I’ll come clean: I missed “How to Train Your Dragon” when it first landed in theaters during 2010. These animated flicks seem to be a dime a dozen these days, and I probably wasn’t all that interested given the target audience and its age range. This said, you can imagine my interest level being somewhat low when the FedEx driver dropped it off a little while back.
Admittedly, it took me a little while to make time for it, but when I did, I learned why so many “How to Train Your Dragon” fans are eagerly awaiting the sequel which will hit theaters on June 13, 2014. Made by DreamWorks Animation and distributed via Paramount, “How to Train Your Dragon” is a fun adventure with characters arguably deeper than most live action titles feature these days. It hints at themes big and small in scope, but always sizable in terms of importance. It illustrates the often difficult position one is in when one stands out. It wears its heart on its sleeve.
And, heck, it’s funny, witty and charming, all at the same time.
But don’t take my word for it. “How to Train Your Dragon” received Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score. It grossed nearly $500 million worldwide at the box office and has spurred a video game, a TV series and other merchandise. Somewhat loosely based on the book series by Cressida Cowell, directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (the same duo behind Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch”) didn’t hesitate to take their fair share of liberties during production, ultimately resulting in a dynamic experience for audiences young and old to enjoy together.
The edition provided to me is a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack being released to build some moxie for the sequel which opens during the summer. The film was first released on Blu-ray/DVD in October 2010.
We meet Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a smart yet socially awkward teenager who wants desperately to fit in, or to at least get a little more respect from his father (who just so happens to be Viking village Berk’s chieftain) Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler). Together they live in a world where Vikings and dragons clash regularly out of self-defense and fear. The expectation annually is for young people to begin learning how to slay dragons and continue the Viking legacy moving forward. After watching Hiccup stumble, fumble and bumble his way through some initial training with Gobbler the Belch (Craig Ferguson), however, we quickly learn that he is probably in the wrong line of work.
During a dragon attack, Hiccup thinks he hits and wounds a Night Fury, which everyone in the village claims is extremely dangerous and also never before seen. After more unsuccessful training, Hiccup finds the wounded dragon, who he names Toothless. The two befriend each other, and Hiccup learns some valuable methods for taming Toothless so he doesn’t always appear to be out for blood. He eventually shares his newfound skills with Astrid (America Ferrera), a beautiful young lady who is far more passionate about her role as a Viking than he’ll ever be. Eventually, Toothless opens up his world to Hiccup, who unintentionally mentions to his father that he knows where the infamous dragon’s nest is. As the Viking warriors seek it out, Hiccup realizes it is up to him to save everyone, human and dragon alike, from each other.
“How to Train Your Dragon” received a lot of praise for its technical merits, which are all good and noteworthy. The fictitious world the characters live in exudes a vividly detailed life throughout, and the animation is extremely clean. I imagine if viewed in 3-D, “How to Train Your Dragon” probably shines even brighter. The detail is impeccable, and if compared to other similar animated titles even a few years prior, you can see noticeable differences. But there are other moments in the film that stood out further for me than just the animation.
Take, for example, the warm, inviting scenes where Hiccup and Toothless are first getting to know each other. They can’t communicate verbally and aren’t anywhere near the same page physically. Yet they both pick up on the fact that others in their respective worlds seem to view them as outcasts for a variety of reasons. As the pair feel each other out, we see their friendship transition from one initially riddled with confusion to something that is grounded in trust and understanding. They don’t look at each other with a perspective that seeks something to gain, but instead quickly develop a dynamic that illustrates the overlap their unique individual perspectives share.
I wouldn’t call “How to Train Your Dragon” a coming of age film, but for Hiccup, the journey provides answers to various lingering questions that surround his prior upbringing, his present existence and his future identity. Changing the Viking world initially didn’t pop up on his radar, but in doing so, he probably learned more about himself than he ever anticipated. Did he ultimately garner the respect and attention of his community? Sure. But is that what really matters to him, and his newfound friends? Unlikely. Thankfully, there’s more to come in the sequel. And soon.
“How to Train Your Dragon” is entertaining enough to hold a child’s attention for its 98 minute run time, but I think older audiences will appreciate the special bond between a boy and the animal kingdom. Sure, it’s no “Free Willy,” but the lessons learned from start to finish here will hold their own up against any similar themes across this genre.
I mentioned the video a little earlier, but to be blunt, this is a good an animation transfer as I’ve seen in some time. “How to Train Your Dragon” shines on Blu-ray disc for several reasons. The characters move with next to zero effort through their fantasy world, and the coloration is extremely strong. Brights and darks are thoroughly balanced, illustrating superb attention to detail on things like shadowing, for example. The 1080p High Definition 1.85:1 video transfer is quite crisp and inviting from the film’s first moment through its credits. The many scenes that depict Vikings riding on a dragon’s back are especially well edited and thorough, but not to the point of disorientation.
This is the animated film soundtrack I’ve waited for. An English 7.1 Dolby TrueHD option allows the really, really thorough sound effects to hammer home their placement and timing. Dialogue is sharp and crisp, while Toothless and his flapping wings and tail are extremely easy to pick up on with a unique clarity many live action films could learn a thing or two from. My hat’s off to the foley artists here for their really thorough work. It doesn’t go unnoticed. Other audio choices are French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1s, while subtitle selections include English, French and Spanish.
We’re provided with Blu-ray, standard definition DVD and digital copies of the film, plus a slew of special features like the kick off episode of “DreamWorks Dragons: Riders of Berk,” behind the scenes footage, cast and crew interviews, an animated feature titled “Legend of Boneknapper Dragon,” deleted scenes, commentary, trivia, a tutorial on drawing Toothless, some of Gobbler’s training secrets and more goodies. Lots to work from here, no doubt.
A Final Word:
“How to Train Your Dragon” offers a fun adventure for all audiences to engage with. It’s ability to establish roles and relationships on a surface level and add just enough depth is excellent. I anticipate the sequel will only further engage fans of the first film with greater wonder and awe.