Tuesday, 20 April 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

By Beatrice Jeschek

Beatrice Jeschek swings herself on the back of an animated dragon, trained by a smart Viking boy called Hiccup to challenge wrong perceptions.

It can be hard to make your kite fly at the Nordic Sea. Packed in a fleece-lined waterproof jacket with the hood tucked deep into your face, the challenge is to hold tight to the strings that let your big and colourful, paper-folded kite dragon dance in the grey sky. Stormy wind is actually the best condition for flying kites, and fathers just love to see their children succeed in this artwork.

Deeper in the Nordic Sea, Stoick the Vast, chieftain of the brawny Viking tribe in DreamWorks’ most recent 3D-animation “How to Train Your Dragon”, also wishes his son to succeed with flying dragons. The difference is that in his mystical world the dragons are made of flesh and blood and therefore supposed to be killed and not send into the clouds.

If we leave our paper dragons behind on the continent, we discover the stunning adventure of a smart Viking teenager called Hiccup. He is so tiny that his head actually fits in half of his dead mother’s breastplate. It really doesn’t suit the self-esteem of a teenager to be a toothpick for dragons between walking wardrobes of men.

In a thick Scottish accent (spoken by Gerard Butler), the boy’s father Stoik mumbles into his scraggy bush of a beard: “No more of … this” and gestures disappointed to all of Hiccup. The name vividly points to the annoying interruptions the boy causes to the harmonic slaying by the Tribe, made by his piteous efforts to hit a flame-spuming reptile himself. Dragon killing on the small island of Berk in the middle of the Nordic Sea is like having breakfast. The boy describes his isolated home with a dried humour, voiced by a subdued but knowing-of-a-twist-in-plot Jay Baruchel:

“This is Berk. It snows nine months out of the year, and hails the other three. What little food grows here is tough and tasteless. The people that grow here, even more so. The only upsides are the pets. While other places have ponies, or parrots ... we have dragons.”

It is the spirit of Cressida Cowell’s children’s book that might surprise biased professors in comparative literature who will need to clean their glasses when they latch onto their seats and join Hiccup’s ride. It could have been a lame ride, from zero to hero in 98 minutes. But even from our stable continent at the Nordic Sea we can see that this could have only originated from a miscarried two-dimensional perspective on characters and storyboard. Adding depth (literally and figuratively), quite the opposite is true.

At the movie’s core, beating as strong as an enormous dragon heart itself, lays the acceptance of being different. Believing in your unique strengths turns a geek into a genius, and so it happens that the boy not only hits a dragon with his own invented catapult machine but also makes friends with the same, whom he confidently dubs Toothless. When Hiccup reaches out his hand to touch the most dangerous and intelligent dragon species ever, the pitch black Night Fury, we are reminded of one of the most famous scenes between a boy and his pet in Hollywood history: E.T. (1982). Hiccup could have killed the creature when it was lying wounded in its shreds, but he saw into the luminous yellowish eyes filled with “living being” and just couldn’t do it. The Night Fury himself was also too intelligent to simply go for the kill after being freed. So both challenge the tradition of natural enemies – and together they free both species from an even bigger threat.

The popularity that the animated version of the friendship between human and “alien” reaches actually the same high peak as Spielberg’s Oscar winning movie nearly three decades ago. The spark of congeniality is consciously put into every bit of the dragon adventure by the team directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (known from Disney’s Lilio&Stitch with a striking similarity in creating adorable monsters). It surprises how few reviews are out there. None of them truly reflect on the soul of this movie, which might even be Oscar material.

Nine years ago, when the award for Best Animated Feature was established, DreamWorks got the first one. Since then, Pixar the long-lasting rival of Jeffrey Katzenberg (former CEO of the Disney Company and co-founder of DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen) took the stage with its recent blast “Up” (2009) – the only animated film ever next to Beauty and the Beast (1991) to be nominated as Best Picture. Now could be the time for Katzenberg to reap what he sowed in 2001.

For the younger audience (and those longing at the Nordic Sea continent for some real adventure), there is no moral tattooed in the pictures. It is as light-hearted as sending your paper dragon up into the clouds. This might well be the real gift DreamWorks has to offer this time. The dream works, finally.

Video: 'How to Train Your Dragon' official trailer.

(Images: Creative Commons/DreamWorks.)

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