home Entertainment, Movies “How to Train Your Dragon”: how to make a good kids’ movie

“How to Train Your Dragon”: how to make a good kids’ movie

[rating=4]

One of the many titles I can claim is that of a man with a wide and varied history of head trauma. It ranges from simple falls to something I refer to as the Zimbabwe Fiasco[1], and it affords me a unique set of drawbacks and advantages.

For instance, I’m not especially good at identifying basic shapes or colors, but I am able to experience things with a sense of child-like wonder. I believe this unique vantage point makes me singularly qualified to comment on kids movies. And one thing I can tell you is that making a good kids’ movie is just about one of the hardest things you can do.

Think about how hard it is to get a kid to sit still. They have the attention span of a Chihuahua that’s been waterboarded with Redbull. Add to that the capacity to completely ignore you while they ponder just how cool it would be to be able to turn invisible, because a) you could run around naked, and b) poop on just about anything you wanted[2].

Competing with notions as thought-provoking and hilarious as this is a tall order, and one that most children’s movies fall short. I believe this is because writers and directors fail to make a very important distinction when writing for children: having simple tastes isn’t the same thing as being stupid.

To my happy surprise, “How to Train your Dragon” doesn’t make that mistake. Oh, it has bright colors, cutesy humor, and plenty of noise. The story is a comfortable and well-worn framework that’s been used before, but directors Sanders and DeBlois move beautifully within its boundaries.

The story’s protagonist is a young Viking named Hiccup, and it’s made clear very early on that he doesn’t really fit in with the other Vikings. As a rule, they’re brawnyand terribly enthusiastic about killing the dragons that feed on their livestock. Hiccup, on the other hand, is slight and intelligent, but utterly useless when it comes to the bloodshed that the rest of his tribe come by naturally. However, he desperately wants to fit in, and figures that the best way to do so would be to bring down a dragon himself.

During an attack, he uses a contraption of his own design to bring down the rarest sort of dragon, a Night Fury. When he first meets, the dragon, I had a moment or two of doubt; I suppose I was expecting the creature to look a little more monstrous. But at first glance, the single thought that occurred to me was that “That thing’s head is uncomfortably phallic.”

I was surprised that, in a children’s movie, they had decided to include what I felt could only be described as Dongsaurus. Not because I thought it was a bad idea, mind you; I just didn’t expect the character designers to be that… progressive.

That opinion faded quickly though, as I got more wrapped up in the story. Hiccup slowly befriends the dragon, which he eventually names Toothless – and again, this movie refuses to take the easy way out. We’re treated to repeated scenes of Hiccup trying to understand and eventually bond with this dragon.

Over the course of his attempts, Hiccup begins to learn about dragons, their natural quirks and charms. The movie pays a lot of attention to the nature of dragons, fleshing them out and adding the sort of detail that you don’t normally see in a movie made for kids. And that’s unfortunate, because it’s exactly that sort of world-building that really enthralls a kid.

Eventually, Hiccup even learns to ride his dragon, and the audience is treated to some fantastic sequences. You see, Toothless is a smaller, agile, jet-black dragon built for maneuvering and speed. The Vikings are all afraid of dragons like him because of the way they streak in at night, incredibly fast. These dragons also have a signature shriek that gets louder as they approach their target, and it reminded me of nothing more than the way tank drivers have been reacting to the intimidating drone of A-10 Warthog engines, ever since the Gulf War.

For all that, Toothless is intelligent, increasingly friendly, and has a host of personality quirks. He’s a weird character, and interesting simply by virtue of the fact that he really does seem like an animal, instead of just another marketable mash-up of bright colors and adorable formulae. The best way to describe him, really, is to tell you that he’s equal parts golden retriever and F-16.

“How to Train your Dragon” also addresses the disconnect between Hiccup, an intellectual wimp, and his father, who happens to be both the leader of the village and the prototypical ass-kicking Viking. I honestly expected this side-plot to be as obvious and one-dimensional as it has been in any number of children’s movies. Yet the directors actually seemed more interested in making the audience empathize with the frustration of a kid who can’t get his dad to really hear what he’s saying, and less interested in simply throwing in a hug and an inspiring musical score near the end.

Similarly, the love interest in this movie isn’t simply the sweetest girl in the village. In fact, she’s another Viking in training, and she’s only interested in being the best. She’s everything that Hiccup isn’t: focused, competitive, and endowed with exactly the sort of killer instinct prized in a young warrior. More than anything else, she reminded me of some girls I’ve gone to med school with. She becomes predictably nicer later on, but I’ll be honest: I was simply grateful that she was ever interesting at all.

The weak points I found forgivable. Characters would occasionally have a sudden change of heart and mold conveniently to the needs of the story, as opposed to dictating it. The movie was also clearly re-tooled to take advantage of the new 3-D craze that’s been pelvic-thrusting its way into modern cinema ever since “Avatar” lowered the public IQ; I suppose it’s entirely debatable as to whether incorporating more of a visual wow-factor is a positive or negative, but if history teaches us anything, then it’s probably safe to say that studios will want to use 3-D as a way to replace quality in movies instead of enhancing whatever’s there. It’s just too damn bad.

Finally, there’s the issue of Jay Baruchel. He voices the main character, which is a little unfortunate, because he might be one of the most irritating people in Hollywood today. He’s never said a single funny thing in his life, and has some of the most tragically bad delivery ever to be recorded on film. Watching him act out a comedic role is a lot like standing behind one-way glass and watching a wrongfully accused joke get the electric chair.

A lot of the travesty can probably be attributed to his voice, because it’s the sort that speaks directly to your inner bully, and makes your fingers positively itch to yank his underwear up over his head so hard that you’ll need to call an EMT afterwards. This made me feel very conflicted, in that I wanted to like the protagonist, but I also want to punch Baruchel in the face so hard that a voice-over announces “Flawless Victory” and offers me the opportunity to perform a finishing move.

Overall, though, the loving detail and fully-realized fantasy in “How to Train your Dragon” makes for a pretty great movie. I was constantly impressed at all the shortcuts it didn’t bother to take. The characters were more than collections of clichéd attributes with names attached to them, and the dragons were just about the coolest pets ever, as opposed to just being a celebrated special effect.

It all makes you wish you had a dragon of your own to train, which is sort of the point of a movie like this. And if it isn’t, it sure ought to be.

[1] Due to pending litigation, I’m not at liberty to go into details regarding the case. But I can tell you that certain individuals, who wish to remain nameless, may or may not have been hospitalized after ignoring multiple warnings and climbing out of the jeep in order to drunkenly headbutt a grazing rhinocerous who thought it was better than everyone else.

[2] Think about it, you fool! The implications are limitless!

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Joe Sapien

Joe Sapien is a regular columnist. He is currently floundering through grad school and running up debt. He never got to be a bully as a child, but he would have been pretty good at it.