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GOING TO NEED AN AWFULLY BIG LITTERBOX

Reel Time
Dale Hill
www.flickwitch.com

            There was apparently a big donnybrook in Hollywood (imagine!) when Warner Bros. decided to convert “Clash of the Titans” from 2D to3D and open it the week after the DreamWorks feature “How to Train Your Dragon.” DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg was livid because it might cause a traffic jam, or maybe even bump “Dragon” into a 2D theater, because most multiplexes only have one 3D projector to their name.

            I would be hard pressed to say a lot about “Clash of the Titans” other than that it's big and noisy and a total mess. It must be really difficult for a director with digital magic at his command to look at Ray Harryhausen's classic, but admittedly primitive, stop-motion monsters and not want to do them over again. The problem is, Harryhausen was aware of his limitations and knew he was making a camp classic, whereas Warner Bros. and director Louis Leterrier know they're doing it (technically) better, and take themselves way too seriously.

            Which brings us to the actual subject of today's review, the animated 3D feature “How to Train Your Dragon,” which is the big treat of the year so far.

            Nobody's taking anybody seriously here, including the screenwriters who adapted Cressida Cowell's 2003 book of the same name, and we're all better off. What we've got is an entirely predictable story in which the teen-age hero befriends the dragon (who looks like a thumb with eyes), wins his father's respect, and gets the girl. And don't go moaning about spoilers, because I haven't told you anything you haven't already guessed from the trailer.

            The predictability is part of the movie's charm, with all of the clichés clicking into place at exactly the right moments, so that when it takes off and surprises you, it really surprises you. Who, for example, would expect a village of Vikings all speaking in broad Scots accents? Okay, so the real Vikings did settle in the Orkney Islands, but it's still cute.

            And the absolute best thing about “How to Train Your Dragon” are the flying sequences, with Hiccup (that's the kid's name) on his dragon's back. Here's where the 3D technology comes into its own, generating real thrills underlined by John Powell's glorious score, which in these scenes sounds like Sibelius at his grandest.

            Will small kids like this? Oh, yes. There are some scary moments, but they're Disney scary, not Freddy Krueger scary, though one scene reminds me of the appearance of Yevaud in Ursula K. LeGuin's “Wizard of Earthsea:”

            “When he was all afoot his scaled head, spike-crowned and triple-tongued, rose higher than the broken tower's height, and his taloned forefeet rested on the rubble of the town below...Lean as a hound he was and huge as a hill. Ged stared in awe. There was no song or tale could prepare the mind for this sight. Almost he stared into the dragon's eyes and was caught, for one cannot look into a dragon's eyes.”

            Further comment:

            “...dragons, real dragons, essential both to the machinery and the ideas of a poem or tale, are actually rare. In northern literature there are only two that are significant. If we omit from consideration the vast and vague Encircler of the World, Miðgarðsormr, the doom of the great gods and no matter for heroes, we have but the dragon of the Völsungs, Fáfnir, and Beowulf's bane.”

            Tolkien wrote that, and he's pretty much the dragon authority for western culture. If you're an old fan of dragon-lore you're probably onto most of my favorites: LeGuin's great Yevaud; Fáfnir of the Volsunga Saga and his Wagnerian counterpart, Fafner; Tolkien's Smaug, Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities; and the pet of Farmer Giles of Ham, another splendid Tolkien firedrake with the magnificent name Chrysophylax Dives.  That's a wonderful name to test your knowledge of both Greek and Latin. You could Google it, but the library or the bookstore would be more fun.