Sunday, April 10, 2011

How to Train Your Dragon

Okay before we get into the questions, what's with the bizarre review format?
Good question. Inspired by the Ithaca episode of Ulysses, I'd thought I would try a catechism style narrative - essentially an interview between an unknown locutor and me, as the interlocutor. This is also a chance to do something different for the blog. So on to the questions.

You've mentioned before that Pixar is one of your favourite "celebrities," but you never really mention any other animation studio or projects. Why is that?
Pixar remains the best singular movie studio working in Western film right now. Each project is amazingly complex and mature, and more often than not, are better than prestige pictures designed for maximum Oscar collecting. Because of their success, there is often imitators. Dreamworks being one of them.

How to Train Your Dragon is a Dreamworks film. Why did you want to see this?
Honestly? Its Rotten Tomatoes score was in the 90s. The only other recent animated movies to crack that number are the Pixar movies. A movie with a high enough score warrants a view, in my opinion.

What is it about?
There's a village of Vikings, and they are constantly at war with dragons of all shapes and sizes, most of whom are scary and steal livestock. Hiccup, the useless son of the chieftain, accidentally downs a Nightflier, one of the rarest dragons of all. When Hiccup confronts the downed dragon, he sees more intelligence and emotion than expected. He befriends the dragon and begins to train it, and hopefully help avoid the inevitable assault on the dragons' nest by the chieftain.

What did you think of it?
I thought it was pretty amazing, to tell the truth.

What made it so amazing?
It's got a fantastic voice cast, some great action setpieces, and a rather tender boy and pet story that takes rather poignant turns near the end. Almost choked me up.

What about the voice cast? What made it so fantastic?
Most of the actors are veteran voice actors, with the exception of Gerald Butler, who manages to transform his regular Scottish brogue into humanity and tenderness as the village chieftain and disappointed father of Hiccup. Jay Baruchel, a Canadian acting veteran, plays Hiccup with just the right amount of sarcasm and emotion to sell the relationship between his character and a non-speaking dragon.

You said it was poignant and tender - did it not seem mawkish or twee?
Not really. Maybe it's because I'm a pet kind of guy, but often, movies about children and their pets hits me in all the right emotional places. Even though I had an idea of where the story was going, I was still swept up in the emotional arc of the main character, a sure sign of good writing. I was immersed.

You've spoken before on this blog of immersion in film. What makes this so important?
Think about this way. You're sitting in bed, watching a small box with flickering light on it that shouts at you. Your phone is buzzing with texts, there's traffic noises outside and your vaguely Middle Eastern neighbours are engaging in another one of their family get-togethers, where everybody they know arrives. It's extremely important that a movie transcend all these distractions and keep you focused. A movie shouldn't fight with the outside world, it should just take over.

And this movie did?
It sure did. Totally captivated me.

Was it just the characters?
That's a major element, but no, it wasn't just the characters. Certainly the cast was full of great nuanced acting and writing, but it was also the amazing setpieces. The movie tries really hard to convey the beauty and wonder of flight, and it succeeds. Any scene with Hiccup riding the dragon was wonderful and tense and exhilarating.

This is a pretty glowing reception from you. Was there any problems with the film?
Yes, actually. Something bothered me about it, something just below the surface. I mentioned pets.

Yes, you said it was a boy and pet kind of dynamic movie.
My problem is that the dragon is eventually subjugated by the white privileged boy. The dragon that he brings down is handicapped by the act, so the boy fashions a secondary wing for the injured tail. Sounds okay, but then the boy fashions a saddle and a steering mechanism so that he can control the dragon. What makes this more uncomfortable is that the dragons turn out to be subjugated by a Leviathan who commands the nest. The dragons eventually team up with the Vikings to dethrone the Leviathan, and then are subjugated entirely by the white Vikings. As if the dragons, whom we are told are far more complex than assumed, are desperate for a controlling and ruling class.

Is the film explicit about this?
No, not at all. This is just me reading into things a little bit too much. It's just that the film purports to be about the hidden lives of our enemies, how animals are deeper and more emotional that we expect them to be, how these dragons are the equals of the Vikings, and then at the end, the climax, all of the main characters ride the dragons, and the film pushes the personalities of the dragons to the far back. There's room in this film for more exploration of how the dragons react to the humans. We have only one dragon who we see have an emotional reaction to a Viking other than trying to eat him.

Other than this problem, which you say is implicit, is there anything else?
Yes. Who keeps giving Jonah Hill roles in movies? He plays the same character over and over and he's always distracting in his role. Always.

Anything else?
Yeah, and again, this is me being sort of overly political, but America Ferrara, an Honduran-American actress, plays the role of a blonde blue-eyed teenager. Sure, she plays the voice role extremely well, better than most young actors could do, but I was a little put off by the fact that a talented actress who isn't white, has to play a conventional white character. But, this is very slight.

Sigh, is there anything else you want to complain about?
Why do the Vikings have Scottish accents? That's just nonsensical.

On the whole, how does this film compare to other animation movies of this era?
Very well, I have to say. This is worlds better than Shrek or Over the Hedge or Madagascar or whatever. How to Train Your Dragon relies on well-written characters and an organic flow to the plot rather than stale pop culture jokes or references to So You Think You Can Dance, or whatever. Here's a kid's movie that doesn't pander to either of its audiences, adults and children alike. It's a movie that wants to tell a meaningful story and it doesn't pull any punches. Especially the end.

Should I expect to cry at the end?
Maybe. I didn't, but I think I'm emotionally drained from Toy Story 3. But it's not the neatest more perfect ending in the world, and I think that's important. There are consequences to our actions and there is a cost to be paid. I admire a movie that wants to say this.

Okay. I think I understand. So overall, would you say you liked it?
Yes, I loved it. Truly worth its high score on Rotten Tomatoes.

But better than, or as good as a Pixar?
No, not quite. The animation's good, but it's not Pixar-level good. But it's really damned close.

That's very high praise from you, don't you think?
Yes. Only Miyazaki comes closer to Pixar than this. That's saying a lot.

Thanks for taking the time to do this interview.
I had a blast, thank you.

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