Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.



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How to Train Your Dragon

Film #233


A hapless young Viking who aspires to hunt dragons becomes the unlikely friend of a young dragon himself, and learns there may be more to the creatures than he assumed.

Year 1, Day 233

BEFORE: Today brings the first of two non-Disney animated films in the chain. Dreamworks Animation is the studio who made How to Train Your Dragon and is on a quest to see if it can buck the trend of sub five-star films in animation (I promise I don’t have a vendetta against animated films). I’m very optimistic going in and already have several theories brewing for why I would rate the film a certain way, but I’ll reserve that until after I watch it.

AFTER: Something I’m going to be revisiting in this post (not revising, just revisiting) is my ratings classifications and what each star level means. But now that I have that out of the way (very ominous, isn’t it) what did I think of the film? In a word: fantastic. Alas, I can’t just leave it at one word - I must explain why I though How to Train Your Dragon was so good and far above the others in this chain so far.

In what I’m now officially citing as a pattern, characters once again drove the film above and beyond. There’s just something about these filmmakers and creating relatable, intelligent, and well-rounded people that the only conclusion I can draw is animation= great characters. And this time, my favorite characters are actually the main characters. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless led the way with supporting characters like Snotlout Jorgenson (Jonah Hill) and Fishlegs Ingerman (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) rounding things out. The human characters, exemplified by Hiccup, were just defined. And what I mean by that is they seemed like real live-action characters (personality wise, not photo-realistically). Hiccup starts with a voice over narration but even his voice gives you a good idea of what his personality is like. Then you see him for the first time during a siege on the viking’s home by dragons and through his actions, postures, and appearance, you start to fill in more blanks. He’s a shy person, nervous to try new things but at the same time having a desire to so he can fit in. You get a twinge of that through his voice and see it through his clumsy movements and messing around with gadgets in the armory (workshop?). The point is not that you can judge the book by its cover and instantly know who all these characters are. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. You’re just given hints of who this person actually is which makes it more like real life where you can’t really know a person until you’ve spent a lot of time with them.

But where How to Train Your Dragon stands apart from the previous animated fare is the story. The story is what brings this from just a great film to an extraordinary film. To start off with, there’s the wonderful introduction at the beginning, which as I already mentioned, is narrated by Hiccup. Straightforward info-dump introductions like these can be hit or miss. If it’s purely to get as much information across in as little time as possible, it will probably fail. But How to Train Your Dragon uses the info-dump as a way to acquaint the audience with the who, where, and why in a way akin to Lord of the Rings. Yes, both do throw out a lot of information very quickly but I feel it’s done in such a way that isn’t too overbearing and in-your-face. You get just enough info to understand what’s happening for the rest of the film but it’s not too much where you’re struggling to keep up. In addition to the wonderful beginning (which is also brilliantly brought full-circle in the end) the middle also has a lot going for it. If I had anything to complain about, it would be about the balance between Hiccup/Toothless, his father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) with his men, and the training with Hiccup and company. There were times where I felt the focus on a particular storyline was too narrow (especially with Hiccup’s “friends”). But on the other hand, the training scenes we did get, or the wonderful moments with Hiccup and Toothless, or Hiccup creating or altering an invention, or a scene between Hiccup and his father; those were all fantastic. And this ties back into the characters. Since there were fantastic characters, combine that with a moving story with a father-son conflict, and more importantly, a story about a boy trying to prove himself by doing something that is against the norm, and you get quality entertainment.

How to Train Your Dragon is receiving five out of five stars, only the second animated film in this marathon to do so (the first being Rise of the Guardians). And I mentioned two long paragraphs ago I would revisit (not revise) what my ratings mean. To me, and for the purposes of this marathon, a five star film is one that is unique; some distinguishing feature that sets it out amongst all others. Compare that to a four-star which is more along the lines of a really great film that’s just lacking that something special. And this is where my theory as to why How to Train Your Dragon got five-stars and a film like Mulan did not. Put simply, it’s new. Granted just saying new is always better (which is my theory here for why I enjoyed How to Train Your Dragon so much) is not always right, nor is it complete. There are many old, classic films that have and always will be great (read: Kramer vs. Kramer, The Shining, It’s a Wonderful Life) and just because something is new doesn’t mean it will be good. Which leads into the second clause: nor is it complete. How to Train Your Dragon is fully deserving of all the stars I’m awarding it for the reasons I described above (characters, story, etc.). My theory (which as the name implies doesn’t necessarily mean fact) is that because the film had no connection with my childhood, the “newness” of it helped me separate memories of greatness from something tangible.

All of this is to say: add How to Train Your Dragon to your watch list, you’ll really enjoy it.

RATING: 5 out of 5