Tag Archives: Chris Sanders

The Croods

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Last year, DreamWorks Animation celebrated its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch has been going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


croods26] The Croods (22nd March 2013)

Budget: $135 million

Gross: $587,204,668

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 70%

Lilo & Stitch takes its time before revealing its heart.  Oh, sure, its appearance is obvious from pretty much the start of the film, but the true extent of its heart isn’t revealed until later into the movie, firstly disarming and softening up the audience with extremely funny comedy and then, when their guards are down, putting them through the emotional ringer.  It swings for the fences – of course it does, it’s a Disney movie, that’s what they do – but waits until such a time that the act is earned.  It’s also a flawlessly constructed film that never puts a foot wrong, contradicts itself or bends the world to the will of its protagonists, but the tone and heart reveal is still mighty important.

By contrast, How To Train Your Dragon, after its purposefully slightly chaotic opening scene, wastes no time revealing its heart.  If Lilo & Stitch hides the extent of its heart and then gradually rolls up its sleeve, How To Train Your Dragon rips off its sleeve at the outset and spends its runtime shoving it in your face screaming, “LOOK AT IT! LOOK AT MY HEART AND EMOTIONS!”  It swings for the fences from the outset over everything which makes certain scenes and gestures feel unearned because its prior swinging for the fences ends up accidentally robbing certain scenes of their impact – or, in other words, the Stoick and Hiccup stuff doesn’t work because Stoick is mostly just a one-dimensional disapproving jackass until he isn’t, which makes him insufferable until the switch and makes the switch itself ring hollow.  It’s also a problematic film that doesn’t quite work, due to it contradicting itself, bending the world to the will of its protagonist, and that certain other thing that I still can’t explain, but I know I’m in the minority on all of this.

Of these two approaches, The Croods opts for the first, which itself is a smart idea – and before I go on, I must stress that I say this because I prefer films with pacing, not because I think that all animation should be like Disney; I don’t think that.  But it also tries something different than the prior two, it rarely swings for the fences with its heart.  Oh, it still swings for the fences with its comedy, which is broad and loud and very physical in nature, but when it does reveal its giant beating heart, it’s decidedly more reserved, more understated.  There are still grand emotional gestures and BIG scenes, but in a way that doesn’t feel as pervasive as in those other two movies.

Now, of course, this might also be down to my own personal baggage.  Lilo & Stitch’s heart trades on the bond between a “pet” and their owner, and the general bond of a family regardless of how non-traditional they may be – which both worked, and still do work, gangbusters for me – whilst How To Train Your Dragon’s heart trades on the bond between a “pet” and their owner, and the approval of and bonding between a father and son – the second of which, as previously discussed in detail and thanks to personal stuff, does not work for me.  The Croods’ heart, by contrast, focusses solely on dad Grug’s attempts to protect and earn love from his family.  It doesn’t have a secondary outlet for its heart, like those other films do, especially since Eep is way less important to the film than she first appears – more on that shortly – and my general disinterest with tales about fathers and father figures in media may explain why I found the heart of this film less in-my-face than in Lilo & Stitch.

Not to say that it doesn’t work, mind.  The Croods pulls it off spectacularly well, which is why I rate the film so highly – more on that in a moment – but that’s probably why I find it more quietly moving instead of openly moving.  Looking at family through the perspective of women, and especially sisters and mother figures, touches and interests me based on my own experiences, so Lilo & Stitch’s heart piledrives me into the middle of next week.  I am a dog owner back home, so that part of How To Train Your Dragon’s heart shivs me in the gut.  But father figures have never held as much of an impact for me as I was primarily raised by my mother, so The Croods’ heart makes me warm and fuzzy but not as majorly as in those prior films.

Those of you who do not obsessively follow along to director’s credits in animated movies may be wondering why I have spent so long comparing The Croods to How To Train Your Dragon and Lilo & Stitch.  Well, each of those films share a co-writer/co-director in the shape of one Chris Sanders.  Sanders began his career as a character designer for criminally forgotten 1980s kids TV series Muppet Babies, before making the transition to Walt Disney Feature Animation during their Renaissance in the 90s, working predominately on story for The Rescuers Down Under, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast, along with helping script Mulan.  In the late-90s, Sanders was approached by then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner to direct his own film, under the provision that its budget would be lower than typical Disney fare ($80 mil for Stitch vs. $130 mil for Tarzan, for example).  Dean DeBlois would eventually be brought on to co-write and co-direct, and the results would come forth in 2002’s very successful Lilo & Stitch.

Then, however, something happened.  Sanders had started significant work on American Dog, a film about a Hollywood star dog who gets lost in the desert.  By the time that it came to screen the film to higher-up executives, control of Disney’s feature animation division had switched from Michael Eisner to Bob Iger, and ex-Pixar head John Lasseter – who, according to rumours that I can’t substantiate, was allegedly not a fan of Lilo & Stitch – was brought on as Chief Creative Officer of the studio.  These test screenings did not go well and Sanders was inundated with notes and suggestions.  According to Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, and several other animators, but not Sanders himself – he has stayed quiet on the issue – Sanders actively resisted these changes and was removed from the film.  Soon after, Sanders negotiated his release from Disney and signed onto DreamWorks.

(Because I know you’re curious: American Dog was handed over to Chris Williams of The Emperor’s New Groove and Byron Howard of Tangled, re-tooled significantly in the space of just 18 months, and released as the mild 2008 hit Bolt.)

Upon joining DreamWorks, Sanders got to work on Crood Awakenings, which itself has had a tumultuous road to being a finished product.  First announced in 2005, the film was to be another entry into DreamWorks’ five-picture deal with Aardman Animations, with a script by Racing Stripes and Quest For Camelot writer Kirk DeMicco and John Cleese.  Yes, that John Cleese.  The pair had been trying to get a film version of Roald Dhal’s The Twits made, which lead to DreamWorks getting a hold of their script and inviting the pair to work on an idea of the company’s, them both settling on the germ of an idea that would grow into The Croods.  Of course, the Aardman angle didn’t pan out – more on that in the Flushed Away entry – and the rights reverted back to DreamWorks.

Enter Chris Sanders in March of 2007.  DreamWorks’ newest signee was barely in the door and already chomping at the bit to get to work on a new film, even planning on significantly re-writing the film in question.  This was to be Sanders’ big new pet project… and then How To Train Your Dragon happened.  Prior to Sanders and DeBlois coming aboard, the project was allegedly a mess and needed a total overhaul, with Co-President for Production Bill Damaschke believing Sanders to be the best man for the job.  Sanders called in DeBlois, the duo remade and re-tooled How To Train Your Dragon in the space of a year, it received critical acclaim and financial success, and then, with DeBlois staying on Dragon duty, Sanders moved back to The Croods, with DeMicco returning to the project in a co-writer/co-director capacity.

The resulting film… is nowhere near as monumental or interesting as its journey into existence, hence the last page of content.  Isn’t it interesting to see how chaotic the world of animation can get, though?  Look, I like The Croods – I think that it’s a very funny, very well-animated, and surprisingly moving film – but there’s not really much to say about it because it doesn’t swing for the fences.  It tries to be lower-key in nearly every facet, a film that works as entertaining entertainment and not much more.  It succeeds, and I must respect a film that knows its limits and doesn’t try to be something that it’s not, but that automatically makes it the least interesting of Chris Sanders’ projects to talk about – Lilo & Stitch is an amazing movie that I could talk for hours about, How To Train Your Dragon has its conflicted push-pull nature and problematic issues that keep it from greatness which makes it interesting to talk about, The Croods… has clever character animation? Where the titular family only occasionally walk like recognisable humans, instead remaining in their less-developed Neanderthal states.

The one really interesting thing about the film that I can go into detail about is with regards to the film’s main character.  Now, going into this film, I had been led to believe that Eep, the daughter of the clan voiced by Emma Stone, was the lead character of the film.  The marketing had said so, the entire premise of the film hinged on her, and Sanders had worked with female protagonists before with Lilo & Stitch – Lilo’s arc in that film being just as vital and central to the film as Stitch’s.  I even noted The Croods down in my Monsters vs. Aliens piece as one of 11 animated films in the last decade to feature lead female protagonists that aren’t princesses (because this medium does have a gender problem).

Turns out that a severe hoodwinking has been ongoing as Eep is not the protagonist of The Croods.  Instead, she’s the perspective of The Croods, she’s how we see the family and how we’re supposed to feel about them changes as her thoughts on them change.  She provides the bookending narration speeches that animated films are overly fond of nowadays, but her arc is relatively minor – learning to not resent her father so much – and she’s shuffled back into the deck once the real narrative momentum kicks in.  She is not our protagonist.  Our protagonist is actually Grug, the Nicholas Cage voiced patriarch of the family, and his arc – where he learns that change and new are not necessarily bad things and that being overly protective is going to drive his family away from him – is the one that gets the lion’s share of the screen time.

Now, yes, I was and still am disappointed by this reveal.  Animation has a major gender problem – there’s nothing wrong with princesses as a concept, but there is something wrong when they are the only option available – and there should be more female-led and female-focussed and female-created animation out there.  Going to all of the effort of making out an animated film to be about the lead female character only to have the actual film side-line her in favour of focussing near-exclusively on the father – and the boy that she’s fascinated by and sweet on, Guy – feels like, for lack of a better phrase, a real dick move.

That being said, the stuff with Grug is really well-done, enlivened by the fact that we are encouraged to look at him primarily through Eep’s eyes.  Grug starts the film as a real irritant, a drag whose desire to protect his family crosses the line from nobly intentioned to selfishly suffocating, but he’s not solely that.  He’s capable of being funny, his tight-knit plans do help the family to survive in certain cases, and he does truly care.  But because we see him through Eep’s eyes, we also see how his intentions can be perceived by people who aren’t as fanatically devoted to him.  It keeps the viewer at that distance since, otherwise, the film runs the risk of becoming a “Father Knows Best, You Silly Women” story instead of a tale about a father learning to loosen his control on the world, accept change and tell his family every once in a while that he does truly love them.

The film commits to this too.  Grug comes further and further to the forefront as the film progresses, first becoming petty, out-of-his-element, and spiteful over the world telling him that his daughter and the new man taking charge of his family’s life are both right, before eventually softening, working through his issues, and becoming a more noble and tolerant member of the family.  Each stage corresponds to Eep’s relationship with Grug, with the tonal handling of the whole affair – first wacky comedy, then pathetic bitter alienator, awkward cringe comedy, and finally genuine heartfelt sincerity – providing a strong marker for how far along his road he is.

It all leads up to the sequence in which Grug selflessly throws the clan and Guy across the chasm, recognising that he can’t adapt and that the best thing that could happen for the family that he cares for is to sacrifice himself to save them.  That’s the moment in which The Croods reveals that it’s been buttering up the audience for a genuine emotional payoff, and it’s a legitimately moving sequence.  I was even genuinely fooled into thinking that this was the film’s endgame.  The film is building, from pretty much the outset, to some kind of grand gesture that puts Grug back into the genuine best interests of the family without suffocating them, and this seemed to be it.  I genuinely thought that we would end with Grug dead and the family making a new life for themselves in the new world, especially since there is no full-on antagonist for the film; wise move.

I mean, it obviously wasn’t going to, this is a family film after all and family animation rarely seems to want to push itself to as dark places as the medium and genre used to, but I believed it might, which is a credit to the film’s writing, pacing, and individual scene direction.  Therefore, as legitimately sweet as the final 15 minutes are, they still feel a little extraneous; the film rewarding Grug’s redemption and selfless act of kindness by reuniting him with those he values most.  Not helped, mind you, by the fact that his story offers three separate endings of varying quality for Grug before it settles on the Second Chance ending.  Again, it’s my fault for thinking that this light-hearted family comedy would end in a way that could even be remotely construed as bittersweet, but it still feels like punch-pulling.

Then again, if it had, audiences probably wouldn’t have kept coming back.  Yes, at the time when DreamWorks needed it most – mainly because of what’s to come, which we mostly won’t be covering here – The Croods was an out-of-the-box hit.  It opened to a great $43 million, comfortably beating the rest of the chart, and the typical strong DreamWorks hold – even major underperformers like Mr. Peabody & Sherman (32%), Rise of the Guardians (43.7%), and next week’s Turbo (35.5%) rarely drop more than 50% between opening and second weekends – was bolstered by a near-total lack of competition and strong audience reception, helping it to a very strong 10-week run on the Top 10.  It would close a hair’s breadth away from $190 million domestic.  Overseas, the film also did excellently, securing another $400 million, and making The Croods the ninth highest-grossing DreamWorks film worldwide.

So, why?  Why The Croods?  This is the through-line for the final leg of this series, after all; why The Croods was majorly successful and yet Turbo and Rise of the Guardians were not?  Well, much like with the film itself, the answers are pretty obvious and unspectacular, but you can’t exactly dispute what you’re seeing because, hey, they work, don’t they?  First off, the release date: end of March.  Same release date as the first How To Train Your Dragon, which worked gangbusters before and why not stake out a little patch of Chris Sanders’ own?  Plus, it was also the first proper animated film of 2013, Escape From Planet Earth came and went with almost literally no fuss a month earlier, and the next film for release, Epic by Blue Sky Pictures, wasn’t due for two full months which, in box office land, is practically an automatic monopoly for whatever did take its slot.

(Side Bar Notice, real quick: after Rise of the Guardians, DreamWorks Animation had fulfilled their contract with Paramount and, thanks to Paramount offering them a poor deal and wishing to make their own in-house animation studio, the company switched distributors to 20th Century Fox, where The Croods was distributed.  20th Century Fox also own Blue Sky, makers of Epic, so this release date will have been strategically determined and deliberated on majorly for a long, long time.  In fact, with the exception of next week’s Turbo, one can’t really foot the blame on DreamWorks’ underperformance with release dates, Fox have been really good to them with that.  Anyways…)

Second off, marketing.  If you haven’t yet, scroll back up and watch the first trailer for this film.  Yes, it recalls the tone of How To Train Your Dragon, but the tone of How To Train Your Dragon is also markedly different to anything DreamWorks have cooked up, especially in regards to the marketing.  The comedy isn’t excessively broad, that wondrous sense of discovery that the film has is on display, it doesn’t give away every beat and every gag but the audience knows what they’re in for, which is what Rise of the Guardians didn’t do and consequently paid a heavy price for it.  It’s a good trailer, it’s a strong trailer, and other types of marketing were bloody everywhere come release time, you couldn’t move for advertising material of some kind for The Croods.  Fox put their all into the marketing for this one and did so in a way that differentiated the film from the accepted tired DreamWorks formula without confusing or leaving the audience in the dark.

And third off, it’s a funny heart-warming film about family by a really talented storyteller.  Of course it was going to do well!  Good films about families will always, always bond with the movie-going public.  They’re sweet and sincere in a way that resonates harder with audiences because the typical audience for animated features nowadays are families.  It allows the heart to cross age levels, tap into insecurities in all generations, go broad but not gross with the humour because most audience members need to get every joke, and just generally be true family viewing.  Why do you think Paddington is still raking in all of the money ever?

The Croods is small and intimate and character-focussed, which is something that family filmmaking has mostly forgotten nowadays in search of spectacle, but the ones that do remember are the ones that end up making the most cash.  There is spectacle in The Croods, that $135 million budget is not just from it being 8 bloody years in the making, but it never drowns out that character-focussed centre, and those are the films that stick with people and the families that the film is aimed at.  I don’t think The Croods is brilliant, not by any stretch of the term, but it is very good for thuddingly obvious reasons that become clear when watched, and the reason why The Croods was a major success is not because of any fancy formula.  It’s just a very good film, marketed brilliantly with a clear target audience that it speaks directly to, released at a perfect time.


Next week, we close out the film side of this series by looking at a film with poor marketing, a target audience that no longer exists, that was released at the single worst possible time.  Did Turbo deserve the death march that it was forced down, and could anything have been done to stop it?  Those are the questions that we shall be addressing next time.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch lost someone he could have saved.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

How To Train Your Dragon

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


how to train your dragon19] How To Train Your Dragon (26th March 2010)

Budget: $165 million

Gross: $494,878,759

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%

Let’s talk about Astrid.

Astrid, at the outset of How To Train Your Dragon, is a tough, no-nonsense dragon warrior in training.  She takes extreme pride in her chosen life path, wanting to become a great dragon slayer more than anything else.  She has no time for f*ck-ups, no time for the boys that are constantly hitting on her even though she keeps repeatedly making it clear that she is not interested, and to not take training seriously is to deeply insult her – the mere insinuation that her path in life is anything less than noble and desirable sending her into an understandable rage.

Therefore, Hiccup infuriates Astrid, openly so.  She has been training her entire life to kill dragons and takes every little bit of it seriously.  And in comes Hiccup, bumbling his way through training half-heartedly, making a joke out of her profession.  Then Hiccup inexplicably starts getting good; he starts getting really good.  Astrid’s pride can’t take it, there is simply no way that Hiccup, a clumsy fool who has openly stated that he cannot and does not want to kill a dragon, can suddenly become a master of dragons overnight.  Not when she has dedicated her whole life to being the best at this stuff, not now that she is suddenly number two to what appears to be a halfwit.

When she is passed over for the opportunity to kill a dragon, she decides to tail Hiccup and find out his secret.  There she discovers Toothless, the incredibly dangerous Nightfury dragon that Hiccup has seemingly tamed and has been getting his dragon info from.  Terrified, she runs off to warn the village, but Hiccup and Toothless kidnap her before she can in order to get assurances that she won’t spill the beans.  To help convince her, Hiccup has her fly with him on Toothless to discover just how peaceful dragons can be and how amazing riding them is.  It does the trick, Astrid is very much convinced.

In fact, she’s so convinced that she kisses Hiccup practically the second they get back down to the ground and becomes his girlfriend for the rest of the movie, despite having held him in pure contempt for the previous hour.

Does this sound familiar?  It should; this kind of character trajectory – from a strong young woman trying to earn respect in a man’s world and with absolutely no time for the awkward flirting of the lead protagonist, to someone who is suddenly stuck in the gravitational pull of the lead male’s penis (metaphorically) and is reduced to simply being The Girlfriend who needs rescuing in the finale – has been utilised by DreamWorks Animation before.  Remember Marina from Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas?  And just like in that film, How To Train Your Dragon ends up taking a torch to its incredibly interesting female co-lead, with a whole bunch of potential distinctly female-focussed themes and narrative threads attached to her existence and character (although it’s annoyingly just left as subtext), for quite literally no good reason.

In an article posted on The Dissolve this past Summer, Tasha Robinson termed this kind of character trajectory as “Trinity Syndrome”, after the closest thing to a ur text in the shape of Trinity from The Matrix, and few things in movies annoy me more than it.  It gives off the impression that women are not important enough to have their own stories and narrative arcs unless they are inextricably tied to the whims of a man.  That ends up becoming even more infuriating when their plotlines are deep and detailed, yet are dropped like week old garbage the second the film decides that its time for them to suddenly be irresistibly attracted to the man’s genitalia (metaphorically).

Astrid is a character who has an incredibly interesting character and thematic arc, as previously detailed, and it very much seems to be building up to her swallowing her pride, recognising Hiccup’s way of doing things and growing to respect him as a fellow Viking.  Then, at the hour mark and quite literally out of nowhere, she falls hopelessly in love with Hiccup and, around that time, loses her competency in combat – her main character trait by that point – so that Hiccup can rescue her in the finale.  Much like with Sinbad, the film gains nothing from making Astrid The Girlfriend of Hiccup.  The film could have taken the romance part of the relationship out of it and lost nothing except a whole surplus load of problems.  It’s character derailment of the highest order and the only thing that even slightly redeems it is the early scene between the two in the sequel where proceedings are suitably adorable and cute.  That’s the sequel, however, so it’s still a problem in this film.

Specifically, in addition to ruining the character of Astrid, her sudden and inexplicable falling for Hiccup contributes to the film’s broken attempt at its message.  From the start of the film, How To Train Your Dragon loudly sets up a message of alternate masculinity.  Hiccup wants to be accepted in a very manly culture of walking badasses who practically reek of testosterone – including the women – but is physically incapable of being so because he’s physically weak and an altogether more peaceful guy stuck in a society that prides strength and violence above everything else.  From the very start of the film, the pieces are put in place for Hiccup to earn the respect and admiration of his father and the community in other ways, through inner strength and the ability to make peace with the dragons.  He will never be the guy who walks away from the explosion in slow motion, girlfriend in one arm, without looking back, but he can be masculine in other ways.

Yet his arc pays off by having him achieve acceptance in the way that the film’s society deems is the only way to be a true man: fighting and killing a dragon.  He even loses a leg in the process; truest sign of a man and a badass is when you have a war wound – direct quote from Astrid prior to training, “It’s only fun if you get a scar out of it.”  Sure, he’s riding a dragon and is only doing this in order to set the other dragons free and keep his dad from being killed, but it’s still very much a traditional way to wrap up his arc and makes the messages of the film – being true to one’s-self, what society deems to be masculine is not the only way to be a man, and that pacifism does not make you a coward or wuss – contradict events on screen.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 has this same problem, but works it into its overall narrative – the message of that film blatantly being that some people cannot be reasoned with and that, in those extreme situations, drastic steps have to be taken to keep things from spiralling further out of control.  The problem with How To Train Your Dragon is that the Alpha Dragon – the unreasonable thing that requires drastic steps to combat – is not worked into the message, so his existence and eventual combat feels like a sacrifice to big-budget filmmaking rather than a natural part of the film.  Yet, frustratingly, his existence is still inextricably linked to the film’s DNA – even though he contradicts the messages and feels superfluous, the film is still building up to a final showdown with Hiccup and Toothless against something big and nasty, so he can’t be ejected from the film.

So, Hiccup fits and slays a dragon; the biggest and baddest alive that also happens to be the reason why dragons keep raiding Berk and attacking and killing people.  He also demonstrates natural leadership, gets the girl of his dreams, rescues the girl of his dreams as The Strong Female Character cannot be allowed to be self-reliant in the finale, becomes accepted by the Viking society for actually totally being one of them deep down inside when the chips are down, and wins the respect of his father for basically doing what needed to be done.  There’s nothing particularly alternative or Hiccup about it, despite having Stoick state otherwise.  It’s like the film is at war with itself, between what it wants to be and what it needs to be – kinda fitting, in all honesty.

Yes, as you may have gathered, I don’t love How To Train Your Dragon.  I also don’t hate it, but I have many problems with it and I feel that, although it has many outstanding individual scenes, the whole doesn’t quite work.  Let it be said, however, that, despite how I may sometimes come off when talking about films, I was really trying to like it.  As a dog owner, the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is the kind of pure, beautiful relationship between owner and pet that sends my heart all a-swelling; the film’s opening reel, where it sets up the intent of subverting typically accepted masculinity, had me all set to feel super “yay!” at the finale due to my personal relationships with masculinity; and, on the filmmaking side, the directors and co-writers are Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, previous of one of my favourite animated films of all-time in the shape of Lilo & Stitch.

Yet, both times that I’ve seen the film now – once prior to How To Train Your Dragon 2 because I learnt my lesson from February thank you kindly, once again for this series – it has left me cold overall, and I’m honestly not sure why.  I mean, those two issues I just spent extensive time going into are not exactly deal-breakers – broken Aesops are not major problems for me, and I’m a hardcore Disney fan so, although I am a feminist, I’m not going to write a film off totally for messing up its female characters (unless things switch over into an openly sexist, hateful misogynistic vibe, anyway) – and, as I think we’ve discovered throughout this series, I don’t have a bias against DreamWorks Animation and have loved and really like a good majority of their films.

But, try as I might, I can’t figure out why I feel no particular affinity to the whole of How To Train Your Dragon.  There’s just this thing, I don’t know what it is and I can’t describe it but I know it’s not in HTTYD, for me at least.  I mean, I’m rather alone on this.  It has the highest score on Rotten Tomatoes of any DreamWorks Animation film to date and that includes Aardman co-productions, it swept the 2010 Annie Awardsalbeit not without controversy – many people feel the film was snubbed when Toy Story 3 took the Best Animated Feature Oscar over it at that year’s Academy Awards, and, without fail, every single time I mention to somebody that this series and this film does pretty much nothing for me, they gasp in shock, assume I outright hate the film and demand an immediate explanation.  But I can’t.  I can tell them about Astrid and I can tell them about the walking contradiction known as the alpha dragon, but those are still not the reason why the overall film does nothing for me.  So, therefore, I can’t tell people why I’m rather indifferent on a lot of this film except for just knowing that I am.

It’s a real shame, too, because How To Train Your Dragon does a lot of things right.  Visually, the film is a delight, even if its ability to blow minds thanks to raw quality has been lessened somewhat by the sequel outdoing it in every regard.  DreamWorks, especially the Shrek series, have so far had a problem when it comes to animating and representing humans on screen – with them pretty much always falling into the Uncanny Valley and clashing badly with the rest of the film’s world.  HTTYD is the first to really break through that with strong distinctive character designs that are clearly more focussed on resembling ideas in artists’ heads than the famous celebrity voicing them.  Boarding and layout, meanwhile, take the arty heavily thought-out nature of Kung Fu Panda and runs with it, constructing gorgeous shots that make great usage of space and size.  (It likely doesn’t surprise you, incidentally, to find out that Roger Deakins was a visual consultant on the film.)

how to train your dragon

You could hang this shot in an art gallery and only arseholes would object to its conclusion.

Writing is mostly strong, excluding the prior mentioned issues and most things out of Snoutlout’s obnoxiously awful mouth.  It’s a film that maintains a serious tone for a large percentage of its runtime without being joyless.  It doesn’t force its humour, the dragon training kids are teenagers so it makes sense that they’d be obnoxious and silly, and many of the jokes work on a dramatic level too.  Stoick telling Hiccup that to become a true Viking he needs to stop being him, represented by gesturing to all of Hiccup, is funny because of how blunt he is and how incredulous Hiccup is about the whole thing, but it also works dramatically as Hiccup’s own father all but openly announces his contempt for his son to his face.

(Side Bar, whilst we’re on the subject: holy hell, do I find Stoick to be an incredibly irritating and unlikeable little sh*tbag in this film.  Despite the film’s best efforts, I don’t find him sympathetic at all in this film and it’s because the film pushes down so hard on the “contempt for his son” button.  His sympathetic side, including why he is especially vindictive towards dragons, is saved for the sequel so all we get here is miserable, angry, really unlikeable Stoick, with only very occasional hints of genuine love bursting through, so that part of the heart side of the film falls flat for me.  I also realise I’ve just undermined my “writing is mostly strong” point with this little digression, but I thought I’d talk about it briefly whilst it was still relevant.)

And then there is the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless.  When the film is firing on all cylinders, and it fires on all cylinders a fair bit despite the constant negativity I’ve been indulging in in this here article, it’s because of those two.  There’s a huge, giant beating heart powering all of their interactions and an incredibly sweet and natural development to their relationship.  The design of Toothless especially helps matters, balancing cute and cuddly and adorable with dangerous and wild for the appropriate situations; making him consistent whether he’s this dangerous mythical beast who is three seconds away from biting Hiccup’s face off, or this adorable cutie curling up next to his master after a successful test flight.

Their bond feels real and genuine as the film perfectly paces their relationship from predator and prey, to cautious friends, to life partners.  How To Train Your Dragon’s standout scene, the one that genuinely moved me to tears on first viewing because of its beauty, is the bit where Hiccup manages to tame Toothless and Toothless genuinely warms to Hiccup.  A sequence told almost entirely without words yet saying more than 75% of vastly inferior animated movies manage to say in their entire runtime.  It’s here where everything comes together – the strong writing, the brilliant character designs, the outstanding character animation, John Powell’s utterly sensational score, that giant beating heart – to create art.  It’s just so impeccably done and… you know what?  Just watch.

A close second is the test flight sequence, for pretty much all of the reasons listed about the prior scene and with the added pro of it being one of the best non-Miyazaki flight scenes I have ever seen in an animated movie.  Closely behind that there’s the sequence where Hiccup wakes up after the battle with the alpha dragon (officially known as Red Death, although I never once heard the film call it that), is re-united with Toothless and discovers his new prosthetic leg – Second Side Bar, real quick: although the path taken to get there and its overall thematic ramifications in this film is shoddy and rather unearned, I cannot deny that everything else this series has done, and hasn’t done, with the prosthetic leg is brilliant.

Yes, there is a point behind my devolving into referring to scenes without any real critical analysis to accompany them.  Again, I find How To Train Your Dragon to be a whole bunch of excellent scenes in a whole that never quite works, and those scenes are most emblematic of that fact.  They have that intangible something that, for me at least, the rest of the film doesn’t.  After all, pretty much every single one of those elements that I mentioned a second ago are working at that level for the whole film, and How To Train Your Dragon is never really bad – those negative marks I’ve mentioned are more things I find disagreeable than outright negative deal-breakers.  It just doesn’t work as a whole, for some reason, and that intangible thing that powers those three particular scenes to transcendental excellency doesn’t really show up outside of those scenes.

The problem of course being that, no matter how hard I try, I can’t figure out what that thing is.  And that fact is killing me!

So, as you may have gathered by now, it’s very easy to see why How To Train Your Dragon blew off many doors at the box office.  It had a really rather modest opening, $43 million which is way below par for DreamWorks films especially since it now had the bonus of 3D tickets, but it held.  It held extremely well over the following 10 weeks, even as DreamWorks’ own Shrek Forever After came along two months in to cannibalise long-term play.  Considering the fact that action-focussed animated films supposedly don’t hold well – a view more than likely enforced due to that turn-of-the-century animation problem we talked about many weeks back – the fact that it finished as the 9th highest grossing film domestically of 2010 is a damn near miracle.

Overseas gross ended up about equal with domestic gross, which is what kept the film from being a runaway hit and is decidedly underwhelming considering how DreamWorks normally do overseas, but I’m pretty sure that DreamWorks executives weren’t exactly crying over failures or what have you when the home media sales numbers started coming in.  Besides, the company made a tonne of money from the domestic dollar, which is mostly better for the studios than foreign dollars (once again, this article will explain everything).  How To Train Your Dragon today consists of two critically acclaimed and financially successful (sorta for the second one, depends how much you subscribe to Hollywood Accounting) feature films with a third on the way, a very successful TV series, four short films, multiple videogames, and an arena show adaptation that lasted about 10 minutes in America and Canada before it was uprooted to China instead.

And I get why this series is incredibly popular.  I really do, they are damn good films.  How To Train Your Dragon is a really damn good film!  I want to love it unconditionally like I do so many other animated films, like I do Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois’ Lilo & Stitch, like I do with so many of DreamWorks’ other films that we’ve covered in this series.  But the film as a whole does nothing for me.  I don’t know why, but it just doesn’t, much like how I cannot get into Adventure Time to save my life.  And if you find that fact bewildering and maddening, know that I am right there with you.  I’m really glad that so many people love and get something out of the How To Train Your Dragon series, but they just do nothing for me and I just don’t know why.


Even though the company had been on a significant upswing in terms of quality in the two years prior to its release, pretty much nobody saw the sheer quality of How To Train Your Dragon coming.  DreamWorks would be rewarded for that pleasant surprise with an unparalleled amount of critical praise and a very healthy return at the box office.  The hot streak that the company was on, however, had to come to an end sooner or later and, two months later, the company unleashed the final Shrek film to date upon the world to (relatively, considering how much a juggernaut Shrek was supposed to be) middling box office success and critical shrugs of indifference.  Next week, we’ll tackle Shrek Forever After and see whether it was unfairly dismissed by critics based on the brand name or is yet another low-quality squirt for cash.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch is caught up in love and he’s in ecstasy.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

How To Train Your Dragon 2

HTTYD2How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a bunch of excellent individual scenes in a pretty good whole.  Exactly like the first film.  Exactly like the first film.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

I get why everybody is head over heels in love with How To Train Your Dragon.  I do.  It’s a good movie, and the fact that it came from the studio that only half a decade earlier believed that Shark Tale was quality work that they were willing to stand behind and release to the general public is friggin’ miraculous.  It had a good amount of heart, some great visuals and some beautiful or just plain excellent individual scenes.  I would stop short of declaring it “great,” though.  Despite those individual scenes (Hiccup’s first encounter with Toothless, the montage of the pair slowly warming to each other, and the realisation that Hiccup has lost one of his legs are the ones that currently spring to mind), the film never quite came together as a whole, for me.  It felt a bit too unfocussed, expected me to care about a motley crew of secondary characters who weren’t particularly likable or relevant until the plot said they were, the animation wasn’t quite up to the ambitions it clearly had, and the Astrid stuff infuriated me to no end.  As a film on its own, divorced from contexts surrounding it, it’s very good at what it is but disappointingly falls short of greatness. As a gold star “Yes, DreamWorks!  You’re on your way; more like this, please!” piece of encouragement, I can get behind it.

2010 was four years ago and, in that timeframe, DreamWorks Animation have clearly taken that gold star encouragement as incentive to get better.  One need only look at the Rotten Tomatoes scores for their last three films in 12 months (70% for The Croods, 67% for Turbo and 79% for Mr. Peabody & Sherman) compared to those in the same time period from 2006 to 2007 (72% for Aardman’s Flushed Away, which is being generous, 40% for Shrek The Third and 51% for Bee Movie), whilst the Kung Fu Panda movies (the second of which I haven’t seen and the first of which is due a re-watch) have gathered a substantial fan-base and the first DreamWorks film I had watched in five years (with the exception of Puss In Boots), Mr. Peabody & Sherman, was a genuinely great film that I was completely surprised by the quality of.

You may be wondering why I used a full paragraph and one terrible, comma-filled sentence to tell you this stuff.  Simple; I wanted to properly set the scene and let you know that it is no longer 2010.  It is 2014.  We live in a world where Walt Disney Feature Animation has been on a hot-streak not seen since the early 90s, where Pixar have taken a huge battering after a string of sub-par for them and just plain sub-par films, where Laika proved Coraline was not just a fluke, and where The Lego Movie was legitimately fantastic.  It’s a changed world and the animation landscape has changed with it.  How To Train Your Dragon 2, however, is still stuck in 2010.  I have pretty much the exact same qualms and praises with it as I did the original, and the film still fails to live up to the potential its best individual scenes clearly demonstrate it to have.  There are legitimately great films in here, but they keep getting lost by the wider picture which is just “good”.  Naturally, if you loved the original and had next-to-no problems with it, I guarantee you’ll love this one too cos it’s the exact same.  I keep hearing that bit in 22 Jump Street where Nick Offerman snidely remarks that the case they’re tackling was exactly the same as the last one.  The exact same.  It fits here far more snugly than I’m comfortable to let it get away with.

We rejoin the inhabitants of the island of Berk five years after the climax of the first film.  The island has become a practical paradise with dragons and humans co-existing peacefully and happily together.  Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is being groomed by his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) for the island’s chief, but he’d much rather head off and explore the world with his dragon best-buddy, Toothless.  It’s on one of these explorations that they come across a destroyed fortress home to a group dragon trappers, led by Erit (Kit Harrington), who work for ruthless warlord Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou).  Drago is building an army of dragons for mysterious reasons that you can probably guess due to him being a villain and the mere mention of his name causes Stoick to lock down Berk.  Hiccup believes that Drago can be reasoned with, though, and sets off to convince the man that dragons and humans can live together peacefully.  And that’s when he runs into his long-lost mother (Cate Blanchett) who has been rescuing and living among dragons for the past 20 years.

Right, I’m going to stick to the stuff I liked first, because the stuff I liked, I really liked.  Exhibit A?  This is without a doubt one of the most gorgeous CG animated films I have ever seen.  The original HTTYD occasionally touched the level of quality present in here, but that was held back by the technology of the time; some noticeable chroma-keying, an inconsistency in fluidity of animation with regards to humans, weird drops in quality and detail when things get busy.  Fortunately, four years have passed since then and HHTYD2 finally delivers consistently at the level it wants to.  There are times here where I could have sworn that this was just CG overlay on real-life actors performing the material but there’s still a stylistic tinge to the art-design that keeps it from just being creepy.

The key word here is detail.  There is a breath-taking amount of it going about in nearly every single scene, no matter whether it’s just Hiccup and his family sat in a cave or a giant battle sequence with hundreds, if not thousands, of constantly-moving variables on-screen at once.  It brings the world to life and makes the little things stick out that much more.  Early on, Hiccup has a little tuft of his hair knotted/braided (I don’t know hair terms, sue me) by his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) and it stays that way for the entire length of the movie; it’s rather tiny and the film never draws attention to it, but it’s there in every shot that I could see its existence in.  Every dragon has individual little marks and bumps that set them apart from others in their species, instead of just being palette swaps.  Tiny little crusts of frost appear on Stoick’s beard and moustache when he goes flying through Arctic-like conditions, enough that you can tell it’s not too cold by the fact that they don’t cover up his entire beard, you can still see its colour peeking through.  There’s a section in the finale that communicates the majority of events happening purely through little changes in the shape and movement of a pair of eyeballs.  Details, the kind you may not immediately notice but only add to the life of the world.

Human animation is extremely fluid and naturalistic, again to such an extent that I would not be surprised to find out that they were primarily done by actors in mo-cap suits.  At times they’re a bit too distractingly realistic, the animators putting in too many unnecessary shrugs and bounces and movements as if they’re showing off technologically, but those moments are rare.  90% of the time, the animators know just how much is too much.  In these cases, faces move like real people, they gesture like real people and they just plain move like real people.  Even when they don’t need to, when they could just be in the background or out-of-focus and let up on the detail, they still keep up that level of detail and fluidity and that’s what keeps it from being distractingly fake-looking.  Praise too should go to the dragons whose excellent design work means they can be imposing and dangerous one moment and cute and lovable the next without it ever seeming jarring.

Lighting is utterly gorgeous.  Although there aren’t as many scenes set at night or in darkness as there were in the original film, ones that are still make excellent usage of shadows and shading.  There’s a scene where Hiccup is surrounded by dragons in a dark cave that’s a particular showcase for the technology powering the film.  It even works during the day, too; shadows cast by dragons flying overheads affect everything in its area accurately.  Cinematography, meanwhile, overseen by Roger Deakins, no less, is exceptional, frequently conjuring up images of sheer beauty (the end credits run over concept art of the film and practically the only difference between them and their equivalent shots in film is that they’re hand-drawn) and swooping and diving and shaking during the action scenes like the action is happening on a real film set.  Visible chroma-keying is practically non-existent even during some of busiest scenes, I think I noticed it once during a mid-battle conversation between Astrid and Hiccup that was shot in close-ups but that’s about it.

Point is, if you’re looking for an animated film to absolutely blow you away visually, stop looking.  This is it.  I was astounded at this film’s visuals and you may notice that I am not easily impressed with these things.

Meanwhile, there are several excellent individual scenes worthy of note.  Obviously, thanks to the animation, there’s pretty much any time any character mounts a dragon and the pair go tearing through the sky, but there are more specific instances.  The aforementioned scene where Hiccup is surrounded by dragons leads into the reveal of his mother and even though the reveal bit itself has been seared into my brain permanently thanks to trailer overexposure these past six months, the scene still had genuine emotional impact.  Although their relationship is barely touched on, there’s a very naturalistic and cute scene with Astrid and Hiccup early on.  The reunion between Stoick and Valka (the name of Hiccup’s mother) is sweetly tender, as is a duet between the two later on.  The first of the film’s two giant battle sequences is a technical marvel and, though its emotional climax didn’t really work for me personally, it’s executed strongly enough that it will lead to wet eyes for the majority of the audience.  And there’s one short little sequence in the film’s finale that goes back to the Hiccup/Toothless relationship (which is put on the backburner for most of the film, more on that in a second) that legitimately affected me, though that may be due to my being a dog owner.  These are the film’s high points, when everything is in perfect sync and operating at full power, and they tease towards an excellent film.

And I know that sounds like an excellent segway into a “but…” but I need to single out Jay Baruchel’s voice work, real quick.  He wasn’t bad in the original film, far from it, but hearing his voice come out of the body of a 14 year-old was… jarring.  I get the idea it was going for, but it didn’t really work.  Now, though, Hiccup is 20 and Baruchel’s voice is practically perfect for the man.  Of course, if that were all it were good for, I wouldn’t be singling it out.  He is fantastic in this.  Genuinely fantastic.  He nails practically every single line, getting the right cadence for the situation and conveying Hiccup’s feelings expertly; there’s a scene during the film’s emotional high point where, again whilst it didn’t quite work for me, I realised exactly how powerful it’s supposed to be thanks to his subtly distraught line delivery.  He’s so good that it’s even more jarring when he over-eggs the film’s final narration just a little bit too much cos he’s fantastic, otherwise.

OK, now it’s time for the “but…”  See, despite the beautiful animation, Jay Baruchel’s phenomenal voice work and those excellent individual scenes, the film still doesn’t work as a whole.  Some of those reasons are easy for me to explain, some aren’t at all.  Although it doesn’t have the pacing issues the first film did (which, for me anyway, dragged in spots even though it only lasted 98 minutes), How To Train Your Dragon 2 still has a large amount of dead weight and a lack of true narrative focus.  For example, remember the other dragon academy kids from the first film?  They’re back and they still do pretty much nothing except provide occasional bursts of comic relief and be another recognisable face in the battle scenes.  The film teases having a subplot for them, involving two of the guys competing for a very uninterested girl’s affections, but it never amounts to anything more than tossed-off comic relief.  So the kids show up to get kidnapped at one point and that’s about it.

More problematic is the lack of a true emotional core to the film.  HHTYD2 has the mother plot and the Drago plot and it wants to do both.  It really wants to do both.  The problem is that both plots, theoretically, have enough ideas and themes in them to sustain an entire film by themselves.  The mother one has parental abandonment, couple reunion, re-integrations into society, mother-son bonds and the question of whether people really can change; the Drago plot has dragon hierarchies, militarisation of dragons, noble intentions corrupted by power, tragedy, indiscriminate mass-murder by the heroes (are you seriously going to try and argue that all of those random human mooks in the battle scenes teleported away before death or something) and the opportunity for a morally murky villain.  Unfortunately, the film wants to do both and neither side has themes that cross over enough to allow either side to be developed fully.  So, consequently, neither side gets explored enough to have their full impact and both sides end up relatively wasted in some way.

Drago, for example, doesn’t appear on screen for the entire first half of the movie and is barely on screen even after his appearance.  He’s first mentioned at the 20 minute mark but despite constant invocations of dread by the characters of the film, he doesn’t actually do anything until a good hour in, like he’s just waiting for the mother stuff to finish so his plot can start.  His backstory gets a dramatic reveal and teases motivations that could lead to a morally tricky conflict, but it’s almost immediately discredited as Hiccup all but shouts, “You’re a bad guy,” and Drago basically smirks and admits, “Yeah, you’re right, I’m a dick and didn’t mean a word of what I said.”  He’s not even an imposing or menacing villain, he’s just boring and one-dimensional instead of mysterious or threatening.  It’s a waste of a villain.  Also, yes, the fact that the villain is the sole character of colour shown in this world in-film is a very unfortunate implication that I can’t believe an entire company, in a post-The Last Airbender world, allowed to pass through unflagged by somebody.

Valka, meanwhile, does get a lot of time fostered on her but she affects practically zero percent of the plot.  Because the plot ends up revolving around Drago and, despite being a master dragon wrangler/tamer/rider, when it’s time for battle to start, she is knocked on her arse and shoved off to the side-lines for Hiccup to resolve everything.  Snippiness aside, despite taking up pretty much the entire middle act, Valka contributes nothing of real value to the film besides a pep talk to Hiccup and to exist for something that just clicked in my head but I can’t talk about because spoilers.  It’s like the Astrid stuff from the first How To Train Your Dragon, which similarly showcased tonnes of narrative potential only to be totally squandered by the film’s decision to just turn that character into a satellite that orbits around Hiccup accomplishing nothing by themselves (incidentally, Astrid’s role in this film consists of: couple talk, pep talk, getting kidnapped, being rescued by someone else, face to follow during battles, Big Damn Kiss).  It’s extra-infuriating here because the film spends so long on Valka and her character arc, even attempting to make her the emotional centre, until it just flings it all away for the last half hour…

…wherein we return to the Hiccup/Toothless relationship to raise stakes for the finale.  It should be a huge emotional gut-punch, but it doesn’t work because the film kind of forgets how important the two of them are together once Valka hits the scene.  It relies on prior attachment for all of its emotional impact, so HHTYD2’s near-total dismissal of just how important the pair’s bond is until it’s relevant to the plot kills most of the possible impact.  It feels cheap, especially since the whole situation gets wrapped up about 10 to 15 minutes after it’s brought up, so there’s no real chance to let it sting or for the themes it wants to touch on to resonate.

But more than that, something has plagued both How To Train Your Dragons for me.  Like, both films have clearly definable issues but there’s also something… more.  Something else that I can’t quite explain.  They’re missing… “something,” a certain feeling, a certain magic, the kind of magic that can overcome issues like poor story structure and a lack of focus.  I don’t know, I can’t explain it, but it’s there in Wreck-It Ralph, it’s there in The Lego Movie, it’s there in Mulan, it’s most definitely there in ParaNorman, but it’s missing from here.  It’s especially baffling because Dean DeBlois (who directed both installments) and Chris Sanders (who only did the first one) are previous of Lilo & Stitch, which had the unexplainable yet tangible quality in spades.  It’s not heart, because both films do have it and both films are clearly made with a lot of love, it’s something else and it’s the lack of that “something” that keeps the whole enterprise from soaring as high as it should do and as it keeps teasing it can.  Better film critics or film scholars than I will likely come up with actual theories or explanations that may hit the nail on the head for me, be they explaining that missing “something” or finding an actual problem that I couldn’t explain, but all I can do is tell you what I know and what I know is that something I don’t know is missing from or spoiling this movie and that keeps it from being excellent despite my not knowing exactly what it is… if you get what on earth I mean.

How To Train Your Dragon 2, then, really is its parent film’s sequel.  It has most of the exact same strengths, most of the exact same highpoints, most of the exact same flaws and that exact same “something” that dragged down the first film.  If I had seen this in 2010, from the animation company that just two months later was going to deploy yet another Shrek sequel on this undeserving planet, I would have given it a gold star sticker of improvement and given it a total pass in the hopes that DreamWorks can do better.  Unfortunately, this is 2014 and DreamWorks have shown that it can do better, but it’s made a movie with the exact same strengths and weaknesses as that film from 2010, so I have to evaluate it as I see it.  And I see HTTYD2 as a good movie that I very much enjoyed held back poor plotting, inconsistent focus in both the narrative and the emotional core, and suffering from a certain “something”.  Gorgeous visuals, though.

Of course, if you had no problems with the first How To Train Your Dragon, you may want to ignore all of this and go and see it anyway.  In fact, no, if you had no problems with the first How To Train Your Dragon, you should ignore all of this and see the film immediately.  It really is exactly like the first one, so I see absolutely no reason why you wouldn’t love this.  I can only tell you how I felt and I didn’t love the first one, so… yeah.

Callum Petch is oh so healthy in his body and his mind.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!