How to Train Your Dragon – a review

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Yup – wide screen epic it is, as is its duration

Normally I don’t go to cinemas to see children’s movies, though I once did when a practising teacher. I will make an effort to see the latest Pixar animation for its adult content worrying as one does, the story-lines might be going soft now that Disney has its politically correct mits all over that once adventurous company.

How to Train Your Dragon is exactly the sort of children’s film I am happy to miss, scripted to a formula, the fag end (sorry children, smoking is bad for your health) of a franchise, a ton of spin-off toy products lying in warehouses unsold. In quality it runs okay to reasonable, hence this review might be briefer than normal. I review it as a token gesture to readers with young kids looking for two hours sitting in a seat.

I shall have to tread carefully here because, having only seen sequences of previous Dragon ‘epics’ shown on television, I am not familiar with the characters’ backstories or the saga’s history. This version is well articulated as animations go. It rests for its entertainment entirely on that old producer instruction – make  it a roller coaster.

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It’s all about dragons … and flying, that Peter Pan fantasy

To begin with I couldn’t make head nor tail of the various stories; they don’t seem to join up. The main story-line runs as follows: “Chief and ruler of Berk alongside Astrid, Hiccup (our hero) has created a gloriously chaotic dragon utopia. When the sudden appearance of female Light Fury coincides with the darkest threat their village has ever faced, Hiccup and Toothless must leave the only home they’ve known and journey to a hidden world thought only to exist in myth. As their destinies are revealed, dragon and rider fight to the very ends of the Earth-to protect everything they’ve grown to treasure.” There’s that Yanks against the Reds thing again.

From that outline and  following the film I got the impression I was watching JK Rowling-lite which is not a good place to be because, believe me, JK Rowling is ultra-lite. Like Rowling’s children’s books, the story is full of idiotic, malevolent adults, and dramas solved by violent deeds made in the name of personal security. Winnie the Pooh it ain’t.

In installments seen there’s usually a larger-than-life standard enemy to serve us a ginormously fierce, complicated final battle wherein the titular dragons get to do their dragon stuff. Past tales sold a simple tale of cross-cultural relations: breaking down the Us and Them divide between folk and species through understanding, communication, and cooperation, the kind of thing we are not very good at these days.

I bought my children books that taught them about relationships, how they can so easily sour over the smallest dispute, and how problems that can be solved in a cooperative manner. Some books were written from the point of view of struggling working class family, some were fixated on plain fantasy monsters.

Training Your Dragon takes the myth of the dragon as terrorist and put its killer instincts in the hands of our side as a weapon of mass destruction. That, and telling us Vikings are a sweet smelling bunch of thicko vegetarians.

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How did so many overweight Vikings manage to rape and pillage?

Is there anything I like? Goofy antics of lovelorn wide-eyed people and dragons aside –  writer-director Dean DeBlois manages to conjure his childhood fans a really compelling villain, Grimmel the Dragon Hunter. In go-to actor for villain roles, F. Murray Abraham, (Amadeus 1984) DeBois has found a thoroughly riveting voice for Grimmel.

Grimmel is an old-fashioned monster, happy to use the power of enslaved dragons in his efforts to track and kill the freedom-loving variety. I enjoyed his monologues when he’s doing it for the sheer thrill of the hunt; I got bored when he’s nattering on about how human-dragon equality is dangerous to civilization as we know it.

DeBlois struggles to connect the resolution of one story-line to the resolution of the other, and it proves to be an overwhelming task. Mind you, it’s relatively painless watch, with plenty of visual excitement to stop children getting bored and running up and down the aisles. The film is packing them in at the cinemas, securing this final event in Dreamworks trilogy an 86% satisfaction rating.

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I see no dragons, only a journeyman actor Jay Baruchel doing a voice-over

How to Train Your Dragon is a confident, extravagant, tonally engrossing animation combining playground muscularity with a lot of whimsicality. Brave set in a mythical Scotland had the same unfortunate characteristics. We get a tableaux of roaring seas, Northern lights, mists, and mystical green-specked lands.

Video game animation aside, Scotland used to have its own very successful cinema animation company. Among other original work, Sylvain Chomet’s company made the wonderful L’illusionniste (2010) set in Edinburgh, but soon got tired of Creative Scotland’s deathly bureaucracy – fine at commissioning reports, less good at sustaining mass employment industries. So Chomet packed his bags and returned home to France. Perhaps we will see the rise of another animation talent and can keep busy in Scotland.

I am sure Training Your Dragon’s legions of lollipop licking fans will love it. In fact they do already if box office receipts is anything to judge by.

A cynical sour-faced adult probably would rather see the story wrapped up in a science fiction genre. Therefore, under twelve year-olds need take no notice of this crotchety, biased review.

  • STAR RATING: Three stars
  • Cast: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, F. Murray Abraham
  • Director: Dean DeBlois
  • Writer: William Davies Dean DeBlois
  • Composer: John Powell
  • Duration: 1 hours 38 minutes
  • RATING CRITERIA
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: Excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: Crap; why did they bother?

 

 

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