Originally published at PassionforCinema.
Movie: How to Train your Dragon, 98 min
Written by Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois, Willam Davies, based on the book by Cressida Cowell
Story: For three hundred years, the Scottish-accented Vikings have waged a war with the dragons on their island. Hiccup, the son of Chief Stoick, is a wimp, and he realises that the dragons are actually nice creatures when he meets the phallus-shaped Toothless, a very-much toothed specimen of the most dangerous type of dragon and decides not to kill it. And they have the set of colour-coded sidekicks without which no Dreamworks movie is complete.
I’m starting to strike myself as perverse. Every time I go to a theatre to see a movie, I come out with an opinion that flies in the face of almost everyone else’s*. It is very annoying; you have to wonder whether you are really watching the same movie or whether the filmmaker made a special cut for you.
So, what brings on this latest bout of subjectivity phobia? How to Train Your Dragon. In 3D.
What is the unconventional opinion? It’s better than most, possibly all, of Pixar’s, and … this is a real whopper … it uses 3D more effectively than Avatar.
True, the movie is full of bored Hollywood cliché, but the cliché’s not just scattered about any which way like in most movies, but is used with such consideration and interleaved so carefully with the original and inventive elements like the colour-coding of sidekicks that it actually leaves us clamouring for more. This is very unlike the approach Pixar takes, which is either to use it to parody (Ratatouille, Wall-E) or pile it on till you get an indoctrination into mainstream Hollywood for young children (Toy Story and its sequel). This, I claim, itself makes it better than Pixar’s fare (with competition only from Up and Wall-E), but most of you won’t take it at that.
We have been brought to believe that Pixar movies have a level of humanity in them that other movies don’t. Let me tell you, that’s just poopycock. Personally, I’m totally a Jap supremacist when it comes to children’s movies, so let me tell you (with hyper-linked help from Stephen Russell-Gebbett, who convinced me of this in the first place) that Pixar’s movies are merely average in this respect. What about How to Train your Dragon? It’s not too far above Pixar in this respect, but above Pixar it is. This mainly comes from the character – yes, dear reader, the character – of Toothless. I like the way Stephanie Zacharek puts it:
He may be a dragon, but with his rounded paws and panther-shaped head, there’s also something of the house cat in him — he has the same proportions of civilized dignity and wildness, as well as a tendency to express his affection in offhanded ways. (Remember that regurgitated fish?) Toothless has black Naugahyde skin that makes you want to reach out and touch it; his glowing green eyes are mischievous and appraising but not wholly unfriendly. And he doesn’t speak, which means that Hiccup — and we — must read his expression, the tilt of his ears, the way he swishes his tail, to know what he’s thinking, and even then we can’t be 100 percent sure. Toothless has the one precious ingredient that’s missing from so many of Hollywood’s contemporary animated characters: an air of mystery. For once, instead of spelling everything out for us with constant chatter, DreamWorks has gotten the knack of leaving something unsaid.
And, as for depth, consider this. The original Vikings, when they decided to fight the dragons, took them at first impression. Hiccup, the saviour, the messiah who can look past that, calls his dragon Toothless, because when it first opened its mouth to him, it looked Toothless. He realises fast enough that this is not the case. While the Vikings are bigoted and can’t look at the dragons – an important lesson in itself –, Hiccup works it from the other end; he makes an equally dangerous assumption – that they are harmless – to start off with (and, like the original Vikings, his assumption is also based on observation). This is why the end is so important. In the end, he realises that they are as human as he himself is, and gets some retribution for his wrong assumption (this last twist is almost poetic, I honestly don’t think children should be shielded from sad poetry by the likes of Wall-E). And, unlike in Up, what is destroyed in the end is not just the most immediate manifestation of the wrongness in the world but the root of the problem, a mindless brute. Let me say that again: this movie goes to the root of the strife and hits the damn thing there. In it, the wrong isn’t just some one thing, but an attitude of mindlessness. Little in Pixar is as simply… human as this. Of course, How to Train your Dragon is still a long way away from My Neighbour Totoro or Spirited Away – or probably even the TV series Inu Yasha –, but then you can’t beat the Japs at movies. Just can’t. Not possible.
And you know what else is awesome about the Japs’ movies? They’re in 2D. Glorious, beautiful two-dimensional vistas, which are content to just simulate the third dimension rather than botch it up like the technology of these Americans, for it is in vistas that 3D technology fails (as it is destined to in pepetuity) most strongly. We may find, in cinema, two forms in which we are shown vistas: with a foreground, and without one. Without one, the movie looks like it’s in 2D. Strain as you might, our simulation of the third dimension, combined with the loos of depth vision at distances, is good enough that a real 3D vista looks no different from a 2D one. I’m not alone here; my friend, who just saw Avatar last week, said that the 3D effect ended at the same time as the nature documentary. So, our perception of the third dimension has much to do with depth. Now imagine a vista with something in the foreground. This sort of thing is oddly reminiscent of those old movies with painted backgrounds. We have perfectly round objects (ever noticed how people, even the real ones, in 3D movies are so round in the third dimension?) in the foreground and this 2D-ish thing in the back. This is because of the immense distance in between the two layers where there’s nothing, which makes the frame look like a Museum exhibit.
However, as long as we have 3D, I much prefer movies like the case in point where almost everything stays behind the screen (except bubbles) rather than ones in which things come outside and play cruel tricks with your peripheral vision. But, even apart from that, it is notable how much the 3D participates in the storytelling here, it makes jokes, it arranges things in pre-ordained ways, it simulates obstacle courses, and – most notably in one of the movie’s two most memorable shots, a tracking shot starting from behind the nose-diving dragon and going over its back to the front, letting all the serrations hit us (the other is a cameo of Finding Nemo) – it actually makes points. In Avatar, the 3D was just one grandly unmemorable part of the spectacle. I remember the latter in 2D (and I’m told it actually plays better in 2D) but the former is imprinted in my mind dimension for dimension.
But How to Train your Dragon doesn’t have the best 3D I’ve seen in movies. Here, again, the Japs win: for the best 3D I’ve seen in cinema comes in Tokyo Monogatari. Maybe other, unseen Ozus as well. What I’m saying is: if you have to go to the theatre, watch Dragon. Otherwise, watch an Ozu. Or, you know, just stare at the brilliant mise-en-scene on display in the following shot, at how, when you scan you eyes across it, they actually seem to change their focus.