Warm Not Blazing
How to Train Your Dragon features a dragon named Toothless. He’s got some snazzy talents, like the ability to fly so fast as to be nearly invisible to the naked eye, and to spit out missiles of purple flame. But he’s really a sweetheart, a reptilian F-117 Nighthawk with the demeanor of man’s-best-friend. Like its fire-breathing star, How to Train Your Dragon lacks teeth (technically, he has retractable incisors that went unnoticed prior to his naming, but the misnomer “Toothless” is irresistibly convenient for my illustration, so bear with me), and yet, despite not blazing any new trails, the film cozies up to us with its conventional warmth and carries us with exuberant images of characters in high-speed flight.
The story begins with Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a metalsmith-in-training and an iteration of the genius-nerd trope down to his scrawny build and propensity for designing gizmos beyond the creative capacity of anyone else in the movie (a net-firing cannon, a saddle and stirrup for dragon-riding, etc.) In other words, he is completely out of place in the rock ’em, sock ’em Viking village that he calls home. The citizens of this town perennially deal with a most peculiar crisis: dragons are stealing livestock, so everyone spends their time either killing the creatures or training to kill them. In keeping with his surroundings, Hiccup aspires to do the same, but to little avail. His inadequacy as a hunter makes him the laughingstock of his community and a disgrace to his father (Gerard Butler), and so his determination grows. One day, he nabs a Night Fury, allegedly the most dangerous of all dragons, but when time comes for him to kill, he can’t go through with it. Instead, he takes his former prisoner (now named “Toothless”) under his proverbial wing and nurses it back to health, trying to figure out how to break this news to his father. Meanwhile, the Vikings’ antagonism toward dragons grows steadily fiercer, making his task that much more difficult.
As I watched the plot speed along, I was entertained but not quite engrossed. After all, versions of this tale have appeared in movies ranging from Happy Feet to The Lego Movie, and seems especially popular among animated pictures: an outsider is faced with the challenge of standing by his own uniqueness while simultaneously garnering the favor of the community that rejected him. In the process, he hopes to win the approval of a skeptical parent and/or the girl he loves. This setup is the definition of old hat. Still, one can’t fault a film for being harmlessly good-natured. It’s true, How to Train Your Dragon would have benefitted from a tad more emotional and moral complexity. I am here thinking of the mild cop-out that is the film’s finale, which shows humans and dragons forced into a united front against a universal threat. This convenient plot point circumvents the complexity of true coexistence – whether between cultures as evoked in allegorical pictures like Avatar and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or between humankind and the wild – which requires time, patience, and mutual understanding. How to Train Your Dragon could have been a deeper, richer film – that it succeeds simply as warm-hearted entertainment is disappointing but also endearing in its own right. After all, escapist fantasy has as much a place in our world as social commentary.
As for the film’s animation, it is of a different ilk than Pixar’s, which preoccupies itself with details – every piece of debris within the waste mounds of Wall-E is rendered with clarity, every balloon in Up accounted for. DreamWorks tends to be less fussy about intricacies, focusing more on getting across the general idea of an object or thing. This being the case, How to Train Your Dragon‘s somewhat cruder look is best appreciated within the medium of motion, which compels us to consider colors and trajectories rather than the visually fine-grained. As such, the film grows noticeably more compelling during its action scenes, which presents such images as the blur of a dragon in flight or the somersaulting body of a warrior girl dodging streams of fire. I prefer Pixar or Miyazaki because their worlds are more painstakingly crafted, more immersive. But at its best, How to Train Your Dragon makes great use of its thick-brushed aesthetic, as when Toothless takes guy and girl on a joyride through waves, clouds, and aurora borealis. The elements merge, and we get a broad, almost melodramatic sense of space and nature. The scene isn’t the most gorgeous rendering of the natural world ever made, but it packs a to-the-point kind of beauty.
As we see in this scene and elsewhere, Toothless is fast; at 95 minutes, so is How to Train Your Dragon. Its brisk clip leaves little time for reflection, and that’s just as well. The film doesn’t intend on breaking ground, pushing the envelope, or transforming the field of animation. It is neither a revolution nor a revelation. Rather, it wants to tell a familiar story well, throwing at us enough motion, commotion, and emotion to leave us, if not completely satisfied, then reasonably satiated and pleased with the aftertaste. To that modest end, this film soars.