extends to the rest of the film as well. It’s an exciting, fast-paced and absorbing story. The voice acting is superb across the board. The actors give soulful, heartfelt performances that are matched by the performances the animators give in bringing them to life. The movie doesn’t quite generate the same emotional wallop that Pixar has become so good at, nor do all the supporting characters add up to much more than scenery. But this is still a very strong effort, high quality all the way. The film is a total delight from beginning to end.

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