How To Train Your Dragon

Spoiler and dragon free!

Although fitting movies into clearly defined demographic slots – such as ‘chick flick’, ‘teen movie’, ‘kids’ film’ or ‘family entertainment’ – maybe useful from a critical standpoint, it’s not necessarily such a good thing when it comes to marketing. Demographics are useful in their way but in recent years have come to a dominant factor in the herd-mind of Hollywood studio bosses and this has led to many decisions where the tail has been wagging the dog. The trouble is as much as you try to reduce your audience to chunks of figures of predictable patterns, the general public have a remarkable tendency to not have the good grace to stay put in any category the hardworking and very clever men with the graphs have the decency have carefully placed them in.

And this is why How To Train Your Dragon opened to disappointingly low box office returns. The knuckleheads who believe the world is just one big bloody pie chart reasoned thus – its animation therefore it’s for kids and hence as it’s a kids’ flick you gotta shove it out during school holidays. Now there were some rumbling and grumbling from theatre owners who were concerned about a logjam of 3D films, but as cinema owners and the limited availability of 3D capable screens weren’t on the predicted audience pie charts they were roundly ignored.

And so How Train Your Dragon was released head-to-head with the remake of Clash of the Titans. Now the demographics wizards no doubt reasoned that this wouldn’t be a problem as they were going for two different age markets accorded to their data. Because as we all now little kids don’t love big monsters and definitely aren’t bloodthirsty little sods… So therefore they certainly wouldn’t be pestering their parents to take them to see Perseus hacking lumps out of giant scorpions and beheading a gorgon. Of course not!

Now I have some pie charts of my own and according to my data analysis, demographics experts are Type Z people – berks who need to get their heads out of their arses and take a good look at the real world for a change…

Of course, you may say that I’m being a little too sarcastic here and that maybe the industry string pullers just really, honestly believed that their movie was the better piece of cinema and quality would win out at the box office. However years of reading and watching making of features and retrospectives, plus countless tales from actors and directors about what goes on in the business end of the Hollywood, does lead me to severely doubt this as my overall impression is that the folk in charge of the purse strings aren’t actually that interested in any given movie’s actual content and in general seem to be people who don’t actually like movies at all.

However fortunately for How To Train Your Dragon it is easily a far better film than the botched Clash of the Titans - and not simply because Louis Leterrier can’t seem to make a film in Hollywood without someone sticking their oar in and screwing everything up with perpetual reshoots and re-edits. No How To Train Your Dragon isn’t just better by default, it’s one of the best animated features I’ve seen in quite a while. And I’d go further - it’s one of the best pieces of all round family entertainment we’ve had in some time too.

Now there is some serious competition for these accolades but for me How To Train Your Dragon trumps them all. Wall-E and Up both start really well but their second halves don’t quite manages scale the heights of the first. Fantastic Mr Fox is a delight of wit and old school stop motion and although it plays better to kids than some critics gave it credit for, it still entertains the grown-ups a touch more than a good family should. Avatar is probably a little too intense for the very young to earn a family tag and A Christmas Carol is an excellent adaption of Dickens’ classic but as such belongs more to the genre of Christmas films. As for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland… rubbish wasn’t it. Pretty rubbish I’ll grant you, but rubbish none the less. Like his trademark trees, Burton needs to branch out a bit…

So then what makes How To Train Your Dragon so good? First up, it looks absolutely gorgeous. A recurring irritation I’ve had with a lot of modern animation, both CG and old fashioned 2D, is the tendency to overly stylized designs. There seems to have been far too many cartoons all featuring characters that comprise of polygonal shapes with stick-thin arms and legs and in general, demonstrate only a passing acquaintance with correct anatomical proportions. Now stylization is fine and I love The Nightmare Before Christmas, which seems to have popularised this particular style, as much has the next skellington. But it would appear that this tendency to carry it to the point of needless freakishness and often regardless of whether it suits the subject has increased in direct proportion to the use of computers in the animation process. And this leads me to suspect that a lot of lazy, if not downright shoddy, draughtsmanship is masking its failings by playing the stylistic card – why else did the animators of the first Clone Wars get the gig when they blatantly could draw an elbow to save their lives?

Thankfully though, the animators and designers on How To Train Your Dragon are not followers of this trend, and instead deliver characters that are cartoony but still realistic enough to pass as people rather modern art sculptures come to life. Wisely they have channelled their wilder inspirations into the designs of the different species of dragon and as a consequence have created a range of marvellous beasties that are fantastic in every sense of the word.

And these deft character and creature designs are given a wonderful home in the island of Berk. The world of How To Train Your Dragon is portrayed in loving and lush detail; we are talking an Avatar-like level of realistically rendering a fantasy landscape. I was very impressed that the designers had perfectly created an authentic Viking look for the buildings and artefacts; clearly they have done a lot of historical homework and their efforts are rewarded with the creation of a fantasy world with an original vision and brimming with flavour.

But equal to the design work in bringing depth and life to the universe of How To Train Your Dragon is the cinematography. Directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois hired Roger Deakins, veteran cinematographer for the Coens, to help craft the visual look of the movie; apparently the concept was to give the film a more live action/real life look than is usual for an animated feature and this has paid off in spades. At a couple of points, I honestly caught myself thinking ‘Wow! Stunning location!’ before remembering it was filmed in the land of RAM – seriously I had completely forgotten I was watching an animated feature!

In addition the 3D work is superb too – this is a film firmly in the not-too-pointy and plenty of depth school set up by Zemeckis and Cameron. How To Train Your Dragon is packed with whizzing firebolts and breath taking flying sequences but equally important is the little details it brings to life such as the characters expressions and the textures of their gorgeously rendered world. It’s another demonstration that you really need both imaginative directors and to plan a movie for 3D from the outset to creatively justify using the process. How To Train Your Dragon don’t just knock the retro-fitted 3D of Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titan into a cocked hat, it fells them with a great axe and performs a blood eagle on their quivering backs.

However that said, this film is not dependant on the 3D wow factor and although it is nice to see it with dragons flapping off the screen it’s not essential. Partly because the direction and cinematography is dynamic enough to be impressive when viewed flat, but more importantly than delivering the eye candy, How To Train Your Dragon tells a great story that is wonderfully rounded in many different ways.

We have a nicely balanced selection of memorable characters which, incredibly for a film with an eye on the younger market, doesn’t include a cute, supposed to be comedic but actually as funny as the Black Death, sidekick. And this Viking crew is ably voiced by a fine cast who all have a good grasp on both the script’s comedy and drama. And the story has plenty of both; unlike so many family films it doesn’t feel the need to wrap everything in broad comedy.

On the comedy front, it’s a refreshing change to have a family movie whose humour stems from wit rather than just slapstick. It doesn’t play the game of throwing in a custard pie gag for the kids and then a smart arse reference only the grown-ups get; rather it’s humour is completely inclusive – a challenge most scripts fudge with the one for them, one for us approach.

However some mainstream critics have docked it marks for not being funnier, but I applaud it for having the balls to treat its dramatic elemetns seriously. A bane of modern fiction that is aimed at children is the reliance on the same old platitudes – the worst repeat offender being the ‘just be your self and everything will fine!”. Now this is a noble enough message for a younger audience but so often it is delivered in a story so devoid of any real danger, pain or darkness that it starts to grate and becomes a bit “…and we’ll all go and live with the tofu dolphins who live under fridge”.

And at first glance, it would seem that How To Train Your Dragon is heading down the same path – introducing us to Hiccup, a most un-Vikingly Viking who is better at thinking and making things than hitting them. However as the movie unfolds, it becomes clear that that this is more of a coming of age story than the usual watered down ugly duckling routine. And it lead to some harsh emotional places and there is a personal cost to the happy every after.

In short, there are a lot more layers than is usual in this kind of family fare and the movie is all the stronger for it. And it’s this emotional depth that’s got people talking as much as the thrills, the laughs or the 3D. Indeed I’d say it’s the strength of the story that’s inspired the word of mouth that has turned the film’s box office fortunes around.

More to the point, it’s also what makes How To Train Your Dragon a real classic. And that’s why I gave the demographics boys such stick earlier for allowing this movie to go out and be shoved in the afternoon only showing ghetto of school holiday cinema schedules. However in a delicious piece of irony, How To Train Your Dragon has successfully challenged and overturned the received wisdom just like Hiccup himself.

It skilfully avoids the pitfalls and tar pits that scupper many films for all the family – it’s not too cute, patronising or fluffy. Instead it’s fun, exciting and thrilling with a strong heart and a smart head on its shoulders. How To Train Your Dragon is simply pure gold.

JIM MOON, 16th April 2010