“Dragon” and “Giant” Give Ignorance an Animated Perspective


Published: April 1, 2010

“How to Train Your Dragon” (2010)
An exciting blend of comedy, action and spectacle, DreamWorks Animation’s new 3-D adventure has plenty to offer family audiences. The story concerns Hiccup, a lowly Viking youth who wants to make his dragon-fighting village proud. He succeeds in wounding a dragon, but cannot bear to kill it. From this act of kindness develops a friendship that upsets centuries-old traditions and helps the lad find his niche.

With the word “dragon” in the title, this fantasy would be a sheer disappointment if it did not at least have fanciful visuals. Thankfully, directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (“Lilo & Stitch”) present an imaginative yet believable vision. The various dragons (especially Toothless, the dragon Hiccup rescues) are creatively designed, each with its own y strengths and weaknesses (which the characters sometimes list as if the creatures were Pokémon). The detailed but earthy scenery and the sparse, natural lighting contribute to the rustic world the dragons and humans inhabit. All of these elements are shown in a 3-D presentation that adds depth to the surroundings (you can see practically every ember from a dragon’s breath) and elevates the thrills of the already mesmerizing flight scenes.

In terms of story, tone and dialogue, “Dragon” fits comfortably in the vein of “Kung Fu Panda.” It exemplifies the usual DreamWorks trademarks (humor incongruous for the time period, celebrity voice actors, etc.), but these traits are not as extreme as they are in “Shark Tale” and the “Shrek” films. Modern references take the form of speech patterns and vernacular rather than direct mentions to films and products. The actors (which include Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson) fit their parts well without feeling like they were cast for the sake of having known personalities. This more timeless approach helps place “Dragon” alongside “Panda” and “The Prince of Egypt” as one of DreamWorks’ best animated features.

If you like “How to Train Your Dragon,” then try…

“The Iron Giant” (1999)
“Dragon” is the latest in a lengthy list of animated films that present fear and ignorance as forces that should not be allowed to control humanity. These movies, which include “Pocahontas,” “Princess Mononoke” and recent Oscar nominee “The Secret of Kells,” argue that knowledge and understanding are needed to maintain a peaceful existence. “The Iron Giant,” the directorial debut of Brad Bird (“The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille”), is one of the more interesting examples because it uses the Red Scare to exemplify the possibilities of unchecked paranoia.

This movie takes place in Maine in 1957, when Communists filled the newspapers and Martians filled the comic books. Society has told the hero, 11-year-old Hogarth Hughes, not to trust the foreign, which is represented here by a mysterious robot that landed from outer space. While Hogarth hides and befriends the giant, obsessive government agent Kent Mansley reins in the army to “destroy it before it destroys us.” Mansley’s actions bring the small town to the brink of annihilation.

While the action sequences in “Giant” do not appear until late in the movie, the plot builds up to them by presenting aspects of the period (instructional duck-and-cover films in school, fears about Sputnik) to show America’s dread of nuclear holocaust. These touches explain why Mansley expects the worst when he hears about the giant and why he feels it must be blown up. It is through the more open perspective of youth that “Giant” (as well as “Dragon”) engages the “other” and argues that opposing sides need to understand each other before beginning conflict. Otherwise, the situation could degenerate to the point where both sides will be left without benefits.