Sunday, March 28, 2010

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon

Every aspect of How to Train Your Dragon is good, but there's very little here that's excellent.  In a world without Pixar - and make no mistake, in the infinite sea of alternate dimensions, such a world exists (there are, oddly enough, no shrimp there) - How to Train Your Dragon would be heralded as one of the greatest CG films ever made, alongside Kung Fu Panda and Monster House.  But, unfortunately for Dreamworks, Earth-Prime does have a Pixar, so we've seen better.

Before going on, we have a confession to make: we did not see this in its intended three dimensions.  This was a mistake: the flying sequences were the high point of the film, and we expect they're even more stunning while filtered through polarized lenses.  Perhaps, in time, we will see this a second time.  If so, we will certainly try the 3D experience.

Although we did not enjoy How to Train Your Dragon as much as Kung Fu Panda, this movie was not as flawed.  How to Train Your Dragon actually serves as an important milestone.  This is the first non-Pixar CG animated motion picture with no serious flaws.  This does not pander to the youngest members of the audience, nor does it interrupt its story for comic relief or pop music.  There are no characters who drag down the film or serve to distract the audience.

But, overall, the high points of How to Train Your Dragon were not as spectacular as those in Kung Fu Panda.  Its world, while certainly interesting, was not as engrossing or intriguing.  And, most importantly, there's less that's stayed with us.

The one accusation we can bring against How to Train Your Dragon is that it felt timid.  For all the implied violence, we never see a dragon or viking kill the other.  There is talk of death, but no blood makes it to the screen.  The movie poses some difficult questions about war and honor, about family and trust, obedience and rebellion, but its answers are simplistic and cheap.

Even the movie's sole sacrifice feels hollow and painless.  We aren't demanding a tragic conclusion, but we needed something to offer resonance, to make us feel something beyond the awe of flight.

But at least it gave us that.  The flight sequences are on par with any you've seen, approaching at times even the brilliance of Miyazaki.  The characters were likewise interesting.  The three leads (the boy, the girl, and the dragon) were always entertaining without feeling cliche.  More surprising, the vikings came across as three-dimensional and deeper than we'd expect.  Sure, they used violence as a crutch for their problems, but their motivations and goals felt - dare we say - layered and complex.

We mentioned earlier that How to Train Your Dragon had passed a milestone.  We applaud Dreamworks for finally beating its demons and managing to put together a movie without deep routed problems or structural flaws.  Even so, this was unable to pass a more significant milestone.  We are still waiting for a CG movie that's better than Pixar's worst film.  We're waiting for Dreamworks - or anyone else - to make a CG movie that was better than Cars.

Of course, our scale needs to be set on a steeper curve.  If The Incredibles is defined as a five star picture, this would earn a solid three.  While it's no Pixar movie, How to Train Your Dragon is solidly enjoyable and worth both your time and money.  Just be sure to learn from our mistake and see this in 3D.

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