Why was this film acclaimed as much as it was? It currently has a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for Best Animated film at the Oscars. What film were they watching? How to Train your Dragon is not any sort of special film, even for its target audience. It is a cliché ridden farce of pretty much every single “boy and his dog” plot of the last fifty years. It is played without the hint of irony, trying to tell its audience that its boring script is something new.
Now, I am not trying to be a cynic. Animated films (even the ones aimed a children) can be superior to their live action counter parts. Pixar and Hideo Miyazaki have proven that. This actually just makes How to Train Your Dragon that much more confusing. Even previous films in the Dreamworks Animated division (such as the delightful Kung Fu Panda) are better than this. Yeah, maybe they were forced to repeat certain ideas. But they were smart enough to know that they were doing so. How to Train Your Dragon is like the alcoholic who describes the plot of a novel he has read as though he was the one who had come up with it. It is unfocused and even during the most interesting parts has a sense of boredom.
How to Train Your Dragon takes place in a fantasy world where Vikings still reign supreme. Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel) lives in this world. It is still plagued by dragons and the Viking self-worth is dependent on how many of those fire-breathing reptiles they can kill. Basically, it’s sort of like Alabama during hunting season. Hiccup’s father Stoic the Vast (Gerard Butler) is trying to train his inept son to be a dragon killer. But Hiccup has befriended a dragon that he had wounded during a raid. He names this dragon Toothless and uses techniques he has learned to calm him against other dragons. While this impresses some of his peers, including the beautiful Astrid (America Ferrera) but raises the suspicion of others. When the dragons’ nest is discovered, Hiccup’s loyalty and values are challenged.
The film has many things going for it, including an impressive cast (including Jonah Hill, and David Tennant) and some wonderfully rendered animation. There is no doubt that computer animation has significantly improved. Every hair on Stoic’s beard moves when he turns, and the fire effects are incredible to watch. As a display of the technical aspects of the medium, How to Train Your Dragon is quite good. I hope more films are able to utilize these techniques.
What it is lacking is any sort of originality in its story telling. Within the first ten minutes, after all the characters are introduced, I knew exactly which conflicts would be present ( a boy trying to impress his father, a man finds out that dragons can be benevolent creatures and tries to get others to stop killing them, etc) and I was right. It was as though they were plugging characters’ names into a template – right down to some of the dialogue. Once the animation stopped being a distraction, I was left with nothing.
Also, the ending is quite bizarre in its implications. Someone speculates dragons have a sort of bee hive like colony, with a queen leading them. That very queen (a six eyed giant monstrosity) is fought at the end. But then, Toothless and some other dragons help their new friends in the battle. Now, I was not aware that worker bees could rebel against the queen. Nor do I know how the dragons would survive after their queen is destroyed. The goal of the assault was to eliminate all of them, after all. So what is going on?
I did like the initial scenes involving Toothless and Hiccup. Those scenes (in which both characters try to get the other to trust them) are quite emotionally wrought and effective. I particularly enjoyed the gag in which Hiccup feeds Toothless a fish, only for Toothless to cough half of it back up and expect Hiccup to eat it. The first act of the film is filled with moments like that – truly impressive ones. But they get abandoned very quickly for Hiccup’s boring scenes. Had the film focused on the relationship between the two, it may have been something. But in the end, Toothless is just a tool (I doubt any pet owner would be proud to describe their pets in such terms) for Hiccup. I know that most “boy and his dog” plots use the dogs for such an end, but the dog is still a well-rounded character. Toothless is not, even though he had such potential to be.
I really wanted to like this film. I actually appreciate animated films that do not just appeal to children, but to everyone. Animation is among the purest forms of cinema. It allows people to enter new worlds. But How to Train Your Dragon is a shallow world that I quickly grew bored with, especially since I had already been there far too many times.