Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Not Terrible For Children, How To Train Your Dragon Is Essentially Avatar For Kids.

The Good: Decent animation, Fun
The Bad: Very simple, Predictable
The Basics: A good, but not wonderful, animated film, How To Train Your Dragon is a fun kid's movie.

One of the few problems with being a discriminating reviewer is that readers tend to want strong opinions on things. They want a movie to be the greatest thing the reviewer has ever seen or the worst piece of trash that they can easily avoid. But being a discriminating reviewer with solid standards often means that an honest review of a movie is going to classify a film in the big, nebulous range that is "average." So few movies are outright terrible and so few are the true masterpieces we want them to be. As a result, it's easy to skip over reviews that honestly evaluate films and consider them average because they don't fall to the extremes. Sadly, that is where I find myself after taking in the new Dreamworks film How To Train Your Dragon. The movie isn't great, but it's not horrible. It is very average.

One of the nice things about being known in my community as a reviewer and being a friend of the local library is that when the library got its film license, they got onto a list that gets them preview screenings at a nearby theater from time to time. As a result, I scored early passes to How To Train Your Dragon and I found myself amid a quintillion of excited children for a screening (those who know me know this is a fate usually reserved for when I have done something terribly wrong in life as I loathe children, especially at the movies). How To Train Your Dragon is based upon a book series by the same name and I guess in anticipation of the movie's release, the library had had a reading group with the kids. I, however, have not read any of the books in this series and so this is a very pure review of the movie only. It is also worth noting that the kids who had read the book split pretty evenly down the lines of those who loved the film vs. those who were annoyed by how little it stuck to the book in places. Again, I cannot speak to that, so the movie . . .

Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III a smart aleck in the Viking community where he is growing up as the son of Chief Stoick The Vast. Hiccup is awkward and his father wants him to man up by putting him in dragon combat with the other youth. This goes generally disastrously for Hiccup and his peers, though Astrid - a girl Hiccup is smitten with - fares fairly well. While out exploring Berk one day, Hiccup encounters the ultra-rare Night Fury dragon, who Hiccup befriends. Instead of fighting the dragons, Hiccup learns to train his, Toothless.

In the process of training Toothless, Hiccup begins to grow into his own as a leader, which makes him more attractive to Astrid. This makes Snotlout deeply jealous and while Hiccup and his friends begin training dragons, as opposed to fighting them, Stoick and Gobber lead the Vikings on a rampage against the dragons. Hiccup and his friends must band together to stop the extinction of both the dragons and the Vikings.

How To Train Your Dragon is an animated film by Dreamworks and it follows more in the line of films geared toward the younger audience that appreciates the kid-becomes-hero story as opposed to something like Shrek Forever After (reviewed here!), which has a lot of jokes for adults (even if it was the same joke over and over again). Audiences are likely to be underwhelmed by this animated film, which is clearly the start of a franchise, because of the formulaic plot which has remarkable similarities to the plot of Avatar (reviewed here!). Unlike that animated film, How To Train Your Dragon is clearly supposed to be animated and characters move in a world with physics that follow animated movie laws as opposed to being painfully real. So, while the animated spectacle of soaring with the dragons is pretty cool, not even the children flinched at characters getting knocked around by dragons; the violence is very cartoonish and they will have likely seen similar violence even in commercials.

But, in many ways, this is a very obvious movie. The character development is as formulaic as the plot and it includes the obvious romantic subplot between Hiccup and Astrid, which is tested by the conflicts in the plot. This is a very typical "hero in the process of becoming" and another in a long strain of children's movies whereby the smart, geeky and picked-on youth are encouraged that they can develop into good people through use of their brains. The villains are over-the-top and thus more laughable than truly menacing and as a result, How To Train Your Dragon does a good job at presenting the basic morality play most parents want to see in a children's movie.

On the plus side, the movie is entertaining and it does a good job of showing that brains can beat out brawn and that being different is not necessarily a bad thing (well, unless you smell real bad). And there is a whole concept of "treat animals well" which is always a welcome theme in movies designed for children, so there is that as well. And the animation is good: the colors are bright and there is a decent sense of movement.

As well, the voice acting is good. Jay Baruchel (who seems to be having a good month) leads the cast as Hiccup and he manages to sound appropriately geeky until the moments he needs to sound credibly in charge. America Ferrera stands out in How To Train Your Dragon for her vocal spunk and she steals her scenes as Astrid. Everyone else is good, but they fall within the expected range of voice actors in a big-budget Hollywood film.

Ultimately, I give this a soft recommend because it was fun and I had a good time watching it, but there were no real surprises. This is a good popcorn kid's movie, but it's not one that has much in the way of wit or enduring greatness to it and one wonders if making a franchise of it is truly a good idea; there's not much this one didn't already do.

For other animated film reviews, please be sure to check out:
Little Nemo: Adventures In Slumberland
The Sword In The Stone
Despicable Me


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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