(Some spoilers to follow.)
I’ve been leery of Dreamworks Animation of late. They have been suffering from a lot of very stock stories and a tendency to copy Pixar. I’ve been unimpressed even with their most well-received films, such as Kung Fu Panda, which I expected to be an utterly predictable underdog kung-fu movie but was urged to see anyway, and found to be…an utterly predictable underdog kung-fu movie. Thus, I instinctively wrote off How to Train Your Dragon. It was only after I noticed that the Rotten Tomatoes had it listed at a whopping 98% that I decided to give Dreamworks Animation another chance. I loved it.
It isn’t that the story is so breathtakingly original. It follows the coming-of-age and enemy-cultures-become-allies plotlines with no real departures; the only plot twist that surprised me at all was Hiccup losing his foot at the end. For fun, try comparing the plot to Ratatouille. The incidentals are different, but the story is essentially the same, right down to disapproving fathers and tough slap/kiss girlfriends. Still, the story type is old because it works, and here it works particularly well.
After all, as we discovered with Avatar, originality isn’t everything. A well-executed new take on an old story can have just as much merit as a highly innovative story, and in its execution, How to Train Your Dragon shines. The visuals, the character design (especially of the dragons, who have the personality of cats), and the sheer heart of the whole thing add up to an immensely watchable result. There are also several details in the way the story is carried out that make it work better than other versions of the same story type.
For instance, Hiccup the Viking and Toothless the dragon are given a long time to bond. Toothless is caught in a valley, unable to fly, allowing Hiccup to return several times and gradually gain its trust. There’s a montage, yes, but this part of the story could cover weeks or months. The result is a much more natural relationship than the 10-second enemies-to-friends reversal so common in movies. (Fridge logic sets in when Hiccup’s friends learn to ride some other dragons in a few minutes, but that’s a minor problem.)
But the best detail is Toothless’ tail. A difficulty I have with the whole dragon-riding subgenre is the subjugation. I don’t like the dynamic that dragons are shown to be beautiful, mighty, and as often as not intelligent and noble too, but are forced to be mounts for humans. Why should humans get to control dragons? The dragons seem like they don’t get anything out of the relationship*. How to Train Your Dragon found a solution to this problem.
Dragons apparently use the fins on their tails to steer and balance. Toothless is missing one of his fins. He can’t fly without it. Hiccup makes him a replacement fin out of leather, but Toothless can’t control it: It just flaps around uselessly. So Hiccup builds a harness that allows him to control the tail fin and, with his help, Toothless is able to fly again.
Thus, this movie becomes the only case I’ve ever seen where the relationship between dragon and rider is truly equal. Hiccup can’t fly on his own, but neither can Toothless. Submitting to a rider is the only way he can be free. The end, where both dragon and rider are handicapped on the same side, is a nice addition to the symmetry.
Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders formerly worked together on one of Disney’s most original works of cel animation, Lilo and Stitch. They’ve brought the same freshness and vivacity to How to Train Your Dragon. Go ahead, put aside your kids’-movie qualms and enjoy it.
UPDATE: Gordon McAlpin of the webcomic Multiplex had a similar reaction.
*If anyone is reading a PETA-style tirade against domestic animals into this, don’t.
Image from IMDB.