August 15, 2015 · animated dreamworks fantasy review

How to Outdo Avatar

When James Cameron’s Avatar debuted in December 2009, it was hailed as a visual masterpiece. No doubt with how far 3D has come today, we easily forget that what we were treated to represented a groundbreaking advance in film making technology. As a film though, as a piece of narrative storytelling? My one word review was, “Meh.”

Not four months later, Dreamworks’s How to Train Your Dragon hit 3D screens. I adore computer animation as a genre, but it’s difficult to separate that from simply my love of Disney/Pixar. Dreamworks on the other hand, for the longest time, equaled Shrek in my mind—a franchise I deeply dislike. I thus made what I now know to be the enormous mistake of not seeing it in theatres, and what a mistake that was!

With far less technological wizardry than James Cameron (and far less money), Dreamworks put together something with far more visceral emotion and cinematic impact. I’m sure James wishes Jake’s first time flying mounted on a creature was as awe-inspiring as Hiccup’s!

The “Test Flight” sequence encapsulates how How to Train Your Dragon outshines Avatar. The camera direction as Toothless soars through the sky, grazes the ocean, and rockets around and through the pillars of rock—accompanied by John Powell’s triumphant score—is the cinematic spectacle so many scenes in Avatar aimed to be.

There’s an apt metaphor for how different the films are, despite near identical thematic elements. The bond between Jake and his banshee is achieved through force, and is literally a physical one. None of the emotional bonds between him and his fellow characters felt any less artificial. Hiccup and Toothless on the other hand, who communicate with no verbal interaction, transcend that with a bond that manages to feel far more real. We, like we feel for our cherished pets, empathize with the relationship.

The entire story arc of Hiccup and the vikings is in the same vein that much more resonant than Jake’s and the ridiculous organization he works for. Though still somewhat of a caricature, Hiccup’s father is far more grounded than the general whose name escapes me (and whose identity and personal story are irrelevant/non–existent anyways).

I doubt I will forget either Avatar or How to Train Your Dragon one decade from now, but I will remember the second just that much more fondly. They share similar stories, share similar visual goals, and in an ironic way both are materially the same as computer animated movies. How to Train Your Dragon delivers it all with just that much more effect and grandeur.