How to Train Your Dragon

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Toothless the Dragon is fero­cious and cute.

When I walked out of the cin­e­ma almost skip­ping with excite­ment, some­one asked me why I said How to Train Your Dragon (2010) is ten times bet­ter than Avatar (which I reviewed here). I said because I don’t feel cheat­ed. Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I can give a bet­ter answer. What the heck, I’ll give ten bet­ter answers:

ONE The main char­ac­ter is com­plex and three-dimen­sion­al (no pun intend­ed), with an arc and motives that are relat­able and clear, not some card­board cutout one-note douchebag who falls in love with a plan­et but then screws its inhab­i­tants over any­way just because there would be no rea­son for the movie to con­tin­ue oth­er­wise. I even remem­ber the main character’s name (Hiccup!) two days after see­ing the movie, which is more than could be said about Avatar’s hero even five min­utes into that movie.

TWO The film has no fat, in oth­er words every sin­gle scene (I would argue every sin­gle shot) is there for a rea­son – even a brief two-sec­ond shot of a drag­on dip­ping under­wa­ter to catch a fish, whose raison-d’être ini­tial­ly seems to be pure eye can­dy, is actu­al­ly revealed as a cru­cial plot point.

Everything we know about you… is wrong. — Hiccup

THREE Speaking of fat, the movie is one hour short­er than Avatar (clock­ing in at a much more humane and blad­der-friend­ly 98 min­utes) yet it’s not a sec­ond too short. I hon­est­ly think the mak­ers of Avatar were absent with the flu the day their pro­fes­sors taught the “enter a scene late and leave it ear­ly” prin­ci­ple in screen­writ­ing class.

FOUR How to Train Your Dragon, like all good movies, is more inter­est­ed in ask­ing per­son­al ques­tions than mak­ing Grand Statements. This point demands some elab­o­ra­tion: While Avatar pan­ders to a dumb­ed-down audi­ence weaned on goodguys-ver­sus-badguys (which is what it essen­tial­ly gives us), it claims to have lofti­er goals by insis­tent­ly ham­mer­ing us over the head with an argu­ment against prej­u­dice and dis­crim­i­na­tion, and the usurp­ing of indige­nous cul­tures by col­o­niz­ing pow­ers. Not only is this con­de­scend­ing to the audi­ence, it is so to the indige­nous peo­ple itself – luck­i­ly the movie is smart enough (or so it thinks) to hide this native cul­ture behind a thin­ly veiled char­ac­ter­i­za­tion as an alien tribe of blue crea­tures. On the oth­er hand, How to Train Your Dragon tells the sto­ry of a boy on the brink of adult­hood try­ing to live up to his father’s expec­ta­tions, not to those of an audi­ence pumped up on hype.

FIVE How to Train Your Dragon makes this point in the first five min­utes any­way, but then moves on to the cen­tral ques­tion: “Am I an impos­tor?” The pow­er of the movie lies in the fact that by the end of it, each of us are sure to have a dif­fer­ent answer. (Mine was: “You’ll nev­er be an impos­tor if you remain true to your­self.”)

SIX Not only does it have a com­pelling sto­ry, but it also has a decent back-sto­ry, which is revealed visu­al­ly dur­ing the first twen­ty min­utes through both action and dia­logue, not some for­get­table hoo-ha about a dead broth­er told in monot­o­nous voiceover.

SEVEN Whereas the plot of Avatar repeat­ed­ly came to a grind­ing halt to give us one more (admit­ted­ly beau­ti­ful, but high­ly-repet­i­tive) com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed fly­ing sequence, How to Train Your Dragon con­tin­ued to devel­op both sto­ry and char­ac­ter even dur­ing the visu­al­ly stun­ning char­ac­ters-careen-through-land­scapes-on-air­borne-beast scenes.

EIGHT Avatar is not fun­ny, not even mild­ly amus­ing. In fact, it is so seri­ous I think it might have a half-CG half-live-action stick up its ass. Granted, it’s not meant to be a com­e­dy, but for heaven’s sake couldn’t they have light­ened up a lit­tle? I mean James Cameron did reveal in True Lies that he has at least some sense of humor, so why not here? How to Train Your Dragon made me laugh. A lot. And smile. And almost cry at least twice.

NINE Yet the movie nev­er lost its bite. Never did the humor under­mine or triv­i­al­ize the gen­uine­ness of any of the char­ac­ters or crea­tures. The drag­ons remained tru­ly vicious through­out, the father (though very clear­ly kind-heart­ed) nev­er once lost his tow­er­ing majesty, even when he lost his way, and Hiccup remained “that” (you’ll know what I mean when you see the movie) even while being tru­ly hero­ic.

TEN For all the above rea­sons, How to Train Your Dragon war­rants repeat view­ings. It is lean, action packed, and fast. After the visu­al spec­ta­cle wears off (as it inevitably will the sec­ond time around), there are still enough meaty sto­ry and char­ac­ter on that bone for me to want to see it again. Even the final scene (which I will not reveal) is true to the sto­ry and char­ac­ters, and is not some hack­neyed deus ex machi­na hap­py end­ing that the writer-direc­tor pulls out of his ass at the eleventh hour.

Yes, from start to bit­ter­sweet end, How to Train Your Dragon is a delight, and while it falls a notch short of sheer Miyazaki-esque per­fec­tion, it remains a whol­ly sat­is­fy­ing expe­ri­ence which, unlike many recent movies, does not leave me feel­ing, well, cheat­ed.

Rating 910

Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris SandersVoices by Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera

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