Movie Meltdown

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The Hit in Hit and Miss: How To Train Your Dragon 1 & 2

by Cameron Ross Price

            When DreamWorks released How To Train Your Dragon four years ago it was met with immediate critical and commercial success. When I went to see the sequel How To Train Your Dragon 2 this year, I was ecstatic to find that my new favorite DreamWorks franchise had broken the proverbial glass ceiling for DreamWorks animated films in being a genuinely good sequel. This all seemed so surprising to me owing to the fact that over the years DreamWorks seems to have made a name for themselves by releasing one mediocre to poor movie after another. 

            Unfortunately, it seems like DreamWorks is more concerned with the almighty dollar than with putting their large wallets into something that’s generally worth watching. They’re willing to put out anything with silly jokes and talking animals (I’m looking at you Madagascar) in hopes that it will be entertaining to children around the world. If the movie comes out as a box office success, even if the critics bomb it, they put out a sequel to cash in on a franchise that they hope the parents of America will be willing to take their kids to for a few hours of relief. Now, I’m not opposed to children’s movies (I’ve watched more of them than my age would suggest) and I would consider the laughter of children to be a very good thing, unless you’re on a playground and you’ve just peed your pants…but I digress. Animated animals and cheap laughs is not, generally speaking, the golden ticket to a quality movie.

            Yet, over the years, as the studio has thrown one dart after another, a few of them have managed to stick. Their first animated films Antz was pretty much a meh on the entertainment scale and it was somewhat late to the “let’s use CGI for animated feature-films” party. It was followed by a series of disheartening flops until DreamWorks finally landed their first cash cow Shrek. DreamWorks proceeded to ride that work horse for years until Madagascar came along, still releasing a few duds now and again along the way.  Kung Fu Panda, despite its adherence to the “talking animal” motif, was the first hope that DreamWorks might direct their attention to something other than Madagascar, but the sequel was generally considered a let-down. This brings us full circle to the latest HTTYD franchise.

            Now, on first glance it’s easy to see what can be so appealing about this movie to both the DreamWorks producers and its many viewers: Dragons. Everybody these days is obsessed with dragons thanks to the cultural phenomenon that is Game of Thrones. Actually, I’d be willing to say that people have been obsessed with dragons longer than we’ve been obsessed with cats (a bold statement I know). However, traditionally these have been largely ferocious village burning knight fodder kinds of dragons that only the few and chosen are ever able to actually ride. What HTTYD does differently is it shows these beasts as misunderstood and frankly even docile under the right circumstances. It kindles that hope in the imaginations of children of all ages that they too could ride dragons; let’s be honest, we all want to ride a dragon. Plus, the dragon flying sequences are pretty freaking awesome! 

            Still, what really sells the HTTYD franchise for me is that it manages to have positive qualities beyond just the inclusion of cuddly dragons. It’s the first successful movie to come out of DreamWorks in a long time that, dare I say it, doesn’t include talking animals! I was starting to think they didn’t have it in them anymore, but thankfully I was wrong. Forcing the dragon characters to express themselves non-verbally makes them much more like the dogs, cats, gerbils, and goldfish that have emotional connections with us at home. Furthermore, this forces all the speaking rolls onto actual people which makes the whole experience much more relatable. The success of the sequel stems from it taking this already established, human, relatable characters that happen to ride dragons and put them against an enemy that stubbornly unwilling to accept the peaceful way of living they’ve discovered. The franchise teaches the lesson of co-existence and acceptance while still being “bad-ass.” 

            If HTTYD has taught me anything about DreamWorks films in general, it’s that they are really good at making movies that connect to their audiences through foreign cultures. Shrek lived in a medieval setting and was fairly witty with its satire of classic fairy tales (plus who could pass up a donkey with Eddie Murphy’s voice?). Kung Fu Panda pulled through with the Asian setting, and the fight scenes were fairly awesome. HTTYD has its Nordic Viking niche and it makes me wonder what foreign cultures might be next? It’s hard to say, but I for one hope that DreamWorks realizes that their real gold is in showing their audiences a “realistic” glimpse into the rest of the world that they live in.  




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