Patton Oswalt had a routine about adding ADR jokes to an animated film. He noted that it’s a virtually impossible task, but never said for what film. Since Pixar and Disney don’t seem to need that kind of punching up, the suspicions were it was for a Shrek movie. Shortly after that routine hit, he was contracted by DreamWorks to be an advisor for their animated films, and said in an interview that being involved at the beginning made it easier to fix things than after the fact. DreamWorks has always been a problematic animated studio, though recently -with films like Kung Fu Panda – they’ve shown that they can make good to great animated films. But every time they put something out, you can’t be sure if they’ve nailed it or not.
How to Train Your Dragon is one of their best. Jay Baruchel voices Hiccup, the son of Dragon-slayer Stoick (Gerald Butler), and decidedly not the aggressor his father is. He invents a catapult, and swears he nailed the rarest of dragons – the Night Fury. No one believes him, so when he finds his prey he’s enthused, but instead of seeing a villain, he sees a wounded animal. My review of How to Train Your Dragon on Blu-ray after the jump.
Baruchel’s Hiccup goes on what amounts to the nerd heroes journey, which is that he uses his intellect to defeat the enemy and become a ruler. But as his enemies are dragons, and he gets to know them, he finds out that they don’t hate the Vikings so much as have a much worse dragon to appease. As the film starts, his village is terrorized by dragons who steal their livestock. Hiccup is a gadgeteer, so he doesn’t fit in with the other kids (voiced by Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J Miller and Kristen Wiig), and his eventual love interest Astrid (America Ferrera). He builds a catapult, and says that he netted the mysterious Night Fury dragon, but – of course no one believes him.
So when he goes to check if he really did nail one, he’s alone. And when he finds the wounded, but cute dragon, he finds that he doesn’t have the heart to murder it. But just as he’s making friends with the Night Fury he wounded, he’s put into a dragon killing academy. Hiccup barely survives his first day, but in hanging out with the Night Fury – nicknamed Toothless – he finds the things that distract dragons, like a belly rub or a shiny light (the Dragons are immediately associated with domesticated pets), which makes him successful in class. Toothless has a damaged tail, and can’t fly, so Hiccup begins making a surrogate tail, and in doing so learns how to ride a dragon. But – though the tricks he’s learned – he’s excelling in school and making the other kids jealous. And as he learns from one of his rides on Toothless, it’s not the dragons who are the enemy, but something else, and so he must convince his village – who’ve spent their entire lives hating and fighting dragons – that there’s another way to go about solving their problems besides killing dragons.
With kids films there are a number of things you want. First off is great visual design, and here the filmmakers worked with Roger Deakins to get a better sense of how to make things look. As Deakins is one of the premiere cinematographers, it was obviously beneficial, and the flying sequences have a great magic to them. The other thing is you want good casting for the voices. Jay Baruchel may be trying to be a movie star, but regardless of whether he clicks or not he’s got a distinctive voice, and it’s put to good use. Gerald Butler and Craig Ferguson might be the more clichéd choices for Vikings, but they have the Scottish brogue and it does add something even if they’re the only ones with those accents, while the supporting comic performers are at least not typed with the bodies you’d expect (Mintz-Plasse doesn’t play the skinny dweeb at least). Also, there has to be a good story (check), and an appropriate moral. And the idea of suggesting your mortal enemy might not be the worst thing ever is a good, strong hook.
But though the film takes it time setting up the universe (which is good in world building), when it finally kicks into gear, it’s just a massively entertaining adventure romp. There’s something about flying that is innately special, and the film takes great advantage of having their characters swooping and wooshing from impossible heights. This is one of the best kids films in ages, and I would give it the edge over Pixar’s Toy Story 3 as the best mainstream animated film of the year.
DreamWorks presents the film on Blu-ray in widescreen (2.35:1) and in Dolby Digital 5.1 TrueHD. The transfer is perfect, and the porting of CG animation to Blu-ray is proving to be the best example of demo material for modern films. Everything is there, and crystal clear, while this film has a fun surround track. A DVD copy of the film is also included. As for extras, the film comes with a filmmaker commentary with directors and screenwriters Chris Sanders and Dean DuBois and producer Bonnie Arnold. This is complimented by the Animator’s Corner, which offers a pop up window with storyboards, and interviews with the cast and crew.
For the feature there’s also a trivia track included, which is surprisingly mostly serious about the info delivered. New is a short film with the characters from the movie called “Legend of the Boneknapper Dragon” (17 min.) which uses much of the primary cast to tell a post-film offshoot story, which features some 2-D animation, and is equally charming. Then come the standard behind the scenes “Viking-Sized Cast” (12 min.), and “The Technical Artistry of Dragon” (10 min.) go through the regular motions, and present an untruth to how it appears the actors are recorded. There are three deleted scenes with intros (8 min.) which is followed by “The Story Behind the Story” (8 min.) about the book the film is based on and its author. “Racing for Gold” offers five goods on Viking snowboarding (3 min.). “How to Draw Your Dragon” (11 min.) is an instructional video, while “Your Viking Profile” is a multiple choice test that tells you which character you’re most like, and if you are in fact a Viking. As with all DreamWorks animated titles, there’s a musical jukebox with clips from Shrek, Madagascar, Over the Hedge, Bee Movie, and Kung Fu Panda. (8 min.). There’s also a bonus “Keep Out!” section with bonus trailers, and other promo items.