Sunday, June 13, 2010

Runner-up: Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon

It was a classic bro’s night out. Six of us, with nothing better to do on a Thursday night, crammed into Elliot’s pick-up and headed into Redwood City. The Destination: Clash of the Titans. It was shaping up to be an epic night. We arrived at the theater time to spare, which we promptly spent stocking up on Chipotle burritos to sneak into the theater. The moods were high, the burritos were hot, and still with 15 minutes to grab the good seats. It’s Kraken time.

Or so we thought. Bros are many things, but masters of foresight they are not. As the bored teen working the ticket office explained to us, Clash had already sold out for the night. Big movies tend to do that on their opening week, bored teen snidely helpfully added. Prick. There would be no releasing of the Kraken for us that night. Nevertheless, we’d driven all the way from Stanford to see a movie and somehow squeezed 1000 calorie burritos into our pockets; leaving without a movie wasn’t an option.

As we weighed Tyler Perry’s Why Did I get Married Too? against She’s Out of My League and tried not to puke, another movie caught my eye: Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon. I’d heard good things about it, and I was a fan of some of their past work in Over the Hedge and Kung Fu Panda. Plus, as Ryan later reasoned, Dragons are not too far off from Krakens. The scarcity of alternatives combined with Ryan's logic made convincing the group an easy task. So we bought our tickets with the goofy 3D glasses, and entered the theater with mild feelings of disappointment, mourning the night that should have been. Much to our surprise, the Kraken-less night was far from ruined. In an ocean full of bong water, How to Train your Dragon was the yacht that rescued us from the sinking ship that would have been our evening. It is quite simply a brilliantly fun experience, one that any fan of movies must experience.

Not a Kraken. Not a problem.

How to Train Your Dragon tells the story of the scrawny Viking teen Hiccup, who’s utter failure at physical activities, a mainstay of the Viking lifestyle, makes him the laughingstock of his village and a disappointment to his father, village chief Gerard Butler. Hiccup’s clumsiness and combat ineptitude proves particularly troubling because dragons of all shapes and sizes constantly attack his village, causing mayhem and carrying off livestock. The most feared of the dragons is the illusive Night Fury, which no Viking has ever seen and lived to tell the tale. During a night raid, Hiccup miraculously uses a self-designed net launcher to shoot down the Night Fury, sending it falling into the forest behind his village.

Unfortunately for Hiccup, no one witnessed his exploit, and thus none believed that the lowlyHiccup could ever wound the infamous Night Fury. Hiccup sets off into the forest to prove himself, and eventually comes across the Night Fury, helplessly trapped in the net. Hiccup cannot bring himself to kill the Night Fury, and ends up setting it free. This sets up the plot of HTTYD, as Hiccup goes on to gain the trust of the dragon and learn that everything the Vikings had previously thought about the dragons was completely wrong.

You’re right; we should have come to you first.

While the story doesn’t break any new barriers or revolutionize the genre, the transformation of the bumbling underdog to a hero works well here. Most importantly, the story is just a set up to provide a fascinating world of breathtaking set pieces, intense action, and solid humor. This film best compares to Dreamworks’ previous work Kung Fu Panda, which magnificently blends action and humor to keep the audience engaged in the adventure. Still, there are some minor problems with the narrative. The film is not very long, only 98 minutes, and because of this there isn’t much development or exposition of the supporting characters, relegating them to the stereotypical young adventurer templates commonly found in these types of movies. There’s the nerd, the jock, the wise-cracking twins, and the love interest. They perform their expected roles without venturing into further complexity or depth. This isn’t necessarily a negative, but it’s just unfortunate that the movie wastes this potential because it could have fleshed out these characters without making the overall experience feel bloated or tedious.

The outstanding 3D visuals, especially during the flight sequences, are the real centerpiece of this experience. For better or for worse, all 3D movies these days are compared against Avatar as the benchmark for 3D animation. Avatar provided epic 3D aerial battles and breathtaking eye candy whenever the hero took to the skies of Pandora. In my opinion, HTTYD may actually be more visually stunning than Avatar in this aspect. Since such a large part of the movie focuses on flying beasts, excellent camera placement is a necessity. HTTYD delivers, delivering gorgeous flight sequences that really capture the joy and thrill that one would expect while flying. The flight scenes perfectly satisfy the cliché analogy to an epic roller coaster ride. When a bunch of college students and varsity athletes stare in slack-jawed awe as the camera whips through thrilling twists and turns, you know that this is something special. Samir made the asinine decision to eat during these sequences, and was rewarded with burrito stains on his pants as well as an ensuing car ride home during which we did not hesitate to remind him of his sour-cream folly.

Warning: you may be too engrossed to notice that you dropped your burrito.

Ultimately, is How to Train Your Dragon worth the price of admission? Absolutely. I would even go so far as to say that this is an excellent template for how mainstream movies should be made. The story, while nothing we haven’t seen before, is interesting and fun. The script is well-written and clever, the humor works extremely well while avoiding immaturity, and the voice acting is spot on. The CG visuals are gorgeous, keeping the action enthralling and exhilarating. This film deserves to be seen in 3D, so pony up if you have the extra cash; you’d be doing yourself a disservice not to. Dismissing this excellent film on the basis that it’s animated is a grave mistake; people of all ages should enjoy this movie. It may not be a critical or artistic masterpiece, but it’s near impossible to leave the movie regretting your decision to see it. Six bros certainly enjoyed it, which is more than we can say for Clash of the Titans.

-Patrick Samper

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