After seeing 'How To Train Your Dragon,' I'm becoming more and more convinced that there are three completely separate teams working on animated films for Dreamworks. I'm not really a fan of anything they've produced other than the first Shrek movie (kind of), Monsters vs. Aliens (sort of), and Kung Fu Panda. Shrek and MvA were cute films, but very flawed--story, over-reliance on pop culture references, unappealing character models, annoying sidekicks, and so on. KFP was by far their best film--one that succeeded on every level: modelling, animation, story, backgrounds, voice acting, music, etc. I left KFP wanting to see more. Rarely do I wish for a sequel, but KFP was one of those films where I wanted another film. When you look at the rest of Dreamworks' animated library (Shark Tale, Antz, Madagascar, Bee Movie, Shrek ad infinitum) you quickly see which films the second stringers are working on and which films they are saving the real talent for!
How To Train Your Dragon is one of those latter films (which only consisted of KFP and maaaaybe the first Madagascar film, in my opinion).
The story is about 'Hiccup' an engineering savvy blacksmith's apprentice who wants to be a great dragon-slaying Viking--but due to his physical shortcomings, he won't even be considered for dragon fighting training. So, he comes up with tools to fight dragons and actually catches one--the black, cat-like dragon 'Toothless', who he befriends and does the whole "discover-your-world-wow-we-now-understand-each-other" thing. I know, I know, a little simplistic, but in this film, it plays out very well and it works!
Okay, so far I haven't told you anything that you didn't see in the trailers. And that's on purpose. This film is chock full of little nuances that really make every scene special--from the little inside jokes that only lifelong Dungeons and Dragons players will catch to the little inside jokes (expressed in Toothless's cat-like movement and emotions) that only lifelong cat-owners will catch.
All in all, this film succeeded on pretty much every level without the usual Dreamworks flaws: over-reliance on pop-culture references, insipid sidekicks, juvenile dick-and-fart jokes, Eddie Murphy*, y'know, the stuff that makes you cringe and wonder if you should go and get a refill on your popcorn as you struggle through a scene where the scriptwriters obviously said "no no, let's leave that in, it'll be funny" and the director got pressured by the mob of executives to do so.
HTTYD told a simple story, and the twist at the end was pretty daring, but it wasn't a kiddie film, per se. This is one of those movies where there was enough complexity to the characters and the plot that most parents won't be squirming in their seats and looking at their watches. I saw this film at midnight with a small crowd of what looked like late teens/early twenties students. Usually, those crowds are filled with talking and annoying flashes of light as they text their friends. There was none of that in this crowd. As soon as the first scene hit the screen, everyone's attention was focussed on the screen and didn't leave it until the credits started to roll!
A lot of animated films have a tendency to throw in tons of sidekicks who are either little more than walking mannequins with no character depth or purpose other than to throw in puns for (supposed) comic relief OR they are obviously just there to reveal some great plot-point that the writers think the audiences are too stupid to figure out on their own. Pretty insulting really. In HTTYD, the secondary characters had enough personality to stand out from the background scenery, but they didn't overwhelm the relationships between the main characters: Hiccup and Toothless, and Hiccup and Viking clan leader Stoick (given a solid performance by Gerard Butler). Most importantly for me, the secondaries provided purpose without being annoying. Their performances weren't overwhelming. When they were there, it was amusing, you got a laugh, but they didn't detract from the foreground story, characters and action. Like the Furious Five in KFP, they weren't very deep, but they didn't need to be--and if they were, it would've been distracting from the primary characters.
The modeling and animation in this film was solid. The characters looked like puppets without being ugly or static (like in Antz or Shrek). The character design in both the vikings and the dragons were pretty inspired--they looked like they jumped off of one of Terry Gilliam's sketchbooks! If you've seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then you'll know what I mean! The character animation was very fluid with a lot of subtle acting in the secondary motions. Indeed, it was those secondary motions that really brought out nuances in the characters' personalities and made their performances believable. The backgrounds were beautiful without being overwhelming. Visually, this film succeeded much like Kung Fu Panda did. It created a vivid imaginary world and everything functioned within that world as you expected it to.
If there was any flaw in this film, I would have to say it was the 3d filming process. During some of the night scenes, the screen wasn't as visible as I would've liked it to be. But, I don't blame the filmmakers or set lighting crew for that, as it looked like an artifact of the glasses required for 3d viewing. I'm going to see the 2d version of this film soon and I expect any issues that I saw in the 3d version to be resolved completely.
I wish I could say more about this movie--what I liked and what I loved, but I'm stuck. If I say any more, it'll ruin surprises in the film that are better enjoyed when you discover them yourself. Oh, and I sat through the ending credits all the way to the end--there's no surprise after or during the ending credits, so if you have to go to the bathroom, go, you aren't missing anything (other than seeing the names of a lot of VERY talented individuals).
All-in-all, if you have kids, you'll enjoy this movie. If you don't, you'll probably still enjoy this film in that kind of way that many adults enjoy Bugs Bunny cartoons. Personally, I walked out of the movie kind of wishing that I had kids to share my enthusiasm with.
Lastly, if you have the time, check out this series of How To Train Your Dragon webisodes on Animation World Network's website. They are a series of six cute little short films that describe some of the various dragons found in the film.
* Please note: no, I'm not a big Eddie Murphy fan anymore. Yes, his earlier SNL stuff was pretty good. But it seems that with the more success he had, the more his performances degenerated into a bunch of "hey, look at how cool I am" scenes strung together. Disappointing. One of the few bright spots in his recent career was his role as the dragon 'Mushu' in Disney's Mulan--a film where he seemed to leave the worst 'Eddie Murphy' traits behind and brought enough of his old SNL self to deliver a very solid performance. Mushu was one of those sidekicks who had a real purpose for taking up valuable screen time without being incredibly annoying. And I loved how he actually made a couple comments that poked fun at himself and his career. That's the Eddie Murphy I remember (and miss) from my childhood!