In 2006, Chris Sanders was removed from his post at Disney Animation Studios. Previously, he had worked on
DreamWorks Animation does not have a flawless record when it comes to their films. Over the Hedge was decent, but Monsters vs. Aliens was really awful. Shrek and Kung Fu Panda were great, but The Bee Movie and Shark Tale were just bad. I wasn't sure what I would think of How to Train Your Dragon, but was pleasantly surprised by what I did.
In the Viking village of Berk, killing dragons is a way of life. Dragons regularly raid the village for food, and the Vikings always retaliate, being lead by their chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler). Every member of the town contributes to the cause of destroying the beasts—they all either fight or make weapons or keep the women and children safe. Well, every member except for Hiccup, that is. Hiccup longs to become a heroic dragon-killer like his father, the chief, but he is scrawny and weak.
During one of the dragons' attacks on the village, Hiccup tests a large catapult he's created and successfully takes down a dreaded Night Fury dragon, the likes of which have never been seen. The next day, Hiccup hikes through the forest and finds the fallen brute. Carefully, our hero approaches the creature with his knife drawn, preparing to cut its heart out to earn the honor and respect he's been dreaming of. But, at the last second, he decides to cut the ropes and free the creature instead.
Hiccup returns several days later and sees that the dragon's tail was damaged. Hiccup creates a new tail attachment for Toothless (what he has named the Night Fury), and very carefully approaches him to fasten it on. After some modifications, the new tail works perfectly, and Hiccup and Toothless quickly become best friends.
Being best friends with the dragon, Hiccup quickly realizes that everybody's beliefs about dragons are completely wrong. The Vikings think that the dragons are evil, brutish creatures who only live to attack and kill, whereas the truth is that the dragons are frightened, calm creatures who only fight in defense. If they're treated kindly, like Hiccup treats Toothless, then the dragons really are gentle beings. When the chief decides to hunt for the dragons' nest, Hiccup tries to explain that the dragons really aren't vicious creatures at all. But trying to change the beliefs of generations and generations of his father's people provokes an absolute war between the dragons and vikings, and only Hiccup and his faithful Toothless can end the madness once and for all.
(End Spoiler Alert!)
How to Train Your Dragon's story is fairly straightforward. There is an outcast who dreams of doing bigger and better things, eventually gets his chance to do so, and then succeeds. This universal plot outline is known as the Hero's Journey, and is followed exactly by How to Train Your Dragon. That's not to say it's a bad thing—almost every story follows the Hero's Journey in one way or another, and this movie managed to utilize the universal outline very well.
The most amazing aspect of this movie for me were the two main characters, Hiccup and Toothless. How to Train Your Dragon nails one of the most important aspects of any film: having a likable main character that audiences will cheer for. From the opening of How to Train Your Dragon, you want Hiccup to succeed. The filmmakers managed to make Hiccup a really likable and innocent guy that served the story well.
Even more amazing than that, though, was the relationship created between Toothless and Hiccup. The connection that this boy and dragon have is heart-wrenching and incredible, and is conveyed through almost no dialogue. Chris Sanders has turned the silent, strong relationship between a kid and their pet into an art form within itself with Lilo and Stitch and now How to Train Your Dragon. There are parts of the film when you forget you're watching a movie and feel genuinely frightened that Hiccup will lose Toothless. It is a truly remarkable aspect of this film.
How to Train Your Dragon had decent animation. Every dragon was unique and colorful and just plain interesting to look at. There were many different types of dragons, all with imaginative names and powers. One reason why I loved the dragons' animation so much was because of the amount of emotion the animators managed to convey through solely their eyes. Another aspect of the animation I loved were the settings. The forest, village, and volcano were all very detailed, colorful, and works of art on their own. Although the animators were very skilled when it came to the dragons and settings, they were fairly lazy with the Vikings. The eyes were lifeless, the cloth and hair were inorganic, and the characters' acting lacked believability and humor. It was pretty distracting for someone like me who appreciates great animation and is very particular about what they like, but I doubt that the average moviegoer would notice. After all, it wasn't that bad.
Another great thing about How to Train Your Dragon was its soundtrack. While I was expecting the usual rap- and rock-laden track that so commonly graces Katzenberg's features, I was surprised to find that this particular film didn't. Instead, it was scored by an orchestra. And, more than that, its score was inspiring, beautiful, and very relevant to the subject matter. The music really helped heighten the action and emotion, and also helped to transport you back to the times of the Vikings. I've already purchased the soundtrack, and love the score even without the film playing along with it.
As Forrest Gump might say if he reviewed films, “DreamWorks is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get.” Some of their films are high-quality, entertaining movies worthy of Oscars while others are just embarrassingly awful. From the trailer, I couldn't decide where How to Train Your Dragon would fall on the Katzenberg Spectrum, but now I'm proud to say that it's one of my favorite films to come from DreamWorks. It is funny, touching, full of action, beautifully scored and animated, and imaginative. After seeing How to Train Your Dragon, Lasseter might actually think twice about letting Chris Sanders go.
I give How to Train Your Dragon a solid 8 out of 10. We can only hope that Sanders' next feature for DreamWorks, The Croods, is just as good.