How To Train Your Dragon (3D): ** 3/4 (out of 4)
The Path of the Fledgling Movie Reviewer seems to require seeing and reviewing about a movie a week. This has worked out fairly well so far; not only does it match my personal inclinations to go see movies, but most of the time there's no more than a single movie out in a given week that I want to see. But this gets harder as Summer Blockbuster Season begins; every now and then, I'm going to run into situations where there's one movie I want to see, and another that I should see. The first time I had to make this kind of decision this year, I chose to see Hot Tub Time Machine; it seemed like a better date movie, and I rather suspected that it wouldn't stay in theatres all that long. But even at the time, it was fairly obvious that I was going to have to see the competition at some point.
Happily, this last weekend's Big Release was A Nightmare On Elm Street, a movie that I am unlikely to ever see. This gave me the chance to see Dreamworks Animation's big-movie-of-the-year, How To Train Your Dragon.
Dragon is a solid workhorse of a movie from a film studio that is trying to make movies a cut above your average animated kiddie fare (and knows perfectly well that it can't compete with Pixar directly). It sets out to tell a standard coming-of-age story, set on an island where the people are Vikings and the only animals are sheep, fish, and a variety of dragons (being, of course, the natural enemy of Vikings). Within this framework the movie follows the formula pretty closely: the bumbling chieftain's son befriends a dragon, disappoints his father, impresses the girl, saves the day, and changes the world.
This may be a story that we've seen before, but it still feels pretty fresh. Most of the media seem to think that this has to do with its 3D work; me, I didn't see that. It wasn't that the animation was bad; it just seemed a bit bland to me, acting like the gimmick-3D work that is so popular at theme parks across the world. It didn't add anything except $3.50 to the cost of my movie ticket - which is, at least, better than making the movie actively worse.
No, what made the movie fresh was its sensible use of back-story, and specifically its sampling of what was apparently a complex ecology surrounding the dragons. We looked in detail at about a half dozen species of dragon during the movie; and we saw glimpses of another half-dozen or so. But there was a sense there that there were many more species of dragons, and that they might even be able to interact with each other in something resembling a sensible manner. I'm fond of the idea that there's more to a world than can be described in a single film, and that impression came across pretty nicely.
For all of that, though, I didn't come out of the movie particularly excited. The movie was worthwhile, but it still felt a bit bland; maybe it was the dodgy voice acting, or my fore-mentioned gripes with the animation, or or maybe the dragons just felt a tad under-characterized, but I just wasn't blown away. It was still above average, but I feel like it could have been a good movie if they'd just done... something. If I knew what. (And if I expected that they'd do it in the sequel, I'd be even happier, but alas...)
Dragon has held up pretty well at the box office, and will probably continue to hold up pretty well over the year. It may not be anything truly special, but it's a sold, worthwhile movie, and certainly Dreamworks' best animated movie since Kung Fu Panda. It's certainly good for kids, but even without kids you won't be wasting your time seeing it.
(And now I'll go back to waiting patiently for Peter Jackson's interpretation of the Temeraire novels. Those ought to be fun!)