How to Make a Kids’ Movie

Sanders and DeBlois know badass.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois
Written by Will Davies, Chris Sanders, and Dean DeBlois
98 min.

You know that moment in Ratatouille when a single bite of Remy’s “peasant dish” confit byaldi delivers an almost spiritually transformative experience to the soul-dead critic Anton Ego? That happened to me when I first watched How To Train Your Dragon. I’m a perpetually grumpy 24-year-old undergraduate STEM major, and it takes a pretty special movie to penetrate the cold stone that encapsulates my heart, so I was quite surprised when this one, quite effortlessly, did just that. So, you’ll have to forgive me if, over the course of this review, my arguments devolve into fanboyish ranting. I ain’t saying HTTYD is the best thing since The Lion King, but it is the best animated kids’ movie made in the U.S. since at least Wall-E, and is easily one of the best computer animated movies of all time.

What separates HTTYD from 99% of modern animated kids’ movies is that it is actually an honest-to-goodness movie. Unlike most of its peers, HTTYD boasts tonally consistent characters with clear personalities, set in a cohesive, memorable world, acting out a story that is engaging as a result of their interpersonal dynamics. Sanders and DeBlois avoid the hackneyed cliches and lazy pandering that bogs down so many contemporary animated movies. Their vehement dismissal of trendy affectations seduced and endeared me. (And so did its two protagonists, but I’ll get to them later.) First, I’d like to explain exactly what HTTYD thankfully didn’t do.

When the creative forces behind a kids’ movie lack confidence in their ideas, they fall back on gimmick characters. Despicable Me has those awful yellow bean things. Bolt has that fucking hamster. Ice Age has that squirrel thing. Madagascar has those penguins. And Shrek is almost entirely built on gimmicky filler characters. Sometimes these imps contribute to the plot, sometimes they have arcs of their own, but they’re rarely necessary or engaging, and they always, always, always get in the way of the larger experience. The worst case of this in recent history is in Rango. Those owl mariachis are absolutely pointless and insufferably annoying—they alone prevented me from enjoying the movie at all.

Sometimes the gimmick characters are even main characters. Kung Fu Panda has Jack Black. Wreck-It Ralph has Jane Lynch. These two were not cast because the directors believed they were natural fits for the characters the writers had conceived. They were cast solely because they have American pop cultural pull. (I’d include John Travolta in Bolt, but his performance is actually quite great.) The two biggest names in HTTYD are Craig Ferguson and Gerard Butler, and if I hadn’t pointed them out, you probably wouldn’t have been able to tell. They disappear into their roles—whereas Jack Black and Jane Lynch just do Jack Black and Jane Lynch for 90 minutes.

HTTYD also does not succumb to the ‘gimmick pop song’ trend. I wanted to murder myself when “Shut Up And Drive” began playing during what was supposed to be an uplifting, pivotal moment in Wreck-It Ralph. HTTYD has a beautiful, old-fashioned, fully orchestral score that enhances every moment it ought to, with recurring motifs and thundering timpani and soaring melodic leads and so on. It’s a breath of fresh air.

My complaints about kids’ movies may seem nitpicky, but these bad aspects accumulate, and ultimately, result in bad movies. A kids’ movie only has about 90 minutes to tell a complete story. Anything extraneous—such as sporadically grabbing an audience’s attention through cheap distractions—only hurts the storytelling, and thus, makes the overall experience hollow and unmemorable.

So how exactly did HTTYD, a studio movie, avoid being cookie-cutter and awful? Simple. Two talented artists were given a budget and the freedom to create as they saw fit. The unsung animation duo of Sanders & DeBlois previously collaborated on the flawed-but-brilliant Disney flick Lilo & Stitch before DreamWorks Animation spotted their genius, snatched them up, and gave them a once-in-a-lifetime shot. And boy did they rise to the occasion. Here’s what they did right.

HTTYD’s setup is pretty straightforward. Dragons have been raiding the island of Berk for centuries, where a village of Vikings has held out. During a night raid, a runt among the youths named Hiccup snares the most dreaded dragon of them all, one nobody has ever even seen. Instead of making it a trophy when he finds it (as anyone else would have done) he cuts it loose. Then, over the course of the movie, he befriends it, names it (Toothless) and even trains it—and, of course, ends up growing up a bit in process. The plot may be about a dragon war, but the structure more closely resembles that of the classic bildungsroman trope, “a boy and his dog”. It’s not a particularly fresh formula (The Black Stallion, Terminator 2, Pokémon, E.T., Ted, Let The Right One In, Transformers, and countless others all do it) but it’s a timelessly effective one, and it works well here.

It works well, particularly, because the stakes are real. For a kid’s movie, HTTYD has teeth. It’s not particularly ‘dark’ or anything—in fact, it’s charming and fun for the most part—but it never shies away from intensity when the moment calls for it. You’ll hear the words “death” and “kill” more times than in almost any other kids movie. The first thing Hiccup says to Toothless upon meeting him is “I’m going to cut out your heart and take it to my father.” Yikes. Sanders and DeBlois mean business. They drop another clue that this ain’t your typical kids’ movie in the first training scene with the rest of the village’s kids. Astrid says “It’s only fun if you get a scar out of it.” That’s a nod to the audience, and the movie makes good on that promise. Kids’ movies should never feel consequence-free, and HTTYD makes sure we understand that the results of our decisions in life can be painful, and even permanent.

The same smart visual design that saturated Lilo & Stitch can be found in HTTYD too, but here it’s much better. Most of it is showcased in Toothless, who, not coincidentally, looks a lot like Stitch, and ends up the real star of the movie. He’s perfectly designed, and proof that Sanders and DeBlois are master animators. They understand that a memorable silhouette trumps any amount of flashy details, and so he’s jet black and moves quick. Pause the movie on any frame featuring Toothless and you’ll see he looks awesome from every angle. That’s not an easy thing to pull off. At certain key moments, such as the opening raid or the climactic dragon battle, he screams around like a damned fighter jet. There’s serious oomph to his movement, the likes of which you just don’t get in most animated movies. It truly brings out the kid in you, and makes you think aloud things like “that was fucking awesome.”

HTTYD also features uncommonly savvy camerawork. Even in a movie made without a physical camera, a ‘camera’ still, in a sense, exists. Sanders and DeBlois understand that, and choose their shots and movements wisely. The cinematography here is better than in a lot of Pixar films. I get goosebumps every time I get up to a certain moment in one of the earliest scenes, in which Toothless pins Hiccup against a rock after being unbound. As soon as Hiccup looks up at him, the camera snaps to an extreme closeup on Toothless, accompanied by a harsh swell of bagpipes and deep, bassy dragon breaths. It’s an incredibly effective shot that feels more like something you’d see in a live action movie, accomplished by a master cinematographer.

So much of HTTYD’s story is told through the visuals that, at times, you might not even realize you’re being told a story. That’s a beautiful thing. Movies are, above all, a visual medium. If you can get a piece of the puzzle across visually, that’s much better than doing so with expository dialogue. HTTYD would be a great pick for teaching the great filmmaking axiom of  ‘show, don’t tell’. The characters spend almost no time explaining to each other what the audience already knows or will soon find out. Instead, the dialogue serves to build character. We’re told everything we need to know in Hiccup’s introductory monologue, and from then on, we can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

The story of Hiccup’s maturation from village punchline to village savior builds naturally from one scene to the next, almost exclusively through montages and training sequences. Throughout the movie, we see the rigging Hiccup has invented to make Toothless sky-worthy get more and more advanced, and Hiccup himself is seen wearing progressively more body armor as time goes on. These simple visual metaphors tell us all we need to know about the character development that is occurring. And at the end, it feels truly believable that a lone, lanky kid is able to defeat a gargantuan queen volcano dragon.

Similarly, the movie itself is a extraordinary triumph over evil. An honest-to-goodness adventure movie that excels on its own merits successfully navigated the fierce gauntlet of Hollywood without being stuffed with unnecessary bullshit, and was huge at the box office. (Its worldwide numbers are currently at about a half a billion.) This should be a wake up call to major animation studios that real movies are still profitable, and hopefully, they’ll consider making them again. (That goes for you too, Pixar.)

4 1/2 out of 5 regurgitated fish heads.

2 thoughts on “How to Make a Kids’ Movie”

  1. Happy February, Smug Film! Alex’s HTTYD review was so excellent/fun to read that it was a sad moment when the essay ended – seriously. It will be a long wait til Monday’s offering for us fans of such engrossing discourses from the Smug Film gang!

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