Although now that I think about it, this isn't actually a review. This is a reaction post.
A general warning: There's some vague spoilers for How to Train Your Dragon, but I do mention some other films: Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, The Princess and the Frog and Enchanted, if only to explain how they reflect into my own experience of How to Train Your Dragon, but as usual, Your Mileage May Vary.
I have expectations for Dreamworks’ films, just as I do for Pixar, Disney and direct-to-video Disney. My expectations for Dreamworks is built upon the reputation of their later films, especially the Shrek trilogy (soon to be quadrilogy), but also Madagascar (1+2), Bee Movie and Over the Hedge. These films are modern, tongue-in-cheek films that rely heavily on visual gags and puns, which make them fun to watch but for me, personally, utterly forgettable. I will watch them, I will laugh, but their effect only lasts until the end credits.
I’d mentioned before (THE POST IS SOMEWHERE, I GUESS) how I believed I’d become too cynical to get caught up in storytelling magic the way I once used to. I still remember the wonder of watching Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin for the first time, and the closest I’d come to recapturing that wonder was via Pixar, especially their Monsters Inc, The Incredibles and Wall-E.
I was thinking about that change in me, how I'd become more critical of the way stories are told, and I'd come to the conclusion that Dreamworks' films were simply not for me. (I consider The Prince of Egypt as part of their earlier experimentation, before they settled into the contemporary and hugely-successful formula of Shrek.) I am, I decided, not the market that Dreamworks is trying to appeal to, and thus I paid almost no attention to Bee Movie, Kung Fu Panda and Aliens vs. Monsters.
It was only by chance that I watched Kung Fu Panda, one lazy Sunday afternoon when I was hanging out at a friend's house and there was nothing else on. I distinctly remember how by about halfway through, we turned to each other, wide-eyed and shocked. "Whoa. This movie's actually good." Because it is. Based on the expectations I had, Kung Fu Panda was downright respectful to the Chinese culture and wuxia films, and had a sympathetic Chosen One character who (and this is what sold me) was humble and contrite about being the Chosen One, which... was not what I expected from a Dreamworks hero at all.
ANYWAY. It's pretty much because of how pleased Kung Fu Panda made me that I was willing to give How to Train Your Dragon a chance. (Well, that, plus dinglehoppers asked me to go watch with her, heh.)
OKAY. I'm trying to be coherent with my love with this movie, because I don't want to simply say that it's awesome (which it is) and adorable (which it is) and emotionally satisfying (WHICH IT IS) without explaining where I'm coming from and why I was blown away.
I've mentioned my "Dreamworks" expectation clearly above. I was expecting something like their more successful Shrek, full of jokes and hyperactivity, because why would they mess with a winning formula, right? WRONG. How to Train Your Dragon is nothing like Shrek, and that in itself is impressive, because Dreamworks were bold enough to take a chance by going in this direction. They are, in effect, treading old-school Disney story sensibilities, and they're doing it without belittling of or making fun of those old-school story tropes. (This is, in part, why I couldn't completely fall for Enchanted, alas.) How... Dragon is told perfectly straight, with almost no wink-wink-nudge-nudge deliberate cleverness, and that is such a breath of fresh air.
I have no idea what went on behind the scenes in Dreamworks that they chose to go in this direction, not when Jeffrey Katzenberg made no secret that he loved the post-modern direction of Shrek and its fairytale parodies, so I'm speaking purely from my own reaction to How... Dragon. It feels to me that Dreamworks decided to step back, toss away all the frills and bells, and focus on the story. (As Pixar likes to say, story is KEY.) Maybe this happened before or after they roped in Chris Sanders, director of Lilo & Stitch, to helm this project, I don't know. It feels like they've forcefully lobotomized themselves -- instead of sticking to the formula they know works, they've gone back to basics. It's as though they made the choice to try to tell this simple, straightforward story and make it work on its own terms, before trying to go the distance with more clever, more challenging stuff.
Pixar, in contrast, know that they CAN tell the simple story, which is why they're continually pushing themselves to be more clever and challenging. This is also true of The Princess and the Frog, which had so much pressure and expectation riding on it that you can see it in the final product. It feels very self-conscious, and because it's part of an old franchise of fairytale-retellings, there are things they cannot do (they can't tell the fairytale straight, because the audience has changed) and there are things they must do (they have to be Clever, Distinct, Fresh, New).
How... Dragon doesn't have that kind of pressure on it. They're simply trying to tell this story, and there's a sense of pride about its simplicity.
It's almost as if someone hit Dreamworks on the head and said: You don't have to tell adult jokes to appeal to the adult market; you don't have to use visual gags to keep the kids interested. Just tell a good timeless story, because good timeless stories appeal to everyone. Those other things -- the jokes, the cleverness, the puns -- those should merely be bonuses.
How... Dragon isn't exactly doing anything new, but to that I say: SO WHAT. It's the story of an outsider who's trying to fit in, only he fails every time he tries to follow his society's rules, so he makes his own and discovers that the rules he'd been trying to adhere to aren't worth following at all. Make your own rules! Think outside the box! Break free! These are messages we've seen over and over again, but it's because they're familiar that it's now a challenge to tell that story without reducing it to cheap cliches and eye-rolling stereotypes.
Make the characters flawed and human, but interesting and hopeful. Give us emotional arcs that pay off by the finale. Show us what the characters are like and how they relate to each other, but don't bog us down with lengthy monologues. (Stoick's "Now we have something to talk about" speaks volumes about his relationship with Hiccup.) Give us side characters to make us laugh, but keep them relevant to the plot. Give us adorable moments to coo and screencap and turn into icons. Give us jokes that tie into the story. If you have to bring the story to a halt, do it for a reason -- make us breathless with beauty or awe. Give us heroic moments of awesome, but make them mean something by having the hero pay a price.
Most difficult of all: Do all of the above in a cohesive way, getting all the different points to overlap and make sense. (I could go on and on about how the film's pacing is so well-done, the film kept tight with nary a wasted scene, argh.)
All these things make an otherwise cliche'd story into something rich and tangible and human.
And that is why I love How to Train Your Dragon.
Randomly: THIS PICTURE CRACKS ME UP SO HARD. SRS GERARD IS SRS.