Friday, April 23, 2010

How to Make Your 3D Kids' Movie

How to Train Your Dragon: An IMAX 3D Experience.

A positively nauseating title, right? When I noticed the first advertisements for this film, I did not even bother to roll my eyes. We are currently in the midst of a full-fledged deluge of 3D movies, and one more crappy kids' movie about animals and fart jokes was not going to make things any better. Thank the movie gods, then, that How to Train Your Dragon is not your average kids' movie. Hell, it is not even your average 3D movie. Against all odds, this film changed my preconceptions about what a Dreamworks Animation movie can be, as well as the value of 3D.

Based on a children's book by Cressida Cowell, the film tells the story of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). Hiccup is a screw up. He lives in a stereotypical Viking society, where anyone worth anything is a great warrior – even the tweens. Naturally, his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), is the Chief of the town and is more disappointed in him than anyone else. This is not without cause; every time the kid leaves his post at the blacksmith's shop and attempts to enter battle, he does more damage than good.

The battles (as you can probably guess) are not of the human vs. human variety. The film's opening sequence depicts a swarm of dragons laying siege to the Vikings' town, and the Vikings desperately attempting to ward them off. With this battle, directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders immediately subvert expectations. It is an intense sequence, focusing more on mayhem and destruction than the cutesy comedy and friendship for which the title sets us up. There is comedy but it is of the dry variety – Hiccup's sarcasm is largely the source of the film's jokes. As such, the scene does two important things: It establishes Hiccup as more than just a loser – he thinks differently from those around him – and it shows that this movie is going to take its dramatic elements seriously.

That is not to say things remain consistently heavy. In the midst of this first battle, Hiccup manages to hit a rare, exceptionally powerful dragon with a catapult shot. Of course, no one sees it happen, and he must go search for the downed creature alone. The dragon is first seen as a heaving pile of black, scaly flesh; Hiccup is terrified of even touching it. In fact, he attempts to do what any other viking would do: Kill it. As he prepares to do so, however, it raises its eyes to the boy and we see a marked look of fear. Hiccup drops his knife.

Over the course of the next few scenes, their relationship grows in the venerable tradition of Hayao Miyazaki's child-animal friendships. The moment where the two first make physical contact is arresting: Hiccup puts his back to the dragon and, with a humility and confidence that we have yet to see from him, blindly places his hand on its face. The film's score becomes silent, the camera becomes static, and the bond becomes palpable. This moment was the first time I had ever felt something from a Dreamworks Animation film. Pixar has moved me countless times in the past – the excruciatingly tender start to Up, the tragic loneliness of WALL-E but, with this film, they lose their monopoly on emotionally resonant computer animation.

It is great animation, as well. Hiccup's timid body language accurately and endearingly characterizes him without ever veering into caricature. While the adults' character designs are a bit too exaggerated to take seriously, Hiccup's (along with the other kids') is far more grounded and conveys his unique characteristics nicely.

Most of the dragons are trite or comical in appearance, but Toothless, as Hiccup comes to call his friend, is distinctive – sleek and powerful looking, but endearing, as well. Its face is extremely expressive; the dragon never says a single word, but it has genuine personality. (The moment where it attempts to emulate Hiccup's smile is adorable and quite reminiscent of Totoro.) Perhaps most impressive of all is Toothless in flight. If you have ever watched a Miyazaki film, you know that great animated flight sequences require an intuitive understanding of the physics of flight. When Toothless climbs into the atmosphere, Hiccup clings to his back, being lifted by the dragon. When Toothless dives, Hiccup lifts off of his back and scrambles for a hand hold. It results in flight sequences that are harrowing, thrilling and majestic.

It also results in the single best 3D shot I have ever seen. Toothless dives straight down from the stratosphere, only to bank and fly parallel to the ground. This is all shown with one, continuous shot, following Toothless at its tail. As the dragon's speed picks up, clouds shoot by and the whipping of the wind becomes more intense, then it turns to narrowly dodge rock formations at breakneck speed. The 3D creates a genuine roller coaster feeling; the sense of speed in a film has never, ever before been this real. This must be what the people viewing that mythic first projection of filmed train footage felt when they ran from the theater for fear of being hit.

I do not suddenly think everything should be in 3D, but this film has reminded me of the obvious fact that a talented filmmaker can make any gimmick worthwhile... and that watching things on a huge IMAX screen is awesome. (By comparison, it also illustrates how ineffectual James Cameron's use of the technology was in Avatar.)

Of course, Hiccup's friendship with a dragon flies in the face of his community's ideals. At first, however, it seems to help him. As he becomes closer to Toothless and, as a result, gains better understanding of dragons' behavior, he quickly progresses through dragon fighting classes at home. With his sudden, perceived growth as a warrior, Hiccup gains fame from the townspeople, disdain from his classmates – particularly the hardworking Astrid (America Ferrera) – and praise from his father.

Like so much of this film, Hiccup's relationship with his father gains a surprising level of resonance. Yes, Stoick is a tradition-minded man's man, but he is burdened by his distance from his son and does not relish admonishing him for his atypical ideas. When Hiccup finally seems to be meeting his expectations as a warrior, Stoick quickly realizes that his son's supposed failures were not the simple explanation for their relationship's shortcomings. Similarly, Astrid is just as frustrated with herself for falling behind Hiccup in class as she is with him.

The script's depth does not stop with its characters, either. Hiccup refuses to complete his course of study – the final test is killing a dragon – and, his questioning of the Vikings' ongoing war with the dragons creates some notable thematic depth. The Vikings are single-minded and fail to truly understand their enemy. Even so, their motivations are understandable. The film's opening essentially depicts a slaughter; the dragons seem to be the aggressors. Hiccup's experiences, coupled with his unique perspective, expose the true complexity of their world, but enlightening his peers is not easy. Stoick, Astrid and the community at large are deeply committed to their fight. As reasonable and intelligent as they are, they know nothing else. Such a fundamental sympathy for both sides is vital for good drama. (Avatar's script never came close to understanding this.)

Still, the film does make a few disappointing concessions for the sake of its target demographic. A twist explanation of the dragons' motivations is interesting but ultimately a bit too convenient. It prevents the film from maintaining its full complexity to the end. Furthermore, justice prevails – only those who deserve it die. In fact, I only noticed one on-screen death. (Spoiler: It wasn't a human.) For all the talk of war and barbarism and all the explosions and brandishing of weapons, there is next to no actual violence in this film.

I understand that no one wanted to scar children's psyches, but there comes a point where hiding the violence detracts from the film's ideas. Is the fighting really all that bad if it only results in property damage? Is the killing really all that bad if, well, they only talk about doing it? The film so beautifully illustrates many effects of ignorance on the characters and their society, but it shies away from showing the most serious ones, and the film suffers for it. They had a PG rating. They probably could have done more with it.

That being said, this movie very rarely pulls its punches in any other sense. It is a hundred times smarter than its idiotic name suggests. Even the obligatory "3D" appendage is misleading, as this film contains some excellent use of the technology. If Dreamworks – the lesser Hollywood animation studio – continues to make animated films as good as How to Train Your Dragon, things are really looking up for American animation.

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