For years now DreamWorks Animation has almost always been a step behind Pixar, with the occasional "Shrek" making some inroads but not usually matching the sheer heart Pixar always puts into its pictures. So it's a pleasure to see DreamWorks come up with one that matches practically anything Pixar has made. That would be 2010's "How to Train Your Dragon," one of the best films of the year.
OK, I admit I didn't have high hopes for it going in, despite my having heard that a lot of people liked it (I looked it up and found at the time of this writing it was the eighth biggest-grossing film of 2010). Maybe it was the corny-sounding title that put me off. I had no idea the filmmakers based the movie on a best-selling book of the same name by Cressida Cowell. Title aside, the film is as cute, sweet, funny, exciting, and touching as anything you'll find.
The story takes place in Medieval Scandinavia in the little Viking village of Berk, which the main character describes as "twelve days north of hopeless and a few degrees south of freezing to death." The main character is Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), a young fellow the townsfolk would rather keep out of sight because he's small and hapless, and they're all big and strong and capable. And everyone else enjoys killing dragons, one of the citizenry's main occupations, and Hiccup is rather reluctant and inept at it. Poor Hiccup is, in fact, the laughing stock of the town.
Stoick (Gerard Butler) is the strapping huge, bellowing chief of the tribe, who fights dragons with his bare hands. The dragons in the neighborhood are plentiful, and the Vikings spend a lot of their time fending them off or hunting them down. Oh, and Stoick is also Hiccup's father, something that grieves Stoick no end. Like father not like son.
Stoick and the villagers, including Gobber (Craig Ferguson), the blacksmith for whom Hiccup works as an apprentice, expect Hiccup to kill dragons; it's what all the young guys and girls in the village do when they're old enough: They go to dragon-fighting school and learn to slay dragons. That, however, is the last thing Hiccup wants to do. Among Hiccup's classmates are Astrid (America Ferrera), a feisty young lady who becomes a rival and a romantic interest; Snotlout (Jonah Hill), a big, dim-witted lug; Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plausse), Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig).
The plot centers on Hiccup accidentally ensnaring the most fearsome of dragons, a Night Fury, one evening, and a few days later finding it in the forest tangled in Hiccup's rope and missing the part of its tail that acts as a rudder when it's flying. Although Hiccup knows he should kill the beast while it's defenseless, he also knows he cannot. He frees the creature instead, and helps build him a new tail, for which the dragon is eternally grateful. It seems dragons aren't such bad animals after all.
From this point on, the friendship between Hiccup and the dragon, whom Hiccup names "Toothless" because it has retractable teeth, resembles a variation on the old Aesop fable of "Androcles and the Lion." We can pretty much see what's coming, but we can enjoy it all the same. Toothless turns out to be quite smart, learning fast, and before long in their relationship we have to wonder who is training whom.
Yes, there is a good deal of sentiment in the movie, yet the sentimentality never turns sappy. Yes, there is a degree of violence in the film, yet while the action is exhilarating, it is never too intense for younger viewers. And, yes, there are morals, life lessons, applied, yet they are never excessive or preachy. The filmmakers temper the movie's ingredients just enough to make the balance acceptable to everyone.
"How to Train Your Dragon" is fun, funny, stirring, poignant, and all things a good, wholesome family film should be. The 3-D CGI animation is gorgeous--vivid and alive with intricate detail, shadows, color, and depth. It's a joy to watch. What's more, the movie is humorous without being crude or demeaning. A father-son talk between Stoick and Hiccup is moving and amusing at the same time, and a climactic battle is as thrilling as any action sequence you'll see in any picture anywhere. In fact, "How to Train Your Dragon" is delightful and appealing, rousing and friendly, thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end.
"Everything we know about dragons is wrong."
The DreamWorks video engineers catch all of the film's grandeur and beauty using an MPEG-4 codec and a dual-layer BD50 for some of the most-stunning high-definition imagery you'll find on Blu-ray. The HD reproduction of the 2.35:1 ratio picture is as good as anything I've seen from any studio, DreamWorks or Pixar. The colors are rich, deep, and strong; the blacks are inky dark; the definition is precise; and there are absolutely no traces of digital artifacts, noise, or manipulation. The PQ is simply first-class, as good as it gets.
The lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio almost matches the picture quality in its breathtaking scope, although John Powell's musical track (which is quite good) and the peripheral sounds come close to overwhelming the dialogue on occasion. There are not only wide dynamics involved, a broad frequency range, and a strong impact, there is a wonderful use of the surrounds as well, from the film's musical ambience to its pinpoint aural effects. The whole soundtrack really comes into its own and proves its worth in the final twenty minutes or so; wait for it. Of course, there is always regular Dolby Digital for people unable to play the lossless TrueHD track.
The Blu-ray disc comes loaded with extras, most of them exclusive to Blu-ray. The first item is a sixteen-minute bonus film, "Legend of the Boneknapper Dragon," where the characters from the movie set sail on a new adventure, done up mostly in 3-D CGI animation like the original, with some segments of 2-D to fill in gaps. Following that is "Viking-Sized Cast," eleven minutes with the filmmakers and voices behind the animated characters. Then, there is "Technical Artistry of Dragon," ten minutes on the computer graphics involved.
After that are three deleted scenes in rough-draft form, with director's introductions. That's followed by "The Story Behind the Story," a seven-minute look at bringing author Cressida Cowell's book to the screen; "Racing for the Gold," segments of Winter Viking Olympics; a short bit on "How to Draw a Dragon"; a question-and-answer session about yourself in "Your Viking Profile"; a full-feature commentary with co-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois and producer Bonnie Arnold; "The Animators' Corner," a full-feature picture-in-picture affair with the filmmakers discussing things, showing you storyboards, and providing behind-the-scenes footage as you watch the film; a full-feature Trivia Track with pop-up pieces of information about the movie as you go along; and a DreamWorks Animation Video Jukebox where you can play music from other DW animated films.
Next, we get a series of bonus items labeled "Keep Out!" Here, you'll find previews of coming attractions in theaters and on disc; several games from previous DreamWorks releases; and some promos for "Shrek the Musical." Finally, there are seventeen scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; English audio description; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles, and English captions for the hearing.
The bonuses wrap up with a second disc, a DVD edition of the film with a filmmakers' commentary, a "Viking-Sized Cast," and "Technical Artistry of Dragons."
"How to Train Your Dragon" catches all the spirit of good high adventure and combines it with poignancy and humor, producing a picture the whole house can enjoy. Believe me, it's not just another children's film, but, rather, it's in the tradition of the best Disney cartoons, something both old and young can equally appreciate. With the Blu-ray disc's superb picture and sound, it's also a joy just to look at and listen to, making it an experience every videophile and every movie lover can enjoy. I know I did.