Judge Roman Martel hopes this DVD will give pointers on dealing with an ornery Hungarian Horntail.
I usually get worried when the main characters in any story have names like Hiccup and Toothless. If there's a viking named Farty or B.O. in this movie, I'm leaving!
Pixar is the current king of animation in the US, but Dreamworks has been steadily improving with each film. Kung Fu Panda was a leap forward, creating a story and characters that were not only entertaining but also compelling. How does this latest offering stack up?
Facts of the Case
On the island of Berk, things are pretty simple. There are Vikings. There are dragons. The dragons try to steal the Vikings food, and the Vikings try to kill the dragons. Unfortunately Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, The Sorcerer's Apprentice) is the scrawniest, weakest Viking on Berk. He can barely manage to lift a battle axe, much less wield one. His father Stoick (Gerard Butler, 300) is the biggest and toughest of the vikings, and of course the leader of the clan. He is disappointed in his son, and unable to relate the the lad at all.
But Hiccup isn't about to let this stop him. He uses his brains to construct the ultimate dragon fighting machines. During an explosive night raid by creatures, Hiccup brings down a deadly Night Fury dragon. Unfortunately no one was around to witness the triumph. The next morning he eventually locates the injured beast, and while he tries to be bloodthirsty, he's unable to kill the creature. Instead, Hiccup does the unthinkable, he frees and befriends the dragon. He names it Toothless, and starts to learn all he can about these amazing animals.
Unfortunately for him, Stoick is convinced the only way to transform his son into a true Viking is to throw him headlong into Dragon Training with Gobber (Craig Ferguson, The Drew Carey Show) and the other teens coming-of-age in the village. Their job is to become expert dragon killers, but Hiccup realizes the dragons aren't the real enemy, and that the Vikings may have more to gain from befriending the creatures than destroying them. How long can Hiccup keep up his double life as a dragon slayer by day and a dragon trainer by night? And what will happen when his secret is finally revealed?
How to Train Your Dragon is a fun fantasy adventure film, something Dreamworks hasn't every really focused on before. In the past, most of their pictures focused on tickling your funny-bone, while building a story around the laughs and sight gags. The result was lots of pop-culture references that ended up making the movies feel stale a few years later.
Instead the screenplay for How to Train Your Dragon focuses on Hiccup's struggle to fit in with his fellow Vikings, make a new friend, and reach an understanding with his father. Sure, there are lots of laughs along the way, but they are organic, growing from the story, characters, and situations. This is actually a character driven film.
The cast does a great job in that regard, bringing these characters to life with warmth and humor. Jay Baruchel does sound a bit like Christian Slater, but once you get past that, he brings a full range of uncertainty, frustration, and drive to Hiccup, a tricky balance to achieve. Gerard Butler is just as good bringing his manliest voice acting to the party. He's the antagonist, in a lot of ways, but allows you to see where his character is coming from. I also enjoyed America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) as the rough and tumble Astrid. Of course any girl wielding an axe is cool in my book.
Animation is one of the best ways to make a fantasy world come to life and the crew at Dreamworks has really stepped up their game; the screen exploding with energy and imagination. The backgrounds for the island of Berk are stunning, offering amazing detail to the landscapes, and yet that impossible fantasy touch with it's craggy cliffs and ginormous viking statues. The character design is expressive and pleasant, but the dragon design is where things get really fun. With so many types of dragons, the animators went crazy designing all kinds of distinctive looks, with squat bumblebee-esque creatures, to the sleek catlike movement of Toothless. Plus, each dragon has a distinctive fire attack.
Then there are the action sequences. How to Train Your Dragon was designed with 3D in mind, and you can tell. These sequences explode with motion, brilliant colors, and energy. It's rare an animated film can capture the joy of flight as well as anime master Hayao Miyazaki, but this film accomplishes just that; there are several impressive 2D flying sequences which must have been mind blowing in 3D.
Adding to all this is the soundtrack. Booming in 5.1 TrueHD, fireballs bounce all around the viewer and fill the surround speakers with the roar of the dragons and Vikings. And John Powell's score is filled with great themes and as much energy as the rest of the movie; easily one of the best film scores of the year.
Dreamworks really wants to show the How to Train Your Dragon off, and this Blu-ray does just that. Presented in 2.35:1 1080p widescreen, the transfer is breathtaking, with a clarity that is truly impressive. The opening night battle is a perfect demo material, with dark blacks and explosive fire and plenty of movement. That sequence also shows off the TrueHD sound, but if you want to really rumble the speakers, jump to the finale battle with the monstrous dragon; its roar is loud enough to rattle the walls.
The extras are plentiful. First, you get a mini-movie, Legend of the Boneknapper Dragon. This short film takes place after the feature, with Hiccup and his dragon training pals on a quest with their teacher Gobber to hunt down the legendary Boneknapper. Along the way, Gobber tells them of his past adventures with the dragon. The bulk of the story is told in a style similar to the feature, but Gobber's stories revert to traditional 2D animation (very similar to Po's fantasy sequences in Kung Fu Panda). Here the focus is more on laughs and fun, making for an entertaining follow-up.
The rest of the extras include the "Animator's Corner," a picture-in-picture commentary track, combining interviews, documentary footage, and storyboards to create an informative watching experience. There is also a trivia track with even more information; additional documentaries focusing on the voice actors, the animation and sound, and the writer of the novel Cressida Cowell; and a set of deleted scenes with introductions by one of the directors.
Then there's the short television promo spots that were played during the 2010 Winter Olympics that are one gag mini-jokes, featuring the vikings attempting their own take on various Olympic sports. You can take a Viking personality test to see what Viking kid you are most like and get a cool Viking name—I will now be known as Olaf, thank you very much. Then the lead animator for Toothless shows you how to draw the Night Fury. As he guides you, he explains the reasoning for the some of the design elements of the dragon. Even if you can't draw a stick man properly, you'll find it interesting to see what kinds of influences went into creating Toothless. On top of all that, the "Dragon Double Pack" also includes the standard DVD version of the film. This DVD includes the film, two of the featurettes, and the filmmakers' commentary.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much fun as How to Train Your Dragon is, the story is pretty standard, and really there aren't any surprises. You pretty much know how the film will end within the first few minutes. There is also a moment at the end so cliche I was shocked to see it. This moment achieved an eye roll from everyone in the room, when we viewed this (myself, my wife and our cat). I doubt kids are gonna see any problems here, just us seasoned movie watchers.
As cool as the extras are, there is a lot of overlap. The picture-in picture-commentary uses footage from the featurettes, so it renders those a bit pointless. The trivia track covers a lot of the same ground, with some minor bits of additional information here and there. Thing is, if you watch the picture-in-picture commentary, you'll get nearly all the information you'll find in the other two extras.
You can't go wrong with this combo pack. The movie is fun and rewatchable, it looks great on Blu-ray, and the extras are solid. Plus, you get a spare copy on DVD when you're away from your home theater. So, if you're thinking about picking up How to Train Your Dragon, this is the way to do it.
Too much fun to be guilty. Besides, you try sentencing a dragon.
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