When it comes to children’s classics, Dreamworks Animation has cornered the market on pop-culture slinging ogres and pose-able kung fu pandas, but what happens when the animation giant tackles a smaller story with a little more heart? How to Train Your Dragon is the clear result of much love, hard work and passion for storytelling, and it might well be Dreamworks’ best effort as a purveyor of artwork, let alone children’s entertainment. While I have a special soft spot for Kung Fu Panda and even Shrek 2 at times, it’s easy to dismiss those pictures as children’s fare specifically because of the no-holds-barred marketing campaigns launched by the studio to promote these franchises. Dreamworks’ fledgling animation department managed to pack in loads of humor and warmth into their Bugs Life competitor Antz as well, but the moments of heart were often overshadowed by the thirty-foot-tall Pepsi soft drinks that loomed over the characters during their journey. This is where How to Train Your Dragon stands apart from the rest. In an age where integrated semi-subliminal marketing is a constant goal, it was nice to see finally find a film devoid of pop culture references, packed to the brim with heart and seemingly unconcerned with selling things beyond its premise and the believability of its characters.
In terms of animated movies, the upper echelons are brimming with tough contenders vying for the seat of “cinema classic.” Finding Nemo, The Lion King, both Toy Story movies, not to mention The Iron Giant and Nightmare Before Christmas are all difficult animated classics to outrank, thanks to the innocence and beauty inherent in their stories. How to Train Your Dragon matches those films in beauty and innocence and manages to pack in a little complexity at times to the tried and true formula. Our main character’s adolescent daddy issues are challenging for father and son, more reminiscent of the conflicting viewpoints in Hook or choice episodes of King of the Hill than your typical Disney-fied parental relationship. The wacky sidekick characters are resourceful enough to outweigh their moments of annoying behavior and are never forced down your throat to the point of revulsion, meaning you won’t have to sit through one of those moments in Kung Fu Panda where the lead character is literally admiring action figures of his best friends and commenting on how great they are. The type of trademark commercialism Dreamworks is known for is graciously absent from this film, and the pure simplicity and engaging nature of the universe present in How to Train Your Dragon makes it easy to be swept up in the adventure without the distractions of in-movie marketing or anachronistic catch phrases. How to Train Your Dragon borrows a few contemporaneous visual cues from Avatar, but unlike that film manages to hit its narrative cues expediently and with an honesty that gives the visually stirring set-pieces some soul in addition to flair. It sincerely strives to be a coming-of-age story, the tale of a father and son, the journey taken by a boy and his pet (or best friend, if you’d prefer) all at once. It’s a love story, an adventure, and another reason to enjoy the new 3D that permeates our cinematic culture. Unlike the short-sighted “stuff-is-coming-at-the-screen” style of the new Resident Evil: Afterlife trailer, How to Train Your Dragon is a film that engages the viewer in its third dimension both playfully and skillfully, but it is obvious that this picture could charm any audience, with or without magic spectacles.
The main dragon happens to be one of the coolest and most charming factors of the movie, a character with the same sort of immediate personality and character as Calvin’s stuffed tiger Hobbes. I won’t spoil too much by commenting specifically on the dragon’s behavior, but in one of those rare moments where animation surpasses live-action storytelling, our young Viking hero’s befriending of the black dragon Toothless is so endlessly watchable that it defies conventional critical need for explanation. It’s Aladdin visiting the Cave of Wonders, Wall-E romancing the unconscious Eva, a moment that becomes a classic as soon as the synapses start firing in your brain. The movie clips along to its finale at a rapid pace, leaving little room for boredom or complaint and making the running time of How to Train Your Dragon the least of your concerns. You won’t have to worry about suffering through any schmaltzy or simplistic moralization at the end, or a moment where the movie takes a sharp nosedive to comment on consumer culture. From beginning to end, How to Train Your Dragon is a captivating fairy tale, a trip to a land so likable you’ll wonder why it’s taken you so long to visit in the first place.