With , Dreamworks Animation finally sheds the oily skin of stale pop culture references that has plagued their output since in 2001. In this, finally, lies a story and characters that can stand on their own, with surprising warmth and heart. It is a film that can stand up next to the very best works by Pixar.
One can only hope that with the impending end of the series this May that this film is a promising sign of work to come instead of a fortunate detour.
The story itself is simple, and not out of place with the sort that Disney may have used in the past. This should come as no surprise considering Jeffrey Katzenberg (the ‘K’ in Dreamworks SKG) was at the head of the animation resurgence at Disney with onwards.
It concerns a teenage boy named Hiccup, who’s diminutive stature looks decidedly out of place next to the monstrous people that surround him, for they are all Vikings.
The most disappointed of all the Vikings turns out to be the village leader, who also conveniently happens to be Hiccup’s father. These Vikings do not have the problems of historical ones, instead being plagued by raids by dragons, who snatch up livestock like a bird would snatch a mouse. Tired of this insurgency, the Vikings fight the dragons, leading to a war without a conceivable end.
Hiccup is small in size, but he more than makes up for this with empathy and ingenuity. Not only this, he is a big nerd (hooray!), fashioning a mechanical device designed to take a dragon out of the sky, hoping that its success will win him the approval he so desperately seeks. Hiccup’s attempt at shooting down a dragon initially is perceived to be a failure, but after a fearful walk, Hiccup comes across a small black dragon caught in his trap.
As expected, Hiccup eventually frees the dragon after a battle with his conscience, but the taming of the dragon takes much longer than expected. In a triumph of near wordless interaction, Hiccup and Toothless (his name for the dragon) begin to learn to trust one another. It doesn’t hold the poignancy of the opening of , but what does? Every step Hiccup takes closer to Toothless feels earned, until finally he takes a leap of faith, raising his hand to the dragon in an image that rivals the best seen in any film.
In conjunction with this, Hiccup begins Viking training, but his unexpected success comes not through his strength of arms, but the empathy that lead him to find that Toothless was not the killer the village folklore lead him to be.
In summary, this seems rote and trite, but the quality of lies in the film’s exceptional execution and in its trust in the power of images to illustrate its emotions.
None of this would matter if the dragon-riding sequences were not so thrilling, but they are, even more so than the equivalent sequences in the acclaimed .
As one skeptical Viking goes from fear to awe while on their first dragon ride, the visuals parallel the emotions, changing from barely controlled chaos to serene flight, with both extremes and everything in between handled flawlessly.
The 3D is not as essential, however, and if you see on 35mm film, you will not be missing much. It is the curse of well made 3D movies for the third dimension to be forgotten as the film itself picks up narrative steam.
Many pundits have cited the lack of recognizable celebrity voices as being a reason that did not open to a comparable box office to and the like.
Whatever this decision may have cost them in dollars, it benefited the film immensely. Jay Barchuel (last seen in the forgettable comedy She’s Out Of My League) shines in particular, with his voicing of Hiccup amplifying not just his anxieties, but the very depth of his feeling.
It is this empathy of Hiccup that permeates this film, and one could say this is the first Dreamworks animation to have a soul. The film treats the characters with respect rather than contempt, and as such the audience does the same.
With the gimmicks and crude winks at the adult audience eschewed, Dreamworks has taken its own leap of faith, one that should rightfully be rewarded. This will be difficult for Pixar to top with later this year, and this is certainly the best mainstream film to come out so far in a young 2010.