How to Train Your Dragon and the Animated Film Wars PDF Print E-mail
Written by Nathan D. Wilson   
Wednesday, 07 April 2010 12:50

It’s hard to get excited to see an animated moving picture. They tend to drift into a spastic story structure and slapstick stupidity (and the kind of humor I don’t want rubbing off on my kids), or (in the recent Pixar trend) slow, nostalgic ponderings of death. My children and I leave the theater and end up having conversations in the car about which scene was the dumbest and whether the whole thing should have been thrown away, or if easy fixes had been overlooked. Traditionally, Pixar brought us collective glee, but that began to change as the creative minds internal to that organization began to age (musing on the inevitable horizon of mortality more than the whimsy of childhood). They’ve always had a mile-wide streak of nostalgia (and it tended to work for them), but Wall-E is only theoretically fun for my kids. Turn it on and soon the young ones will begin to yawn, and the older ones want to know why the entire world is covered in trash, and why a single plant is supposed to save anything, and why they don’t like Costco. (Everyone knows Costco is near heaven on a good sample day.) Up was even worse (and more disjointed). No arguments please.

But, in the eyes of most critics (and in the eyes of the box-office), Pixar had Dreamworks well beaten. Dreamworks was the home of fart jokes and vulgar humor. Dreamworks would break narrative voice, resorting to pure scene-gimmicks for a laugh. Dreamworks was the home of the Madagascar and Shrek franchises and the type of humor native to those stories.  But then came Kung Fu Panda. It, in my humble opinion, and the unanimous opinion of my children, smoked Wall-E (which is not to say there wasn’t anywhere that the story could have been improved). It is fun, it is joyful, it doesn’t resort to easy vulgarity, and (especially on Blu-ray) it is visually stunning without ever taking itself seriously or trying to serve up a dose of existentialism for kids. Had the Dreamworks brand blipped (to the good)? Would it become a trend? I chewed my nails (at least mentally).

I worked for Dreamworks Animation Studios for a while. I knew that Shrek was their absolute cornerstone, and I couldn’t see them drifting away from that style (especially given how much it had brought in). Why would they? So, when the early marketing for How to Train Your Dragon began, I thought I would probably take my kids, but we wouldn’t be in a rush. We might even wait for the DVD. But Easter brought a four-day weekend and the issue was decided. The family loaded up and journeyed to the nearest theater displaying the 3D version.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I was stunned. I had expected it to look good. I had expected it to be exciting. But I hadn’t suspected a sophisticated reverence for traditional fairy tale. Not having read the book (I will now), I don’t know where the credit belongs, but HTTYD managed to paradoxically invert narrative assumptions while remaining true. And this is where I should warn you of spoilers. If you don’t want me to tell you what happens, go see it for yourself. As for the rest of you, read on.

I was expecting a contemporary morality tale (that my children and I would gripe about in the car). Dragons were going to turn out to be good after all (just misunderstood). We would learn some sort of Avatar lesson about accepting all living things as equals (superiors if they’re blue). But that’s not what was served up. Instead, dragons were bad. They raided the village stealing sheep. They burned it down constantly. They killed people. Lots of people. And here’s one of a few things that stunned me. Why did they do these evil things? Well, because they served The Dragon. The big one. The huge, ancient, evil one. And the story progresses not with one small boy (Hiccup) successfully communicating to his father (Stoick) that dragons were misunderstood, but with that boy crushing The Dragon’s head and . . . losing his foot in the process.

Victory in this story came when all the lesser dragons are freed from that ancient one. And they aren’t freed into autonomy or equality with man. They are freed into service to man—they become pets, friends, and well-treated beasts of burden. They are trained.

Pixar has a much richer heritage, but right now, Dreamworks is winning. Easily.

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