(DISCLAIMER: All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White
My friends, let’s be frank. The last few months have been pretty darn rough on your beloved Mouse. I reviewed two stinkers
that actually made me pine for the simple pleasures and artistic merit of Foodfight!
, was almost destroyed by an enraged Don Bluth and discovered that my entire life was a sham orchestrated by Walt Disney. And that’s not even taking into account the vile stream of online abuse I’ve had to suffer ever since coming out. As being anti-Oxford comma. Everyone was actually really awesome about the bisexual thing. Anyway, point is, I need a fresh start, to make a clean break. I’m ready to love again. I just…I just don’t know if I can trust him.
“Come Mouse. Don’t I seem trustworthy?”
Alright Katzenberg, you win. Let’s review a Dreamworks movie.
Yeah. So. Coming up on eighty animated movie reviews and I’ve yet to review even a single film by one of the largest and most successful animation houses in history. Weird right? And it’s not like I have some kind of bitter fanboyish grudge against DreamWorks. There are plenty of DreamWorks movies that I’d count as some of my all time favourites. I think the difference is, while I consider myself a Disney fan (or did, before recently swearing vengeance on the man and all his works and all his empty promises) I consider myself a Kung Fu Panda
fan or a Road to El Dorado
fan rather than a DreamWorks fan. The studio’s output is, let’s be honest here, all over the map. Not just in quality either (although Oh My God Yes), but also in style and theme and atmosphere and subject matter. Let’s put it this way; Snow White
both feel like they were made by the same studio despite being released three quarters of a century apart. Would you be able to guess that Shark Tale
and Prince of Egypt
were made by the same people? There’s far less of a unifying vision for the DreamWorks movies, and the stuff that they do have in common tends to be stuff that rubs people the wrong way (overreliance on A-list Hollywood talent over seasoned voice actors, pop culture references, dance party endings and that damned smirk
). Because they’re, in a sense, less tonally monolithic than the Disney canon they have a harder time winning the same kind of devoted fanbase that Disney has (flipside, they’ll never have the hatedom either). What I’m trying to say is, there’s one Disney, but many DreamWorkseses, ranging from absolute dreck to “Pixar good”. How to Train Your Dragon
is on the top of that curve, the most critically acclaimed movie the studio has ever done and a real game-changer for the animation industry. Jack Black once made a joke when he was presenting that Oscar for best animated feature that every year he gets a check from DreamWorks and bets the money on Pixar to win. After HTTYD
came out that was no longer as safe a bet as it once was.
But is the movie really as good as everyone says? Let’s take a look.
So the movie begins with the Viking Island of Berk coming under attack from a swarm of dragons. Our hero, Hiccup, (Jay Barachel) explains that Berk is “twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death. It’s located solidly on the Meridian of Misery.”
If there’s a bright centre of the universe you’re on the island that it’s furthest from.
Hiccup explains the basic facts of life on Berk: The Vikings build their homes and raise their sheep. The dragons come, burn down their homes and steal their sheep. The Vikings rebuild their homes and get more sheep. The dragons come and yada yada the great circle of life. The movie takes its dragon-lore pretty seriously. Each species has a distinct look, strength and weakness, and these are referenced in the movie over and over to the point where you start to wonder if there’s going to be a test at the end. For those keeping track at home, the dragons attacking Berk this go round are Nadders, Zipplebacks, Monstrous Nightmares and the Hideous Gronckle.
Not to be confused with the hideous Grunkle.
Hiccup wants to help fight off the dragons but because he’s got the muscle tone of an earthworm on the Atkins diet he’s ordered to stay indoors and help Gobber the Blacksmith (Craig Ferguson) provide weapons for the battle. Hiccup is kind of like the Viking Rodney Dangerfield, he gets no respect, no respect at all so he abandons his post and runs off with his homemade bolas-launcher to bring down a dragon. He manages to hit a Night Fury, a jet black dragon so fast that no one has ever even seen one. The Night Fury crashes far off in the forest but before Hiccup can even celebrate he’s chased by a Monstrous Nightmare and has to be rescued by his father, Stoick the Vast. Stoick is voiced by Gerard Butler, playing against type as a beardy shouty king of a nation of bloodthirsty warriors. Because Stoick had to rescue Hiccup, the dragons were able to get away with most of the island’s sheep and half the village is in flames.
Damn. I haven’t seen Vikings get their asses beaten so badly since the BATTLE OF CLONTARF! BOOM!
Stoick is furious with Hiccup, saying that he has an entire village to feed and winter is coming and alright, you know what Stoick? Ned Stark played that card four years ago and we’re still waiting so you’ll excuse me if I put on my skepticals.
Yes, I finally checked out Gravity Falls. It now owns me body and soul.
The Vikings have a moot to decide what to do about the dragons and Stoick orders them to assemble a fleet to find the dragon’s nest before winter comes. After everyone’s gone, Stoick and Gobber sit down and try to suss out why Hiccup such an awful excuse for a Viking.
“I mean, he’s not even TRYING with the Scottish accent!”
Stoick laments that Hiccup’s always been different and unable to focus, and how one time when he took him fishing he went looking for trolls.
What Hiccup didn’t tell him was that he found them and then they tried to marry him to Kristof.
Gobber suggests that Stoick put Hiccup through dragon fighting school, which is kind of like Hogwarts but with much less criminal negligence. Stoick says that Hiccup would be killed instantly but Gobber tells him that he doesn’t know that and, hey, if he’s going to get killed it might as well be somewhere where everyone can keep an eye on him.
Meanwhile, Hiccup is out in the woods looking for the downed Night Fury and finds it in a clearing, still tied up with the bolas. Since, in Viking society killing a Night Fury will get him into any university he wants Hiccup steels his nerve and tries to kill the dragon but can’t
because he’s a total pussy because he feels empathy towards another living being. Hiccup then does a complete 180 and decides to set the dragon free. As soon as he does the dragon pounces on him (well, duh) but then flies off, leaving Hiccup unharmed. When he gets home, Stoick tells him that he’s getting his wish to train as a dragon fighter but Hiccup has now gotten that all out of his system and never wants to see a dragon again. Ever. No more dragons. Hell, chickens are borderline right now. Stoick gives him an axe and heads out to join the fleet, saying “I’ll be back. Probably.” to which Hiccup replies “I’ll be here. Maybe.”
The next day is the first day of dragon school where we meet Hiccup’s classmates. There’s the twins Ruffnut and Tuffnut (Kirsten Wiig and TJ Miller), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plaase) and Snotlout (Jonah Hill). There’s also Astrid who’s voiced by America Ferrara.
“Hey guys! Look at this strong female character we’ve created! She’s tough and badass and doesn’t take any crap!”
“Aw thanks! So, can I have my own movie?”
“Oh…well, you see, the thing about that is SMOKE BOMB!”
“*COUGH* *COUGH* SONUVA…!”
“Sorry sweetie. Hey, we have a card game going if you wanna join?”
“Okay ladies, the game is Texas hold ’em.”
“I fold. So like, I was training to be the Special my whole life and then suddenly…oh hey Nat, you bring the doritos?”
Alright, so Hiccup’s first day of training goes better than anyone could have expected in that he only nearly dies. Gobber saves him from being fried by a Gronckle and reminds him that a dragon will “always, always go for the kill”, leaving Hiccup to wonder why the Night Fury let him live.
Right. And the monks just built this to practice their bungee jumping.
Since the book’s entry on Night Furies is basically a blank page and the word “RUN”, Hiccup decides to go back to the forest and see if he can learn anything from the black dragon.
It took me a while to twig just why Toothless (for ’tis his name) seemed so familiar, honestly a lot longer than it should have.
Not really surprising of course, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois directed both movies. Like Stitch
, Toothless is a wonderfully designed character with very versatile facial expressions, able to switch between being incredibly cute and downright terrifying at the drop of a hat. Hiccup manages to win the dragon’s trust with a gift of some fish which Toothless accepts (Hiccup calls him “Toothless” because he has retractable teeth). Then, Toothless barfs up the fish head and gives it to Hiccup to eat as a gesture of friendship or possibly so he has a funny story to tell his dragon buddies when he gets home. Hiccup realises that Toothless can’t fly away because his tail was injured by the bolas so decides to study Toothless when he’s not in dragon training. This leads to a scene where…
Okay, confession time. I…I’m not a huge fan of this movie.
“Honestly Mouse, we’re more disappointed than angry.”
Oh don’t be like that. Look, I’m gonna pull the old “it’s not the movie, it’s me” card. I accept it’s a really good movie, I just can’t…warm to it the way everyone else has. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just my still lingering racial resentment against Vikings. Maybe my heart is two sizes too small. I dunno. It’s just one of those movies that seems to drive everyone else into throes of ecstasy and just leaves me kind of cold. I don’t dislike it. I admire its qualities. I just don’t love it. Except this part:
Yeah. That part’s awesome. That part where Toothless puts his head in Hiccup’s hand and Hiccup lowers his head because he’s so happy and grateful he could cry, that’s just beautiful.
Hiccup builds a prosthetic tail fin to allow Toothless to fly again and brings it down to the lake. He distracts Toothless with some fish and then straps the prosthetic to his tail, which causes Toothless to make the universal expression for when you feel someone unexpectantly interfering with your rear parts.
Okay, so we now get a long montage where Hiccup helps Toothless to fly again, all the while learning all kinds of useful dragon training tricks like that they hate eels, like to be scratched behind the ear and get high off certain types of grass.
Well duh, everyone knows that.
Soon Hiccup is at the top of the class the while Astrid keeps getting more and more jealous and suspicious. She keeps training harder and harder but no matter what she tries she just can’t win, because Hiccup has a secret advantage.
He’s the one on the poster. Not her.
At long last Stoick’s fleet limps home to port, battered, beaten and no closer to finding the dragon’s nest. Stoick and the other vikings return to Berk utterly demoralised.
“My God. That was worse than Clontarf!”
Stoick is amazed to discover that since he’s been gone Hiccup has become a bona fide celebrity. He’s overjoyed that his son has finally become a real Viking and gives him a horned helmet made from his mother’s boob cup. This of course is a complete anachronism as Vikings never actually wore horned helmets (although how big a role dragon-riding actually played in Viking society is still hotly debated). At the last day of dragon training Hiccup is declared the winner which means he wins the right to kill a dragon in front of the whole village. Hiccup is understandably somewhat short of being okay with that and decides to run away with Toothless. However, Astrid tracks him down to the lake to have a discussion, and she’s brought her best discussion axe.
“But you can’t kill me! I’m the protagonist!”
“You ever see a little movie called Psycho?”
“Love. That. Film.”
Before she can axe him a question, though, Toothless appears and Hiccup takes Astrid flying to show her that Toothless isn’t dangerous. And the visuals here are really gorgeous.
“I can show you the world, shining, shimmering, splendind…”
“I still have the axe.”
Suddenly though, Toothless flies them into a dense fog and they find themselves surrounded by a massive swarm of dragons carrying food. The swarm flies to a remote volcanic island where all the dragons dump the food they’ve gathered into a massive whole. As Astrid and Hiccup watch in horror, one unfortunate Gronckle doesn’tdrop enough food and is then eaten by an ABSOLUTELY HUMOUNGOUS DRAGON.
Back on Berk, Astrid theorises that the other dragons are being controlled by the big one, and that it eats the ones that don’t bring it enough food. “They’re like bees” she says “And it’s their Queen.”
“Wow. There is so much wrong with that I don’t even…wow.”
Astrid tells Hiccup that they have to tell the other Vikings about the nest but Hiccup begs her to wait until he’s figured out what to do. The next day, Hiccup faces a Hideous Nightmare in the arena while his Dad and every berk in Berk looks on proudly. But of course Hiccup can’t bring himself to kill the scaly Satan-spawn and asks the Vikings to give peace a chance. Stoick loses his shit over this, which causes the Monstrous Nightmare to lost his shit and attack Hiccup and then Toothless loses his shit and races through the forest and attacks the Nightmare and all the Vikings lose their shit. Toothless is chained up with the other captive dragons and Stoick furiously confronts Hiccup about lying to him. Hiccup tries to convince Stoick that the dragons don’t wish them any harm, but let’s slip that Toothless took him to the dragon’s nest. Stoick tells Hiccup that “You’re not my son” and readies a fleet to set sail to the nest. Something I don’t get: Hiccup tells Stoick that only a dragon can find the island so they have Toothless bound and chained on one of the ships. Stoick even says to Toothless “Lead us home, devil.” My question is….how? How is Toothless supposed to lead them?
“You want directions? Sure. Take the next turn right up your own ass.”
Realising that his Dad is going up against Godzilla in little flammeable ships, Hiccup and Astrid round up the other dragon trainers and he teaches them to train their dragons (aaaaaaaaaah so that’s why it’s called that). They fly off in pursuit of the fleet. Meanwhile, Stoick, Gobber and the other Vikings arrive on the island and plot their assault on the nest.
“VIKINGS! TONIGHT! WE DINE! IN HEL!”
They crack the mountain open and the whole swarm of dragons comes streaming out and flies away. The Vikings think they’ve one but then the earth cracks open and the huge dragon attacks. It’s not actually named in the movie but Dreamworks calls this dragon the Red Death.
Because of how red it is.
Personally, because it’s more bluey and comes from Scandinavia, I prefer to call it the Norwegian Blue. The vikings are hopelessly outmatched but then Hiccup and the other trainers arrive just in the nick of time and it’s time for hot dragon on dragon action (hot because of the fire breath, obviously). While Astrid and the other trainers battle the Norwegian Blue, Hiccup tries to rescue Toothless from a burning longship but they sink beneath the water and Hiccup almost drowns. Stoick pulls him out of the water and then dives back in to save Toothless. Stoick and Hiccup reconcile, Stoick tells his son he’s proud of him, single, manly tears are shed and then Hiccup and Toothless take to the sky to finish this thing. The final aerial battle is genuinely thrilling and it’s actually one of the rare times I really regret not having seen a movie in 3D. I also like how it shows off the different strengths of each dragon type, like for example how Toothless is just so much faster than any of the others. Hiccup and Toothless goad the Norwegian Blue into taking to the air and lure him into a cloud to reduce his visibility. They then shoot his wings out and blast him right in his mouth which causes the Norwegian Blue to crash to earth and be killed instantly. Or is he?
He’s just pining. For the fjords.
Unfortunately Toothless’s artificial tail fin is burned by the dragon’s breath and he and Hiccup also go plummeting to the ground. Stoick and the other vikings find Toothless holding Hiccup’s seemingly lifeless body and for a second it looks like our protagonist might actually be dead.
“Oh please God please God please God…”
But the power of the poster is strong and Hiccup is still alive, albeit now missing a leg. Fortunately the vikings had plenty of experience dealing with severed limbs after we showed their candy asses the true meaning of pain on the banks of the Tolka so Gobber is able to whip him up a prosthetic limb and the movie ends with the vikings and the dragons living in peace together on Berk and ready to meet whatever franchising opportunities life throws at them.
It’s good okay?! It’s a really good movie. I get that. It just doesn’t have that special magic for me. And, since it made Shrek 2 money while getting Wall-E critical plaudits, I doubt very much Dreamworks will lose any sleep over that.
Top-tier modern CGI. Not life-changing, but very good.
I can barely handle this much raw Viking.
Look, let’s be honest. It’s not that kind of movie. The Red Death is just an obstacle for the heroes to overcome.
Supporting Characters: 16/20
It’s a good group, if you can get over the fact that they’re a bunch of filthy long-boat fondlers.
Really nice score by John Powell
FINAL SCORE: 75%
NEXT UPDATE: 28 May 2015
NEXT TIME: We’re sticking with DreamWorks and getting’ some of that old time religion.
Neil Sharpson aka the Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, blogger and comic book writer based in Dublin. The blog updates every second Thursday. Today’s review was made possible by the kind donation of Melissa Gola. Thanks Melissa!