Okay Hollywood, you win. It is actually possible to make anything cute via animation. Cars can be adorable, robots affectionate, toys memorable, and dragons, uh, darling (?). Toothless, the friendly critter in How to Train Your Dragon, is as likable as they come. Forget the stock viking characters, each living up to a predictable, normal cliché. The sidekick, the love interest, the misunderstanding parental unit… it’s all been done.
This is Toothless’ movie, a character who never says a word and simply grunts his way through the entire film. His warm, soft eyes, goofy smile, and energetic sense of adventure gives him more affection towards the audience than any of the familiar cast voices.
That is certainly the issue with hiring big name talent to voice your virtual humans, movie audiences pulled out when they realize Jonah Hill looks nothing like Snoutlout, Fishlegs the furthest thing from Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Jay Burachel, well, they actually got him right. The script has some funny one-liners amidst the typical conflicts these movies are known for, while the visual style waits in the wing to take over.
And dominate it does, producing some of the more stunningly rendered sequences in recent CG animated history, from a flight near the aurora borealis to the rocky stone structures that make up the land of Derk. Each generates a new sensation of flight, 3D or not, and never feel overlong. More importantly, despite some tricks to utilize the 3D imagery, none of them harm the film, given a story-specific purpose no matter how light it may be.
Visually, this is Dreamworks’ best effort, overtaking the colorful, candy-coated world of Shrek and fur-heavy Kung Fu Panda. Despite a few surprises though, the ending throwing out a real hum-dinger that is definitely far from the norm, everything else falls from the predictable tree and hits every branch as it continues to spiral down. Luckily, it has an adorable dragon to save it, and every kid is going to want one. Good luck parents when the kids ask for that from Santa.
Being blunt, reviewing CG films is boring. They are all the same, aimed at kids with their bright color schemes, the digital transfer is basically perfection, and the depth they generate is stunning. Can we move on now? No, actually.
How to Train Your Dragon isn’t quite perfect, at least if you’re choosing to be picky. As Hiccup runs forward during the opening dragon attack at 1:40, you can make out some banding against the sky. That is going to be a regular issue, although the colors blend well enough against many of the nighttime scenes it is easy to miss. This is not a blatantly apparent issue, but it does happen.
The colors are not as saturated as the expectation may be. Much of the film is actually a bit bland, the town besieged by the dragons, and Hiccup depressed over the treatment he is given from adults. Viking clothes are browns and silvers, certainly nothing exciting. There are flashes, such as the crater Toothless is trapped in, massive flames, and many of the flying sequences. Greens are rich and lush, and the sunsets contain a wide array of oranges and reds. Still, this is not as vibrant as you think overall. It’s nothing against this encode or the transfer, but those expecting some lush colors to pop off their screen should at least have their expectations tempered.
The textures on these models are the highlight. There is a lot of fur in this movie, every viking seemingly sleeping with it on. Hiccup’s father Stoick (Gerard Butler) has a thick beard, which is wonderfully defined in close, enough to see a bit of a technical flaw on the source where the hairs become a flat texture. Sharpness and clarity are that firm. Dragon scales are individually defined, visible in close or at a distance. There is even some facial detail, the animation rendering some small pores in extreme close-ups which this transfer resolves without fault.
Black levels are as rich as they come, generating that perfect balance between light and dark, which creates depth and dimensionality. Who needs 3D? A bit of shimmering in motion when it comes to Viking furs is fine, a rare issue. Some aliasing is noted too, Stoick’s mustache at 9:42 revealing that brief problem. For the most part, this is what you expect, just without the vividness of other features, purely by design.
Bass is pretty frequent within this TrueHD mix, explosions from dragons firing (literally) their breath at the vikings below. Explosions are hearty, but it takes until the finale before the bottom truly drops out. The sheer intensity of the bass here is startling, a nice shock to the system as the king/queen (could go either way) busts free of its volcanic home. Each roar generates a full LFE kick, and each stomp does the same. Any inconsistencies prior the audiophile may have had are shoved right back into their face during this final action sequence.
What is absolutely consistent are the surrounds and stereo channels. Right from the start, this one opening on a dragon attack, precise stereo movement is detected, and the surrounds too. This is a mix that loves using the rear channels effectively, pushing all kinds of sound effects into their proper locations. It doesn’t matter if it is light ambiance or aggressiveness as the dragons fly about. There are even subtle, creepy uses, such as when Hiccup and Toothless push towards the nest, dragons surrounding them in a sky full of fog. Dragon calls are heard everywhere at 1:11:30, every channel getting some work for a true wrap-around effect.
Fidelity is of course fine, the bass tight and clean. The balancing is perfect, blending those immense action sequences with softer, gentler scenes flawlessly. Dialogue remains centered, and mixed well with the other elements. It is a wonderful audio mix, one of those that adds another layer to the film itself.
An audio commentary comes from co-directors Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois, along with producer Bonnie Arnold. Two pop-up features include Animators Corner and a trivia track.
A string of featurettes are the worst kind of extra, the boring, dull, promo that exists solely to hype the film further as the greatest thing ever. There is one on the cast, another on the animation, and the book this was based on. If these ceased to exist everyone would be happier. Three deleted scenes are followed by some shorts about viking sports featuring characters from the film.
A brief lesson on how to draw dragons is followed by an animated short called Legend of the Boneknapper Dragon. This is probably the best feature, Dreamworks taking their follow-up shorts to another level. A Dreamworks Jukebox, as always, is included, along with BD-Live access. A section on the bottom of the main menu that says “Keep Out” is correct. Inside, all you’ll find are even more promos for other projects from the studio.