Sunday, January 23, 2011

Lesssons In Looking Up: How To Train Your Dragon

Let’s start with a statement of the obvious: Posts here at The Cooler have been few and far between in recent months. Thankfully, that’ll be changing soon – just not quite yet. In fact, things will probably go backward before they go forward. The intense (but fulfilling) work project that significantly limited my writing time all of last year is now at its peak, which means it’s close to being behind me, but for the moment most of my moments – from before dawn until long after dusk – are spent at the office. I write this not to bitch or moan, because I’m truly grateful to have a paying gig that’s challenging and rewarding. Rather, I just wanted to explain why over the next few weeks you’re unlikely to see reviews of of-the-moment films, ranging from Blue Valentine to The King’s Speech, that in one way or another are worth talking about (although Ed Howard and I have nearly wrapped another edition of The Conversations, which concerns one of the 2010’s best films, so stay tuned for that). Expect things to pick up around here sometime in March. Until then, I'll be looking to keep the light on here by offering up some quick snatch-and-grab posts and stuff from the archives.

With that said, on to today’s post …

One of the films I regret not reviewing last year was How To Train Your Dragon, which, although I didn’t see critical darling Toy Story 3, was my favorite animated film of 2010 (runner-up: Despicable Me), and among my top 10 overall. There’s much to like about the film, from its lively score, to its even livelier pace (the movie never slows down, but it never feels rushed either), to its harmonious opening and closing scenes, which make for 2010’s best bookend scenes this side of The Social Network. But most of all, there’s the films thoughtful cinematography.

Case in point: Take the relationship between Hiccup and his father, Stoick. Many films over the years have engaged with the awkward relationships that can develop between a father and son once a son realizes that he (a) doesn’t want to be what his father wants him to be and yet (b) doesn’t want to let his father down, but How To Train Your Dragon is especially adept at conveying that familiar conflict. That Hiccup and Stoick are dissimilar is obvious just by looking at them: Hiccup is short and scrawny, whereas Stoick is enormous and imposing. But that only shows that they’re different. What it doesn’t convey is the pressure of wanting to live up to a father’s expectations or the gulf that can exist between a father and son who are struggling to find common ground in their relationship. That's where the cinematography comes in.

(Note: I’m issuing a stern spoiler warning here, not because I’m about to reveal plot points – though I am – because How To Train Your Dragon follows a conventional arc that’s easy to predict. Instead, I’m urging those who haven’t seen the movie to stop reading here because I’m about to share images from this film – and the discovery of those images is what the moviegoing experience is all about. So if you haven’t seen How To Train Your Dragon, stop now and Netflix the thing. You’ll be glad you did. The rest of you, onward ...)

For the majority of the film, Stoick is always captured from below, emphasizing his physical and metaphorical stature.

This is especially true in shots of Stoick and Hiccup together.

In the above shots we can feel Hiccup's discomfort around his father, the way they seem to inhabit two different worlds. (In addition to speaking to the strained relationship between father and son, these shots also hint at Hiccup's comfort around dragons -- because they can't possibly be as intimidating as Stoick.)

In the images below, watch what happens when Stoick reveals that he's heard of Hiccup's exploits taming dragons. Initially, there is discomfort, as Stoick laughs and Hiccup, who believes his father has heard about his exploits with Toothless, waits to hear his father's reaction. But after that, notice how Stoick, suddenly feeling some commonality with his son, who he believes is a dragon-slayer like him, actually tries to shrink down to Hiccup's level.

Of course, the bond above is short-lived. Soon, Stoick learns the truth about his son, and the movie goes back to its previous pattern, emphasizing Stoick's size, the immensity of his expectations and the way that Hiccup is living in his father's shadow.

All of the above is setup, of course, for the conclusion, when Stoick finally accepts Hiccup as he is and even learns to appreciate their differences. As Hiccup mounts Toothless and prepares to save his Viking clan by taking on the monstrous alpha dragon, we get our first shot of Stoick from above, which also happens to be one of the few in which he isn't wearing his imposing horned hat.

Now, it's Stoick looking up at his son -- physically and symbolically.

Look at the shot below: For the first time, Stoick looks small in comparison to Hiccup, even though they appear side-by-side. (Sitting on a dragon helps.) And from there, Stoick looks up (and up, and up) at the son for whom he now feels incredible pride.

It's beautiful stuff. Thoughtful filmmaking. Just one of the reasons that How To Train Your Dragon is so effective.

Of course, Dragon also has some just-plain-cool shots. So before we go, here's my favorite series of images from the movie, as Stoick -- you can't fault the guy's bravery -- attempts to lead his people into the dragon lair.

These next two images are less than two seconds apart, the result of a super-fast zoom ...

Eat your heart out, Ridley Scott!

1 comment:

Richard Bellamy said...

Yes, eat your heart out Ridley Scott! For being busy, you sure come up with some inspiring quickie posts! The device with the camera angles up or down on Dad is a simple but beautifully effective one. And, you are so right, the film also contains lots of just-plain-cool shots. I love the Alienesque aspect of the shot revealing the dragons in the tunnel. I also love when Hiccup and the girl and the dragon blunder into the swarm in the fog. Also, when the Queen beast incinerates the ships in one blast - just plain cool! This is great animation!