Monday, May 10, 2010

Dreamworks Takes the Next Step with "Dragons"

After six weeks at the box office, I think enough time has passed that I can safely talk about the ending of "How to Train Your Dragon," the latest Dreamworks Animation film that's been causing so many heart palpitations in its competitors lately. I liked the film an awful lot, but it was a pretty by-the-numbers children's film up until the ending. This isn't to say that "Dragon" wasn't executed flawlessly, or that tremendous effort wasn't put into the production, but the story stuck to a very typical boy-and-his-dog formula, or in this case Viking-and-his-dragon formula. There were all the usual elements we've come to expect from a CGI animated children's film: a underachiever hero who grows in the face of adversity, colorful animal characters that can easily be converted into Happy Meal toys, noisy action sequences, and intergenerational communication issues to add a little tension.

Except that at the end of "How to Train Your Dragon," directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois broke one of the cardinal rules of mainstream children's films. In a very unexpected moment, after the day has been saved and everything seems like we're heading for a typical all-smiles happy ending, it's revealed that our young hero has lost the lower part of one of his legs in the climactic battle, which has to be replaced with a prosthetic. It's subtly built up to throughout the film, with the main dragon character, Toothless, losing a tail fin that leaves him unable to fly early on in the story, and a double-amputee adult Viking also playing a major supporting role. The revelation itself is brief, handled delicately, and adds immeasurably to the film on every level. Suddenly there's added consequence and weight to everything we've seen.

Still, this was a risky decision for the filmmakers. Children in mainstream Western films are usually invincible, especially in the entertainment made specifically for children. Occasionally you'll have a live-action prestige title with a sad ending like Gábor Csupó's 2007 adaptation of "The Bridge to Terabithia," but these are increasingly rare as nervous studio executives become more risk-averse. In Western children's animation, having a main character suffer such a permanent loss is almost unheard of. When I learned that "How to Train Your Dragon" had a bittersweet ending, I was expecting something along the lines of "Old Yeller," where some misfortune would befall the dragon. That's the more traditional ending to the boy-meets-dog scenario, where the loss of a cherished pet becomes a learning experience for the boy, and by proxy the young audience.

Frankly, I wasn't even expecting that much. Dreamworks Animation has always seemed to hold back artistically, content to be the more commercial, more populist competitor to PIXAR. While Disney executives consistently bemoan the lean merchandising potential of such PIXAR classics as "Ratatouille" and "Up," Dreamworks has shamelessly milked all of their film properties with sequels, holiday specials, television spinoffs, and merchandise galore. With the success of "Shrek" back in 2001, they found a successful template to follow, distinguished from other studios' output by the use of lots of contemporary humor and heavy celebrity voice acting presence. The studio had some bumpy years in the beginning, so I understand why they've been reluctant to deviate from what works for them. And there's no shame in putting out blatantly commercial films – all studio films have to be to some extent.

And yet there's always been that underdeveloped potential for better. I don't think Dreamworks should try to be PIXAR, because they've got their own style and verve going on that's a little edgier and a little different. I'd like to see it nurtured and given the chance to grow up a bit beyond the sort of output that Dreamworks has been known for so far. I've been very heartened by their recent breaks from formula, such as the excellent "Kung-Fu Panda," which is being poised as their next big franchise after "Shrek" is retired this year, and now "How to Train Your Dragon." Both were director-driven films, both shied away from pop-culture references, and both had very, very strong visuals. One of my major critiques against the earlier Dreamworks films like "Shark Tale" and "Bee Movie" was that their character designs were often godawful homely looking things. Over the years, they've improved to the point where I don't think I could tell their recent work apart from PIXAR's anymore.

And if they're at the point where their stories are starting to reach the same level, I can't wait to see what Dreamworks Animation will do next.

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