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Dreaming Up How to Train Your Dragon

6 minute read
Richard Corliss

Two young people take flight on a dragon, just like in Avatar, but the trip is longer and way swoopier. Ancient warriors strut their testosterone in approved Beowulf or 300 fashion. A kid befriends an otherworldly creature — a flame-spuming update of the alien from E.T. — and tries to hide him from adults. It’s a foolproof scheme for picture making: take the plot elements of favorite movies, paint the concoction with bright colors so it looks like the zazziest customized car, set it running at NASCAR speed — then add 3-D — and you have How to Train Your Dragon, the new feature from DreamWorks animation.

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The 3-D bit is recent, but the other items could be the recipe for any of the DreamWorks films that have entertained vast audiences over the past decade. The studio’s three Shrek movies have earned $2.2 billion at the worldwide box office. Include the last seven capers made at its California headquarters — Shark Tale, Madagascar and its sequel, Over the Hedge, Bee Movie, Kung Fu Panda and Monsters vs Aliens — and the 10-pack has a $5.3 billion global gross. That’s just a smidge under the $5.6 billion taken in by all 10 of the features produced by DreamWorks’ rival, Pixar.

Awww, did we have to go and say Pixar? The very word stings the DreamWorks ego like a lighted cigar tip on a fresh wound. Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks’ elfin pooh-bah, had run Disney’s animation unit during its renaissance years — The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King — before leaving in 1994 as John Lasseter’s fledgling Pixar outfit came into the Disney fold. Katzenberg’s new animation unit soon out-Disneyed Disney, whose 2-D features have waned in appeal. But he hasn’t been able to out-Pixar Pixar.

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At least Oscar voters seem to think so. Nine years ago, when the award for Best Animated Feature was established, DreamWorks got the first one, for Shrek. Since then, Katzenberg’s products have been shut out (the studio distributed one Oscar winner, Nick Park’s veddy English Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), while Pixar has taken five: Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL•E and Up. This year, DreamWorks’ perky Monsters vs Aliens was not even one of the five finalists. “Each year I do one DreamWorks project,” actor Jack Black told the crowd at the 2009 ceremony, “then I take all the money to the Oscars and bet it on Pixar.”

That was also the case 60, 70 years ago, when Disney shorts had a monopoly on the Oscars, while the funnier, livelier cartoons from Warner Bros. — which today are treasured — were ignored. In that sense, Pixar’s features are closer to the old, elevated Disney style, while DreamWorks’ films are flat-out cartoons, proud to carry on the fast, cavorting Warner tradition.

Watch a video about the director of Up and his influences.

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The studios also favor different kinds of stories. Pixar makes movies about couples — guy-guy in Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Cars, Ratatouille and Up, and guy-gal in Finding Nemo and WALL•E — who overcome initial antagonism and find a shared need. To wit, buddy stories and love stories. DreamWorks does workplace comedies about groups, in Shark Tale, Over the Hedge, Kung Fu Panda, Monsters vs Aliens, both Madagascar movies and the later Shreks.

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The two studios’ preferred plots reflect their means of creation. Pixar writer-directors, working in a San Francisco suburb far from the seat of industry power, get lots of staff support but pursue their visions more or less on their own. DreamWorks movies, made mostly in the Hollywood suburb of Glendale, are team efforts. A Pixar film may have one writer besides the director; it’s total auteur handicraft. Most DreamWorks movies credit two directors and several writers, and play like the spiffiest vaudeville. The DreamWorkers aren’t in the masterpiece business; they just want to provide an expert good time.

All Aboard the Dragon Train
Fun is the first of the goals set by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, Dragon’s directors and (with Will Davies) writers, for their version of the Cressida Cowell book. Their teen hero, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel from She’s Out of My League), is the underachieving son of a fierce Viking warlord, Stoick (300‘s very own Gerard Butler), whose tribe has been battling dragons for centuries. When Hiccup wounds an elusive creature called the Night Fury, no one believes him. Soon he tames, trains and learns to ride the beast, thus schooling his clan in the proto-eco message that the wilder forces of nature should not be fought but instead cultivated.

(See TIME’s photo-essay “Animated Movies: Not Just for Kids.”)

This is the rare DreamWorks movie that might have benefited from a few more gag writers. Its early reels rely too heavily on the conceit that medieval Norsemen spoke with a Scots accent, and the other teens in Hiccup’s dragon-training class never surmount their stereotypes. But Sanders and DeBlois, two Disney vets who told a similar kid-and-feral-pet fable in 2002’s Lilo & Stitch, have the knack of giving life to fantastical interspecies friendships. And the technicians at their disposal (including the Coen brothers’ ace cinematographer, Roger Deakins) have splashed the screen with landscapes that would captivate all eyes even if the movie weren’t in 3-D.

How to Train Your Dragon is a little more serious and more ambitious than the signature DreamWorks films — at least as much an action epic as a cartoon comedy. In its loftier moments, it might almost be called Pixarian. But the movie may simply be a detour for the studio, not the hint of a new direction. After all, in May comes Shrek Forever After, in which, we’d guess, the DreamWorks vaudevillians will cavort again.

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