Animated feature length films always have provided movie makers with considerable freedom to tell their stories in fantastic ways, although, almost by definition, these stories are geared toward younger audiences. Still, two factors are essential to lasting success. First, the material has to work on more than one level, appealing to young viewers and their parents. Second, and paramount, the story has to be a good one.
Walt Disney Studios had a virtual monopoly on animated motion pictures until single cell animation became too costly while cheaper to produce programming invaded television, allowing young viewers to engage with a less critical eye and a shorter attention span, and their parents to ignore the proceedings altogether. Family night at the movies was dying along with the G-Rated film.
It may be fitting that Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” is credited by many with starting a resurgence. But it was that studio’s “Beauty and the Beast,” which became the first animated film in history to be nominated in the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards, that gave animation total legitimacy as a current art form. Then CGI (computer graphic imaging) smashed open the floodgates with quality artwork and effects. When aided by quality writing, something the people at Pixar do consistently, animated films became mainstream entertainment for all ages, whether mixed with live action or not. The Oscars created a new category just for animated feature length films; last year, Paxar’s “UP!” was nominated for both Best Picture and Best Animated Feature, winning the later.
The key is story. Fantastic animation cannot surpass a terrible, dull or unbelievable script, but an odd or mediocre animation effort can still touch our hearts or our heads if the story is compelling. This year’s early animation hit, “How to Train Your Dragon,” proves the point. Although it is likely that Pixar’s “Toy Story 3-D” will win best animated film this year, my vote would be for “Dragon,” a product of the less consistent but sometimes brilliant people at DreamWorks. Visually, the film is sharp, smart and stunning, but it is the complex storyline, presented simply, that enthralls us. I did not see it in 3-D and can imagine the thrilling scenes of flying dragons and bursting fireballs would have been spectacular, but, as with any good film, “Dragon” does not depend on gadgets to work.
The story, by co-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, and writer Will Davies, is based on a novel by Cressida Cowell. In a mythical corner of Scandinavia, Vikings and dragons are at war. Young Hiccup, son of the chief, discovers he cannot kill a dragon. Instead, he learns how to be a dragon whisperer, which threatens to make him more of an outcast than he already is. While his fellow Vikings lust for dragon blood in what they believe is a righteous cause, Hiccup learns that the dragons have their own problem, one that has caused them to act aggressively toward the humans. But he cannot convince his father, or the elders, that dragons are not the enemies the Vikings believe them to be. The consequences could spell disaster for everyone, humans and dragons alike.
Many themes find resonance in the telling. Cruelty is cruelty, even again your enemy. Loyalty does not always mean agreeing with your leaders; sometime opposing them in favor of what is right is true loyalty although you might be smacked down for it. And judging anyone, no matter who or what they are, without all the facts is not only unjust, but dangerous. Finally, right will prevail if we work together to achieve it. These are powerful; ideas that no one is too young to discover.
Add to the mix a young crop of aspiring dragon hunters who themselves are more misfit than Viking, yet become the cornerstone of the film’s dramatic resolution, and a wide variety of dragon types, shapes, and sizes, and you get a wild, fun-filled story with a strong set of messages about tolerance and understanding that does not have to preach to win its point, or the audience.