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Home » Culture and Criticism

How To Train Your Dragon

Submitted by on January 31, 2011 – 9:26 AM24 Comments

Death Race 38, Sarah 18; 1 of 24 categories completed

We decided to side with it early on, when we heard Jay Baruchel's voice, and after the "…Astrid [choir of angels / slo-mo]" moment, but all three of us climbed into the tank for How to Train Your Dragon the minute it became clear that the filmmaking team had based most of the dragons' movements and behaviors on cats. When the little one curled up next to Hiccup and started purring, Mr. S wailed, "FINE, movie, WE LOVE YOU, now QUIT IT." And: seriously. A catlike creature named "Toothless"? I have one of those!

We only had one teeny quibble, that it's not entirely clear what the relationship is between the regular dragons and the queen/dictator dragon, but calling it a quibble isn't really accurate, because in the end we didn't give a shit. Stoick approaching Toothless on that rocky jetty, with the clouds of battle hanging over him…man, that scene's a killer. Several of the chase sequences feel real enough that I had to watch through my fingers, which put me in mind of The Incredibles, and the animation is gorgeous; DreamWorks is really bringing it. (We're also obsessed with the illustrations in the dragon manual. Do those come from the original book?)

But can it beat Toy Story 3? Well, it's a solid movie that stands alone, and doesn't depend on its audience having loved its characters for well over a decade — but I think TS3 still works just as well for people new to the franchise, has just as nail-biting a thriller sequence, and reduced me to a sobbing mess at the end. I think Best Animated Feature is TS3's to lose, which is too bad, because H2TYD is damn good.

Original Score, though: maybe. It's a sweet score with a light touch, and it does lots of different things. That said, I liked Social Network's score a bit better. So, not sure Dragon wins any Oscars, but it's a completely worthwhile watch.

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24 Comments »

  • Adrienne says:

    Yay! I'm always wary when I'm like "No, REALLY. It's a great little movie!" because, you know, personal tastes and all. I ALSO loved the dragons… DreamWorks made some really nice animation choices to make them look both badass and cuddly (no small feat, there.)

  • attica says:

    I developed a promo'd-to-death antipathy for this flick because of the NBC Olympics', um, promo-to-death, (and also: since when do Vikings have Scottish accents?), so hearing nice things now sort of soften me to maybe catching it.

  • Jean says:

    I also loved this movie, though I could not help but wonder why adults have Scottish accents (when they are Vikings) and children have American ones? Do they receive a cooler accent at puberty?

  • Fiona says:

    Well, cats are both badass and cuddly, so definitely a great choice of animal to model the characters on. I have a little black cat who is bad to the bone whenever she isn't lovely, so seeing Toothless onscreen was like watching my own precious bad girl.

    There also seemed to me to be a parallel between the development of Toothless and that of Stitch in Lilo and Stitch; it turns out that some of the creative team overlaps those two films.

  • Leslie says:

    I noticed too that Toothless was very cat like. I looked up some information online after I watched the movie and apparently they based it on both cats and dogs. It reminded me so much of my black dog that I started calling him toothless.

  • Southern Shannon says:

    Such a great movie! It's the ONE animated flick I can bear to watch repeatedly when the kidlets demand the same title over and over.

    The intro to Astrid was awesome, I think that's what grabbed me too. The drawing in the sand scene was what clinched it for me.

  • HollyH says:

    I love this movie beyond reason. I think you make a good point about how TS3 has most people SOBBING by the end, and by golly, that is going to count for a lot. But if it was up to me (which of course it is not), I would probably give the Oscar to HTTYD based on two things: first, the courage it had to do what it did with Hiccup at the end; and second, the fact that, IMO, it represents a greater achievement for its company.

    That is, TS3 is exactly as excellent as you expect a Pixar movie to be. Pixar has set the CGI-animation bar for the industry, and with TS3, it it hits its own mark. That Pixar is about to create "children's movies" that are so profoundly moving that they have adults in tears is also not news — see "Up" and "Wall-E", especially. So, TS3 is another of the company's very solid offerings.

    On the other hand, HTTYD represents such a departure from Dreamworks' last decade of output that there was hardly a review that could help mentioning what a stunning thing it was to find a work of such heart and technical brilliance coming from that animation studio (the good reviews received by "Kung Fu Panda" notwithstanding). For the first time people were talking about a Dreamworks film that could stand up with what Pixar offers. And I have to give them extra credit for challenging themselves artistically (such as by engaging cinematographer Roger Deakins to advise them on dramatic lighting).

    If the Oscar represents acknowledgement of an outstanding achievement in film in a given year… then I personally would want to give it to Dreamworks for this film, because to achieve what they did with HTTYD, they really had to stretch themselves farther than Pixar did with TS3, and thus, to my mind, theirs is the greater achievement, if not necessarily the greater movie. (IMO it's a draw, in that regard.)

  • Maren says:

    I watched this on a teeny back-of-seat plane screen and still loved it — and all the more when I looked up the credits and realized that Chris Smith, the guy who created/directed/voiced Lilo and Stitch, participated in it. Once I realized how much Toothless made me think of Stitch I knew why it was great.

  • HollyH says:

    Just FWIW: it's the thinnest of thin connections, but… as to why Vikings should have Scottish accents…

    First, because the author of the book series based the island of Berk on a deserted Scottish island that her family used to go to for vacations, and where her father used to tell her stories of the island's ancient Viking inhabitants and their fights with dragons.

    Second, (even thinner), because the Hebridean islands off Scotland were historically settled by Vikings. (Really ancient Scottish history, prior to everyone kind of uniting to hate on the English, often consists of conflict between clans of native Pictish origin, and clans originating in Celtic and Nordic invasions.)

    In reality, of course, I suspect that the reason for it (as for the kids having American accents) is merely "it just sounds cool" and "it's a kids movie, let's be whimsical". (I haven't read any of the books, so I don't actually know whether the books imply an accent on the part of any of the characters. Given that the author mentions the Scottish-island origins of her ideas, I guess it's possible they do.)

  • Adrienne says:

    @Attica: The accents aren't all that far fetched- many Scottish towns are the remnants of early Viking settlements,especially in the Outer Hebrides (this is also why you tend to see a lot of redheaded/very fair Scots and Irish.) So, you know, not STRICTLY factual, but the connection does exist. Any Scottish/Viking scholars have better, more researched info?

  • Cathy in Canada says:

    My daughter and I really enjoyed the movie, though she LOVED the books, and the only thing the movie has in common with the book is that the characters have the same names, though there are more characters in the movie (except the mother–the mother is in the book).

    So while we enjoyed the movie, it's hard to love because it's nothing like the books in the slightest. So much so that it sends my 11-year-old into a rant, just thinking about it and how could they even call the movie by the same name?

    Seriously–completely different.

  • Carol Elaine says:

    The dragons were modeled on cats? That explains why my boyfriend says the main dragon reminds him of my black cat Matisse (I haven't seen the movie yet). He's actually renamed the movie How To Train Your Matisse. I guess I really need to see this movie now.

  • Kermit says:

    I saw it in 3D, such love.

    I don't think it will beat TS3 because of the tearjerker nostalgia factor of the Toy Story franchise. Then again, Kung Fu Panda wiped WALL-E all over the Annies that one year, which left me gobsmacked. Then again again, WALL-E took the Oscar.

    My kids and I love the book series by Cressida Cowell, whose plots are drastically different. This dragon movie basically borrowed character names and a title from the book series. David Tennant (drool) narrates the audiobooks in his native Scottish accent, and since my whole family loves Doctor Who, we simply love listening to him tell us stories of Hiccup Haddock Horrendous III.

  • Leah says:

    I have a three year old so I have seen this movie a lot. A LOT. That being said, the whole sequence, from Toothless whorfing up the fish to him trying to smile to him toddling off on his hind legs to go get his own drawing stuck NEVER fails to make me laugh like a crazy person.

    Toy Story 3 did nothing for me. I thought the feelings were cheaply had and the story was just so expected.

  • Gralnger says:

    Count me in, too, as someone who was surprised at how this movie was good–in an unqualified, unequivocal way. There's no "it's good for a kid's movie", no "it's good except for a few parts. It's just good.

    I think that what I liked was, in a way, the same thing that I liked about "The Incredibles". Well, I mean, there were lots of things, but what I found interesting was how the movies mostly avoided taking cheap shots at the characters. The funny bits were the characters themselves, not "haha Mister Incredible is old and fat" or "lol, Vikings are stupid and dumb". Even the Viking kids weren't presented as fools; they were just really enthusiastic about fighting dragons.

  • Shawn says:

    I also thought that HTTYD was far more heartfelt than TS3.

    TS3 revisited the same heart-strings territory of TS2, so it felt retread. It was still a good movie. But I wasn't as impressed, not because "Pixar is always so excellent, I say ho-hum," rather because TS3 felt extremely derivative. It also was lacking in a lot of the lighthearted humour of TS2 or HTTYD or Up (for another sob your eyes out example).

    TS3 didn't really bring much new or creative to the table. Same issues of betrayal, friendship, abandonment, and growing up. And since there was no real new character development or arc, there is really no one to root for. When Woody's friends act like jerks to him or he has to remember what it means to be a friend or a toy AGAIN or deal with kids growing up…yawn. We've been there before. Maybe if I was a child who grew up with Woody, Buzz and Andy, my attachments would be different. Instead, I was just tired of the misunderstanding + movie villain + action sequence + comeuppance of the formula.

    HTTYD was an original look at the bond between a kid and his 'pet,' two "alien" species learning to co-exist, father-son dynamics, and the coming of age struggle to fit in. It's an age old formula, but it was done in a fresh way.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    OMG, this is by the same team that did Lilo and Stitch??? I must see it! I adore L&S with a total and non-ironic passion–how much do I love Stitch tucking his feet in his mouth to roll around? THIS MUCH, I DO.

  • Jeanne says:

    Re: the Scottish accents, I think it's fairly simple. Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson are Scottish and can't do other accents very well, and they were the leads for the adult characters. Hence the adult Vikings have Scottish accents. My guess is the filmmakers didn't bother trying to make anyone do an accent.

    I love this movie. It's the first non-Pixar animated movie I've gotten on DVD in ages. And it was one of the few movies that actually worked really really well in 3D, it was breathtaking when I saw it in the theater.

  • Katie says:

    The flying sequences were really well done in 3D. I have a tendency to really like kid movies in general, and while TS3 did have me sobbing, I also cried in my corner of the theater at this one too. And, unlike TS3 I sought this movie out several times in DVD since then, I just think this one has a "rewatchable" factor.

  • Kristen B says:

    I really enjoyed HTTYD, too. The whole sequence where he wins the first dragon over with food. I've done that with neighborhood kitties. They start out scared to death of you, but a few days of tossing pieces of chicken breast at them from the front porch and suddenly you're besties.

    "Toy Story 3 did nothing for me. I thought the feelings were cheaply had and the story was just so expected."

    and

    "TS3 didn't really bring much new or creative to the table. Same issues of betrayal, friendship, abandonment, and growing up. And since there was no real new character development or arc, there is really no one to root for. When Woody's friends act like jerks to him or he has to remember what it means to be a friend or a toy AGAIN or deal with kids growing up…yawn. We've been there before."

    Can I sit with you guys? Because, seriously. I've been asking everyone at work, "could someone please explain why everyone thinks TS3 was so great? I don't get it." 20 minutes in I was checking email, surfing the internet, etc. I'm not alone! (heh)

  • HollyH says:

    @Jeanne: it's a point that those are Butler's and Ferguson's real accents (and David Tennant has a verrrrrrry tiny cameo speaking part, as Snotlout's father, in which he uses his own accent).

    But I imagine that the folks who are nonplussed by the Scottish Vikings are basically asking, "why did you hire Scotsmen to play Vikings in the first place?" There's no particular reason for those two big parts to have been given to Butler and Ferguson, unless the thinking on the part of the filmmakers was "we want a pair of Scottish guys".

    I don't know that I've heard any statement from them about why they wanted Scottish adult Vikings in the first place. I'd be interested to hear them talk about it. (Even though I'm one of those viewers who wasn't bothered by it.)

  • Kristen B says:

    FYI – I hope I didn't come off as snooty or condescending in my opinion about TS3. I've actually been more genuinely confused by the fact that my opinion of this movie doesn't match (if Rotten Tomatoes is to be believed) 99% of the other humans beings on this planet. It's really been messing with my head, as in "what is WRONG with you!?" So, when I find other 1 percenters who also didn't like TS3, it's a brief moment of "Hey, maybe I'm not crazy!" (heh)

  • Sarahnova says:

    "Thanks for nothing. You useless reptile."

    Had never heard it. Sat down to watch it with family at Christmas indifferently, expecting a Shrek 2-esque mediocre story with overplayed jokes. Loved it! Jay Baruchel's voice work does a lot of the selling, but Toothless is also exquisitely rendered, and the building relationship between them always feels real.

    I also really liked that they didn't pull the punch with what happens to Hiccup at the end. I believe they tested that one quite nervously, but audiences really appreciated it. It's unexpectedly dark for a kids' film, but… right somehow.

  • Erin W says:

    Just watched this. You're all right, it was terrific!

    "Troll! Butt elf! Bride of Grendel!"

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