How To Train Your Dragon (2010) dir. Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Starring the voices of: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse
By Greg Klymkiw
There's nothing especially bad about How To Train Your Dragon, but there's also nothing especially good about it.
Each time I see a new animated feature on a big screen these days, the first question that courses through the rivulets of my brain is, "Haven't I seen this somewhere before?" The second is, "Uh, like, why did they make this?" The answer to the former is a quick and resounding "Yes!" The answer to the latter comes when I look away from the screen and/or up from a rousing game of "Bejeweled" on my iPhone and realize I'm sitting amongst several hundred little nippers and their surprisingly engaged parents. It's like what James Earl Jones says in Field of Dreams: "If you build it they will come."
Parents these days seem so starved for family entertainment that the studios just keep piling on one derivative 3-D digital delight after another. It's one of my familiar rants, actually. Why do today's parents keep dragging their kids to see this crap? There are so many other movies they could be taking them to.
When I was a kid, I saw every Disney release, to be sure, but most of them were classics from the Golden Age and re-released every seven or so years to capitalize on new generations of avid viewers. But these weren't the ONLY movies my parents took me to or that, when I hit the age of seven or eight, went to by myself. I saw the original Planet of the Apes and its multitude of sequels between the ages of 7 and 13. I went to all the Sinbad movies. I saw every John Wayne and Clint Eastwood western. Dad took me to see The Wild Bunch when I was 9. I remember making a deal with my Mom that if I had to sit through Mary Poppins, she had to promise to take me to see The Battle of the Bulge. Hell, I remember going to grindhouses as a kid and sitting through Hammer Horror films, motorcycle movies, war pictures and British Carry On sex comedies. And aside from Disney, I really don't remember there being that many animated movies being made, released or re-released. Going to the movies meant going to the movies - ANY MOVIES - so long as it wasn't pornography.
It's not like there AREN'T movies today that are similar to the abovementioned titles. There's plenty of action, fantasy, comedies and even straight-up drama for families to see. Why then, must audiences keep encouraging the studios to grind out these mostly empty and derivative bowls of treacle?
How To Train Your Dragon, as uninteresting as it is, at least has dragons in it. But, God help me, the story is appallingly familiar. A young Viking lad wants to battle dragons like his Dad. Dad doesn't think his son is ready to do so. Boy Viking makes his mark by downing a dragon but not killing it. Then (barf!) he discovers dragons are nice and he turns his former quarry into a pet. And, guess what? I'm sure this will surprise you. I know it surprised me (though in fairness, my attention drifted between the movie and "Bejeweled", so anything would have surprised me). Viking boy teaches everybody that dragons are not what they seem. Aaawwww, isn't that nice?
And aside from the annoying digital 3-D animation that will never hold a candle to traditional animation and the equally maddening cutesy-pie voice work from an all-star cast, the biggest problem with this picture, and so many others of its ilk, is just how goddamn nice it is. Makes me want to sing "Everything is Beautiful (In Its Own Way)" or worse, "Cumbaya".
Critics who don't know any better (most of them these days) and even audiences, always have this moronic knee-jerk comment about classic Disney - that it's trite and treacly.
Uh, sorry to disillusion, you all - classic Disney often borders on straight-up horror. It's deliciously cruel and perverse. That whale in Pinocchio can still scare the shit out of me. Bambi still kicks me in the stomach when the kiddie deer's Mom is shot. Dumbo separated from his mother, teased mercilessly by everyone and drunkenly facing those "Pink Elephants on Parade" all continue to knock me on my ass and give me the willies. It was even more intense as a kid. And don't even get me started on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - are we talking unrequited freak love, or what?
And what do we get now? We get mediocrities like How To Train Your Dragon - designed to make everyone feel all touchy-feely, but THAT, oh sensitive ones, is more falsely corrupt a message to shovel down our kids' throats. Classic Disney toughened the little buggers up AND entertained them, but all that this contemporary stuff does is teach lessons of conformity and understanding and getting along. And of course, that stuff is important, but it's also important for kids to know that prices are paid dearly on this Earth to even begin the process of understanding and healing, that evil and terror exists, that entertainment (and healing) should not always come easily.
When I think about the best work by Spielberg like E.T. or Joe Dante's deliciously nasty Gremlins movies, I think that THESE are the ultimate family movies. Spielberg rips your heart out and Dante microwaves gremlins until they explode. Now THAT'S entertainment! For the whole family, no less.
While some might wonder if the studios still make 'em like they used to, I can say that in the area of animation, the answer is a resounding "NO!" However, there are plenty of "adult" movies that are far better entertainment for kids than How To Train Your Dragon. I took my 9-year-old to see Vincenzo Natali's brilliant sci-fi thriller Splice. She not only loved the picture, it provided so much in the way of really intelligent and vital discourse between us. Another recent picture she saw and loved was Precious. This was perfect entertainment and of the highest order.
Look, at the end of the day, you'll see a lot worse than How To Train Your Dragon, but I'm picking on it precisely because it's so offensively inoffensive and middle of the road. It's hardly illuminating and leaves little room for any real discourse of substance with your child.
"Enough," I say. Enough with the touchy-feelie, already.
"How To Train Your Dragon" is available on homevideo in a handy Blu-Ray/DVD combo from Dreamworks, but do your kids a favour - rent or buy something like "Splice" instead.