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For generations the Vikings of Beck Island have done battle with various species of dragons, which raid their valuable sheep supply. Town chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) spends most of his time battling dragons, and his down time being disappointed in his nebbish, very un-warrior-like son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). Hiccup is full of innovative manners of making the dragon battle more efficient, but instead he develops a tragic reputation for being destructively clumsy. Determined to capture the unseen and terrifying Night Fury, Hiccup constructs a harpoon/net contraptions, and actually succeeds in injuring one the species. But when the time comes to kill the creature Hiccup realizes how gentle the dragons can be, and struggles to convince the village that they may be fighting for no reason.

How to Train Your Dragon
I’d heard great things, and had my personal hype meter stretched to unrealistic length for How to Train Your Dragon. It feels so good to have such expectations fulfilled as a jaded filmgoer. I enjoyed Kung Fu Panda and Monsters Versus Aliens very much, which means the studio has now hit a hat-trick of genuine successes following over a decade of ordinary and/or bad product. The film continues the proud, boring Dreamworks Animation love of the underdog, but this might be their most original working concept since the studio’s inception, even if the daddy issues, definitions of manhood, and love concurring all are all well treaded narrative tales. Still, the story takes unexpected turns, and has an unstoppable trajectory. There’s also some well veiled social commentary that doesn’t overstep into the more prominent action and comedy. The mix of successful elements may very well grow in future viewings to a genuine classic family film, that isn’t afraid to tug at the heart strings and kick you in the guts a few times along the trip.

The usual Dreamworks insistence on pop-culture references, and easy bodily function jokes are kept in check, and used to good effect when called for (like the nerd that knows all the various dragon fact as if memorized DnD card). The character animation is simply glorious, especially in the nearly wordless sequence that sees the dragon finally accepting Hiccup. The dragon’s design is simple and black, but so much is said by those big green cat eyes, and that twitching head. The humans designs are sharp too, taking advantage of the animated medium, and not trying to create boring, pseudo-photo realistic look of the Shrek characters. Great, admittedly typecast performances from Gerard Butler, Jay Baruchel, and Craig Ferguson certainly don’t hurt. But the production design, and background scope may be the film’s most enduring success visually speaking. I actually regret never seeing the film in 3D, even though I’m relatively adverse to the practice (I get headaches).

How to Train Your Dragon

Video


Welcome to your latest reference quality Blu-ray disc. I’m sure there’ll be another one next week, but How to Train Your Dragon has just about everything in the world going for it on a visual level. The dragons themselves come in just about every colour in the spectrum, and each hue is easily discernable even in the widest, busiest action shots. The Vikings costumes and stray hairs are impossibly sharp without haloing or jagged artefacts. Skin tones reveal subtle imperfections and realistic blemishes. Overall there’s a nice balance of texture, light, and colour that never oversteps into hyper-real. It’s always clear that this is a cartoon, no matter how dramatically lit the whole thing is. I honestly can’t find anything wrong with the entire 1080p image, which leaves this a bit shorter a paragraph than I’d been aiming for.

Audio


What are

you

looking for in a DTS-HD Master Audio track? Clear, centered dialogue, with natural ambient effects? Check. Full-on, multi-channel attacks? Check. Huge LFE presence without too much throbbing? Check. The reference moments come conveniently at the top and bottom of the film. The initial attack on the island of Berk is a wonderful mix of relative silence and startling noise, as we’re introduced to all the different noises created by all the different species of dragons, from within and without the relative safety of the wooden houses. The delayed sonic boom of the Night Fear’s attack is the cherry on top. The final battle is such a massive sonic bass overload it consistently threatens to overpower the dialogue and score, but the levels remain in near perfect synchronicity, pushing and pulling when needed.

How to Train Your Dragon

Extras


The extras begin with a commentary track with directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, and producer Bonnie Arnold. It’s not an incredibly exciting track, but it’s engaging, and full of information, including the news of super Cinematographer Roger Deakins being a technical cinematographer on the film. There’s a lot of time wasted on making sure to thank everyone involved, but there are some good lessons of scriptwriting and editing. The commentary is supported by a pop-up trivia track that surprisingly doesn’t overlap the discussion very much. Another pop-up/commentary option is the ‘Animator’s Corner’, which features filmmaker’s and actors interviews, design, storyboards, and animatics.

‘Legend of the BoneKnapper Dragon’ is a short film included with both the Blu-ray and DVD releases. This cute mini-movie shows us a bit where the two societies have come since the climax of the film proper, and tells a fun little story in-keeping with the film’s major themes and morals. Hopefully this is where we can leave the series.

How to Train Your Dragon
‘Soaring Special Features’ begin with ‘Viking Sized Cast’ (11:40, HD), your usual EPK ad for the vocal talent behind the characters, including cast choices, and footage of the actors speaking their lines. ‘The Technical Artistry of Dragon’ (10:10, HD) kind of speaks for itself, and delves into the technical aspects of state of the art animation. Unfortunately this kind of thing usually bores me, but should give some good information for the technically minded out there, especially those with a love of digital fire effects. I was most interested in the design of the dragons themselves, which was all too brief. ‘The Story Behind the Story’ (7:40, HD) takes a look at the original youth books, and what drew the producers to it, including amusing interviews with author Cressida Cowell. There are also three deleted scenes, presented in storyboard form only, each with an introduction from co-writer/director Chris Sanders. Frankly none of these would’ve been out of place in the final cut. This brings us to the ads that were made especially to coincide with the 2010 Winter Olympics (all HD), under the menu ‘Racing for the Gold’. These include sky jumping, snowboarding, medals, speed skating and bobsled.

The rest of the features are of the kid friendly variety including ‘How to Draw a Dragon’ (10:50, HD), ‘Your Viking Profile’ quiz, a Dreamworks Animation Jukebox, and under ‘Keep Out’ is a Megamind trailer, DVD release trailers, and trailers for the How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda World games.

How to Train Your Dragon

Overall


Here’s my Rotten Tomatoes pull quote (assuming you didn’t know I’m not quoted there) ‘ How to Train Your Dragon is the feel-good epic fantasy adventure Avatar promised it would be, and never delivered upon.’ This film begs repeat viewings, and I could have watched a 30 minute longer version. The film leaves the audience buzzing with energy like any great action film, it pushes the right emotional buttons, it makes you laugh out loud, and no element overrides any other. The only negative is that I’m sure the runaway popularity will lead to a series of deteriorating sequels. The Blu-ray is reference level on both visual and audio levels, and features a fair smattering of behind the scenes information. All together this is a must buy for animation fans and families alike.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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