Sunday, March 28, 2010

How To Train Your Scriptwriters

You know, lately I've found that I have become very analytical when I watch films. I can no longer sit down and take a movie at face value, I can see the mechanics behind it. What's clever, what's wrong. When I mention this to people, the most common response is "doesn't over-analysing films kill your enjoyment of them?"

Until How To Train Your Dragon, I would have answered "no".
But apparently it does.


You see, I was asked to review this film by a few friends of mine, independently of each other, and it just so happened that I had a free pass lying around, so Arch and I went and saw it just to see what the fuss was about. I am seeing glowing reviews from friends and critics alike, and here is an opportunity to a) update my blog with something that isn't live action (should I make another live-action film blog?? I love them!!) and b) see a reportedly good movie for free. I also had lowered expectations of the film based on the shitty trailer, and usually when that happens I end up liking the movie a lot.

As it happens, Arch and I were the only ones not laughing. The kids and parents were having a whale of a time. I think I enjoyed their enjoyment of the movie more than the movie itself. Which is bad.

Okay, so it wasn't a terrible movie; but that's the quirk of being over-analytical in your movie viewing. You make a shift from judging a movie positively by every thing about it that excites you (the designs, the set pieces, the funny moments) to damning it based by everything about it that makes your eyes roll (the script, the characters, the unfunny moments). And although there are things about this movie that I enjoyed, they are outnumbered by the things I didn't like about it.

So if you're one of the friends who wanted me to see it so I could give it five shining, glorious stars, brace yourself. :T


The main offender this time around isn't the script so much as the lack of respect or research found therein. I refer specifically to the so-called "vikings" that populate this world.
I could go on at length about how fighting dragons is more of a Germanic thing and how horned helmets were never worn by vikings at any point in history whatsoever, but I'll spare you for now. What angered me more was the fact that these aren't even pseudo-vikings; they're just... these... weird... people.

Vikings are from Scandinavia, everyone knows that (or god help me, they should). Germanic tribes originated in, well, Germany, that area. So it's strange that they decided all these particular vikings should have Scottish accents. Sorry, the adults should have Scottish accents. The kids all speak with thick American accents. The film reaches a particularly strange moment of self-referential transcendence early on when the protagonist, Hiccup, imitates his own father's Scottish accent. Where exactly did his American one come from?!
To top it all off, they use Celtic runes (which the vikings did eventually, once they learned how to write) and refer to Odin and Thor, two of the most well-known Viking deities. So... are they Scand, or Scottish? Who cares, I guess I'm expected to pay as much attention to it as the scriptwriters didn't.

Moving on to the overall tone of the film, the protagonist grates and to make matters worse, he begins AND ends the movie with a completely diffusing voice-over monologue that only serves to completely remove any emotion from the scene. It's like having the main character sit you down in a chair and didactically lecture you on how his world works, while you are witnessing it for yourself on screen.

I maintain that if they completely and totally cut out the monologue, the introductory sequence would have been ten times more exciting, tense and immersive. But what the hey, I guess they had to kind of rush the movie out the door, or something.

Now let me elaborate on the antagonist.

Toothless the dragon is charming and funny. He's also quite complex in his personality, and defies cliché. Hiccup is the human character and virtually the polar opposite of his black, leathery friend in terms of three-dimensionality, originality or charisma.

In fact, he kind of reminds me of a few other guys.

What do these three protagonists have in common?
They're all down on their luck, they're all brilliant at science, they all want to be something they're not and despite facing constant adversity of everyone thinking they're lame and stupid, they eventually become darlings because their crazy machinery and/or science know-how saves the day. They also start off being really sucky with their stupid machinery until through adversity and triumph, their inventions stop sucking.

"Flint" from "Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs" also has a patchy relationship with his father who thinks he's a retard who wastes his time on stupid inventions instead of doing something normal.
Absolutely all of this applies to Hiccup. The only difference is, he is irritatingly sarcastic and monotone.

What is it with all these movies starring unpopular dweebs with daddy issues, who can't make any friends? Is it some kind of subconscious Freudian slip of the people writing the movies?

You know what I'd like to see, like, really, really like to see? A movie that has a main character who isn't some kind of pathetic, sobbing nerd who nobody likes. Someone who isn't a friend-repellant wimp. They're becoming rare.

Apart from these more specific issues, the film suffers all of the same problems as many other films of its calibur. Remember how in the Igor review, I mentioned how a pet peeve of mine is when a quote is repeated later on in the movie, with new, added meaning? If you've seen Kung Pow: Enter The Fist, you would call it a "Stars Above" moment.
"I don't get it." "You're not supposed to. It's one of those things, like, a puzzle. Like, I'll say it again later on, and then you'll be like, Oooooooh, I get it! Stars Aboooooove!!"
Yeah, well they drop about three of those in a row in the final scene.

One scene in particular had Hiccup find it necessary to lead Toothless into the human village. Although there was a good moment in this scene that made me laugh, it mostly seemed a bit... held back. Like it was just one part of a montage than an actual scene. They had the perfect set up for a much more intense (and therefore actually funnier) scene and they squandered it.

A few of the jokes are quite funny, but I found most of them to be unbearable. Arch and I have a bad habit of groaning whenever poor jokes are fumbled at us from cinema speakers and we may have hindered the enjoyment of anyone sitting behind us, I'm not sure.
In any case, I don't think I've ever, EVER gripped the seat in a cinema as hard as when the fat viking kid started making Dungeons and Dragons references. -_-

Finally, the film stuffs messages down your throat pretty quickly. Most movies will at least mercifully save these cringe-worthy quotes for the final moments of a movie, but How To Train Your Dragon really doesn't beat around the bush. Some of them even made it into the trailer.
I can't really shake the feeling that the dragons in this film are a flimsy metaphor for the Middle East.
But then again, that might be the fact that in the last week I've seen The Hurt Locker and The Men Who Stare At Goats, both of which have bearable, palatable messages. But then again this is a movie for babies and babies are stupid, apparently.

P.S. Go see The Men Who Stare At Goats


The movie did have a few saving graces. Not many, but they were good enough to at least alleviate the usual feeling of "I have completely wasted eighty minutes of my life".

The dragon battle at the end was kickass. I admit it. Also, unlike a lot of other films I've been complaining about lately that shove in a humongous fight scene at the end, in this film it actually felt like it belonged there. I will ignore the fact that every kid who participated had verbal diarrhea for hackneyed lines simply because of the sheer immensity of awesome in that scene. If only more of the movie had been that thrilling.
There were several moments in, say, The Incredibles that made the hair on the nape of my neck perk up the first time I saw it. The battle was the only part of this movie that did that for me, but it kind of made the slow buildup and general sloppiness of the movie worth it.

Also, the dragon cave.
I won't spoil what happens, but when the heroes find it, it's the first bloody time in the movie that we aren't being told by characters through mind-numbing exposition what is going on. The result is that there is actually a bit of mystery and suspense, and if the whole film were this exciting and engaging, it would have been a bloody fantastic movie overall. It slooowly picked up towards the end; as usual, I believe even one more pass of the script would have elevated this movie to something I actually would want to buy on DVD, or see again at the cinema.

In other areas:

The plot was coherent. Bland, maybe, but it was coherent. It was properly paced. This alone was a welcome breath of fresh air.

The flight scenes were pretty good. Not as good as my friends made out to me, and yes, I did see this film at a good cinema in 3D. But hey, I guess that's what Avatar does to you.

Some of the dragon designs were quite cool. I honestly didn't like all of them (the one that sets itself on fire has a really lame-looking head), but across the board they were pretty appealing.

The effects were pretty impressive. Fire, water, fur, you know - the usual. The quality of the dragons' leathery skin kind of varied between species, however. Toothless looked the best. The animation was a bit more awkward, however - it suffers badly from that overly cartoony "snappiness" that seems to be infecting every single movie either Dreamworks or Blue Sky release like a fucking plague. Surely there are actions where you need more than six inbetweens to change between three poses?

I should probably end it here You know it's bad when you are complaining about the film even when you're supposed to be listing what you liked about it.
I'd like to say this film would still be very enjoyable to you as long as you love dragons.
But I love dragons a lot too.
It's like saying you'll love "Robots" as long as you are into robots.

So instead I'll just say this: If you analyse your movies, and like them to be tight, well-oiled entertainment sledgehammers, then avoid How To Train Your Dragon. If you watch movies for the fun of it and don't really think about them, by all means, be one of the cinemagoers who laughed.


  1. If you're going to do a blog for live-action films then we should collaborate on it together! And probably some other people as well.

  2. Wow. That's an awesome idea. Reviews from different perspectives. WE MUST DISCUSS.

  3. I saw this film recently too. To be honest I quite enjoyed it, because it seemed to be a great improvement in scriptwriting since Monsters VS Aliens. To me it seems Dreamworks' movies aren't going to be so poorly written anymore (their previous films were alright, but not nearly as good as Pixar).

  4. It is an improvement, I'll definitely admit that.
    But for some reason they just seem a little... inexperienced, considering how much money they have. At least in the story department.