For the longest time, I always felt that Pixar was the greatest animation house on earth. Generally speaking, Pixar was the studio creating animated films that played well for audiences of all ages because of the level of sophistication in the writing, heartfelt storytelling and gorgeous animation that didn't sacrifice artistry and creative storytelling to appear more kid-friendly. I also felt that after the first "Shrek" film, Dreamworks Animation was on a steady decline. They always seemed more interested in more young audience friendly stories that had unique animation, but little else.
That is, until I saw "How to Train Your Dragon". Simply put, this is one of the best films of the year so far, and will be a major contender for next year's Best Animated Film Oscar, a prize which has long eluded Dreamworks Animation.
So what makes "How to Train Your Dragon" so special? For one thing, the animation is breathtaking. There is so much detail in every aspect of the visuals, from the hair to the vikings' clothes, to the scales of the dragons, to the way the environments are rendered. Also, I'm not a huge fan of 3D, and the only live action film I've ever seen using 3D well was "Avatar". But the use of 3D in this film is spectacular. In fact, in terms of animated films' use of 3D, I think it bests Pixar's "Up". Also, the art direction in particular is very gorgeous and unique. There's just so much beauty in the film that the images will linger with you for a long time. There are two flight sequences in particular that were so beautiful I almost forgot it was an animated film.
I would be a fool not to mention John Powell's majestic score. Powell is best known for his work on the "Bourne" trilogy and "Shrek" films, but what he does here is some career best work worthy of Oscar consideration. It is at once as sweet and tender as it is majestic, epic, and soaring. The voice acting is also pretty top notch, with memorable turns from Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, and Craig Ferguson.
But what really stands out about the film is the writing, which is leaps and bounds beyond any other Dreamworks Animation film. There is a surprising amount of heart and thematic depth to the story, and the humor and dialogue is as sharp as any Pixar film. I won't lie, I teared up twice and cried hard once. There is a tenderness to the story that recalls films like "E.T." and other films of that ilk. However, what makes it so special is that it never once looses sight of the story in favor of some kind of heavy handed message. This is a family adventure film, first and foremost, and boy does it work. The film lives or dies on the believability of the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, and not only is it totally believable, but it's one of the sweetest man and beast relationships I've ever seen in a film.
Simply put, "How to Train Your Dragon" is one of the best films of the year and a strong contender for Oscar consideration in several categories, especially in the Best Animated Film and Original Score. In fact, I may go so far as to say that this is finally going to be Dreamworks Animation's year to take home the gold, as "Toy Story 3" is looking weaker than Pixar's recent output like "WALL-E" and "Up" and more like "Cars". If this film does take home the gold, I would be ecstatic. It's just that good. From breathtaking animation to a heartfelt and magical story of love and understanding, "How to Train Your Dragon" not only rises to the occasion, but at the risk being cliche, it soars.