Monday, April 19, 2010

Well trained Dragons

When the first trailer for Dreamworks' latest film "How to Train Your Dragon", hit the screens, I was less than impressed. The dialogue seemed silly, ("thanks for nothing, you useless reptile"), the design of the dragon was less than stellar and seeing Jay Baruchel, the voice of the main character in two other trailers ("She's Out of My League" and "Sorcerer's Apprentice" (G-d help us)) was overkill for me. However, as newer trailers came out with more scenes I started getting more interested and I was looking forward to actually seeing it. Well, yesterday I went to see it with two of my kids and it completely lived up to my expectations and more. I am no movie critic. Just an animator and director with a forum so I will just give my overall impressions without the in-depth film analysis.

Firstly, the character designs were great. I was so happy to see that Dreamworks' strayed from the "realistic" human characters in the Shrek films. The stylized Viking designs, with their massive broad chests and arms, and great big beards were a great departure. And that was just the women (rim shot). The voices were fantastic. It was so nice to hear a Scottish brogue for once in a Dreamworks film that made sense. I never understood why Shrek was from the Highlands but Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson applied their natural brogues to great use in this film. Even the kids voices were stellar, even though the aforementioned Jay Baruchel was aligned with other slightly overexposed young actors, Jonah Hill, Cristopher Mintz-Plasse and Kristen Wiig long with America Ferrara and T.J. Miller. But it didn't matter because the casting was great and enhanced rather than distracted from the characters. I even learned to love the design of toothless, the main dragon character. While he may not look like a conventional dragon as we've all come to think of them, there is reason for that in his character of a mysterious dragon that no one has ever seen before. There are many different species of dragons in this world and they all have there unique looks and fit nicely together in this world.

The acting (yes, I said acting) was great and I don't mean just the voices. The animation of some of the characters was amazing. I can't recall any other animated film I have seen where there were moments that I thought the character of Stoick, the head Viking, was a man in a big Viking costume. Some of the gestures, body language and overall movements and so much life and realism in them it was hard to take your eyes off him every time he was on screen. Truly superb animation. Don't mean to take away from any of the other characters. All were great but Stoick was impressive. I wish I could recall who the animator was.

It even had a good story. Of course, like most "kids" films the plots can be over predictable at times, but this was able to be predictable yet surprising, emotional without being overtly sentimental, and terrific action that made great use of the latest craze of 3D. I have to also give huge kudos to the story team for adding a surprising element in the end (I will not give it away) that other studios may have backed away from and left out but gave the film a real gravitas that you don't see in many "childrens" films. Thank you Dreamworks for being brave. And gratefully, they didn't have to resort to pop culture references for cheap jokes and lame gags.

Lastly, I want to talk briefly about the 3D. What a pain in the ass. I don't know if all the theaters are like this, but the glasses we had were tinted darker on the left eye and they wouldn't fit comfortably on our faces. And while the center of the screen may have been clear, around the edges and peripherally everything was blurry. Man this 3D thing really makes me mad. The whole opening sequence of a dragon attack on the village at night was impossible to see. Having said all that, the production design was beautiful. The rolling green hills, the sprawling sea of viking vessels, were majestic. And the flying sequences really showed off the 3D nicely if you were able to view it.

Overall, I thought it was one of the best if not THE best Dreamworks film to date (although I did like Kung Fu Panda as well) and I hope they continue to take chances and push themselves with every new film that comes out. Next up Shrek Forever After. Well, hopefully after that.