Dreamworks animation has had a spotty career. It started out decently with Antz in 1998, which was overshadowed by Pixar's vastly superior A Bug's Life, they found huge success with the Shrek series, then again with Madagascar, again with Over the Hedge (which I actually liked a lot), but didn't really hit a home run artistically, I think, until 2008's Kung Fu Panda. Then came '09's delightful Monsters vs. Aliens, and 2010 gives us their magnum opus, How to Train Your Dragon. It's a wonderful movie with astounding animation, terrific characters, and a good (if predictable) story. They create a world of Vikings and dragons and ships and battles, and imbue it with heart, artistry, and the kind of soul we're used to seeing from Pixar and Studio Ghibli. Maybe we can start expecting that from Dreamworks now too, as Kung Fu Panda had the same kind of care given to it.
The story is the cliche of a kid not living up to the expectations given to him by his dad and the society they live in. He's different and hasn't found his place, although we know he will, otherwise it's unlikely he'd be the hero of the story. Director Chris Sanders had previously directed Lilo and Stitch, which was a surprisingly good modern Disney movie. He'd also done work on a quirkily ambitious project called American Dog, though he was later removed from the project, which was eventually heavily reworked into Bolt. I like Bolt a lot, but after seeing some American Dog concept photos, and seeing what Sanders (and his co-writer/director on all three projects, Dean DeBlois) did with this movie, I'd love to have seen what American Dog would've turned out like.
But back to How to Train Your Dragon, the animators really created some extraordinary shots and sequences in the movie. Apparently the filmmakers hired cinematographer Roger Deakins to advise on lighting the movie to give things more weight and to add a live-action feel. Deakins, responsible as regular director of photography for the Coen Brothers for some of the most interestingly shot movies of recent years, and an 8 time Oscar nominee, must've worked some good magic. The animation is tremendous, beautiful in many cases, and would alone make the movie worth watching. But the voice cast adds some nice work as well, especially lead Jay Baruchel (a favorite of mine dating back to Judd Apatow's Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared), with his inherent awkwardness extending to our outcast hero.
I hadn't expected to love How to Train Your Dragon, despite 98% positive reviews from critics, and being liked enough by audiences to rake in nearly $500 million. But it really is a terrific movie, one of the best of the year, even if I can't quite figure out why the Vikings have Scottish accents. I'm glad I finally got around to checking it out, and I'm sure I'll end up shelling out the cash to add it to my permanent collection.