Think back through the fog of memory to the year 2010, when Pixar was still the reigning champ of CG animated movies. At the time How to Train Your Dragon was released, their last film was Up, an adventure story that was as heartbreaking as it was funny, and Toy Story 3 loomed over the summer. DreamWorks Animation's last two films, on the other hand, were the tepid spoof Monsters vs. Aliens and the first Madagascar sequel, which didn't feel nearly as warranted as a second or third Toy Story. Their reputation consisted of pop culture references and the "DreamWorks Face" (a half-grin with crooked eyebrow embraced by the heroes on almost all of their movie posters). It was in this environment that I received a press invite to How to Train Your Dragon, at 10 AM on a Saturday, requiring either 40 minutes in the car plus parking fees, or an hour by bus. I skipped it, and I was wrong.
Based on the book by Cressida Cowell, Dragon follows Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), the skinniest, clumsiest beanpole in a village full of burly, beefy Vikings. On the island of Berk, there's only one day-to-day concern, and that's the threat of dragons swooping in and burning them to a crisp. Hiccup wants nothing more than to slay a dragon, preferably the deadliest dragon known to man, the lightning-fast Night Fury, which whips by flinging purple flames so fast nobody has even drawn a picture of one. During the day, he works in a smith shop with Gobber (Craig Ferguson), a close friend of his father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), where he works on contraptions that will make up for his lack of physical strength. One evening, despite the catastrophic string of destruction that he sets off in the process, Hiccup is positive one of his inventions brought down a Night Fury. He sneaks out of his house and finds the creature in a cove, unable to fly away. However, his up-close-and-personal look at the dragon reveals how friendly he is, and before long Hiccup is thinking more about how to perfect an invention that will get "Toothless" back in the air, rather than take him down.
Dragon is refreshingly free of those 2010-era DreamWorks trademarks. There are no pop songs on the soundtrack, no winking jabs at Disney or The Matrix, and the humor is mostly character-based. Instead, directors Chris Sanders and Dean DuBlois spend their energies on better ideas, such as the animation of Toothless, an utterly charming fusion of lizard and cat. There's no hiding the similarities: Toothless has ears that perk up, giant green feline eyes, and even chases a glint of light on the ground in one brief scene. With computer animation, the effort that goes into characterization can sometimes be overlooked, but Toothless and all of the other dragons are a crash course in both basic character design and animation, with each of the other major dragons sharing a characteristic with one of the human kids that Hiccup trains with. The effort that went into Toothless makes Sanders and DuBlois' job easier elsewhere: in all honesty, he's so lovable, so winning, that it'd be hard to imagine disliking the movie even if everything else fell flat.
Sanders and DuBlois also excel at achieving a sense of exhilaration and wonder. Even the best Pixar movies tend to go for a slightly different tone: the jungle of Up is more of a fresh frontier for the characters than anything. Dragon aims to evoke the thrill of adventure, of invention and discovery, and when Hiccup and Toothless go for their first real flight with the Hiccup's wing rig, there's a sense of awe that one rarely feels in today's movies. The film played in theaters in 3D, but these sequences are so stunningly animated (taking their cues from airplane combat movies) that they practically feel three-dimensional even seen on a regular TV screen. Later, when flight turns to fight, the co-directors are smart about their blocking and cutting, crafting battles that are fast and exciting without being choppy or confusing.
The story and characters of Dragon can feel a bit canned: outsider kid dreams of respect from a parent, to be accepted by his peers, and for their crush to be realized -- in this case, Hiccup yearns for warrior girl Astrid (America Ferrara), whose only feelings toward Hiccup is annoyance she has to step on him during the training sessions with Gobber. These beats can feel perfunctory, even if the acting and directing sell them, as if dictated more by the structure of the story than what the characters are feeling. Still, Dragon uses its simple story to express a heartfelt message about exploration and understanding. Unlike other cinematic outcasts, who discover their "weird" qualities help them fit in under the right circumstances, Hiccup's realization is accepting that he does not fit in, and that fitting in might also mean upholding outdated notions and traditions that aren't based in truth. "Adventure" suggests an exploration of something new and exciting, and Dragon's best moments find the visceral and thematic spirit of adventure side by side, like a boy triumphantly soaring the skies on the back of a friendly dragon.
This new How to Train Your Dragon combo pack arrives with (unsurprisingly) an image of Hiccup and Toothless soaring over the ocean, with a eye-catching red border framing the image. The one questionable decision here is that they've slapped a "1" on the spine next to the title, in anticipation of the upcoming sequel (the front cover displays the title with no number). The two-disc Viva Elite case houses the DVD copy and sheet with the UltraViolet / iTunes Digital Copy code, and the entire thing slides inside a glossy, embossed slipcover with the same imagery. There is also a sticker on the slipcover -- remove carefully! -- offering $7.50 off a movie ticket for How to Train Your Dragon 2.
The Video and Audio
By all accounts, the 2.39:1 1080p AVC transfer on this Blu-Ray is identical to previous releases. 98% of the time, it looks perfect, as perfect as one expects a digital-to-digital transfer to look, although I did notice some light banding near the beginning of the film, including on the DreamWorks studio logo, and maybe a hint of crush.
Although the picture is the same, the sound gets an upgrade, with a 7.1 Dolby TrueHD track (the initial and most popular combo pack offered only 5.1, although 2012's "Deluxe Dragon Collection" offered this same 7.1 track). Dragon is an exhilarating aural experience, with a sound design that makes some of the 3D effect from the film's theatrical run apparent even viewed on a 2D Blu-Ray. The wind whipping through Hiccup's hair, the distant squawk of birds above him, the splash of water as Toothless' wings touch down. Speaking of Toothless, the roar of the dragons is also thrilling, from the various beasts captured in the village for training purposes, to the many dragons that appear as the film goes on. Without giving anything away, fans of the film will know what kind of action sequences occur near the end of the film to light up a sound system. Plus, of course, no comment on the movie's mix would be complete without effusive praise for John Powell's moving score, which is rendered with pitch-perfect precision. Lossy 5.1 French and Spanish tracks, an English Descriptive Audio track, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also included. (The previous discs included Portuguese audio and subtitles, but they aren't present here).
The majority of the extras on this new Blu-Ray are carry-overs from previous releases. These include the filmmaker's commentary, a trivia track, the PiP feature "The Animators' Corner", and the featurettes "The Story Behind the Story" (7:40, HD), "The Technical Artistry of Dragon" (10:13, HD), "Viking-Sized Cast" (11:44, HD), and "How to Draw a Dragon" (10:52, HD). Two more extras from the old Blu-Ray are not present on the Blu-Ray disc but included on the DVD copy (obviously in SD): the short film "Legend of the BoneKnapper Dragon" (16:33), and a reel of deleted scenes (7:33). Two interactive games have not made the cut. A glance at the featurettes reveals one disappointing quibble: they are all aggressively interlaced, with the image shifting like slats in a hardwood floor throughout. Very odd. Still, better to include them than leave them out.
So, what's new? First up is the amusingly-titled "Frozen" (22:41, HD), an "exclusive episode" of the TV show "Dragons: Defenders of Berk". The show is more simplistic than the film, both in terms of the animation (which has a very "backdrop"-y feel) and the storytelling, but as far as shows based on movies go, this episode makes "Defenders" seem decent. This is followed by "Book of Dragons" (17:38, HD), a fun short that fills in some of the details about the fire-breathing creatures that inhabit the world of Dragons. Amusing, stylish animation highlights this entertaining film that will please younger fans of the series. Accompanying it is "Ultimate Book of Dragons" an interactive feature that allows the viewer to investigate the "book" for themselves. The disc's new content is rounded out by "Gobber's Training Secrets" (2:10, HD), a series of short vignettes about dragons that feel kind of unnecessary following the two book features.
Fans will probably complain -- and rightly so -- that it would have been smarter to put the making-of material on the DVD disc and the "BoneKnapper" short and deleted scenes on the Blu-Ray with the commentary, PiP, trivia track, and other shorts (the old combo pack included "BoneKnapper" in HD, with a TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack of its own), or even split the set into two Blu-Ray discs and include no DVD copy. There are also some extras missing from the aforementioned "Deluxe Dragon" collection: a documentary called "How to Find Your Dragon" and a peek at the live stage show. The lack of a 3D disc in this combo pack is also a bummer. All things considered, this is probably the best value, but it's not as obvious as one might hope.
How to Train Your Dragon is a thrilling adventure that soars above many contemporary animated features, including some of Pixar's more recent efforts. Anyone who has the previously released combo pack should only upgrade if they're an audiophile, as the 7.1 soundtrack is the only addition of note. For those who don't already own the film, however, this is a good deal: the same PQ, what appears to be the widest selection of bonus material, as well as a digital copy and a free ticket discount for the new movie. The only way it could've been a better value is if a 3D combo had been made available as well (all existing 3D versions of Dragon don't include any extras). Highly recommended.
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