Sunday, June 7, 2015

Birthday Take: Dean DeBlois in "How to Train Your Dragon" (2010)

Scene from How to Train Your Dragon
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Dean DeBlois
Born: June 7, 1970 (45 years old)
Nomination: Best Animated Feature - How to Train Your Dragon (nominated)

The Take

What is it that we want from animated films? Do we solely want entertainment, or is there a desire for more emotional depth and complexity? These are the questions that one likely is asking the further away from childhood that they get, provided that you're still interested in the limitless possibilities of what the medium can bring. For some, it is still the medium for kids where slapstick and anthropomorphic figures is all that is necessary. However, thanks to Pixar, that notion has evolved with the 00's being arguably the most revolutionary period for the genre with the company producing almost a perfect record of universal films. Meanwhile, Dreamworks was making Shrek and Kung Fu Panda films. Not that those are bad, but how were they supposed to compete?

Enter Dean DeBlois and the idea of adapting a story based around dragons. While there's plenty of debate on if Pixar or Dreamworks is better, there's one thing to be sure. How to Train Your Dragon is the turning point for the company that finally raised the conversation beyond pop culture references and very silly jokes. Yes, the dragon models did occasionally play into goofy structures and there were enough kiddie jokes to keep everyone entertained. However, what became immediately present in DeBlois' final production is that he wanted to make a legitimately great CG animated film that looked as beautiful as the medium could provide. While he would continue to push boundaries with the sequel, it started off with one of the best animated films of the decade going up against Pixar's arguable best animated film of the decade with Toy Story 3. Who would win?

If you are at all familiar with DeBlois' track record, you'll see that the character arcs are almost the same as his previous efforts Mulan and Lilo & Stitch. The film follows an outcast who must find their identity in an unaccepting world. Yet the magic is that he has made them very different on each outing, whether it be fighting Huns, playing Elvis records, or in this case riding dragons. He is one of the few filmmakers who thrive in the animated world and create something more than entertainment. There's art to it and the story of outcasts succeeding is enough to work. However, with a strong animation pallet, this is a journey into a world that films by Disney would never allow. Every detail is so clear that it makes you feel immersed in a cartoon.

Most of all, it feels more mature than an average film by Dreamworks prior. Over the course of the film, there's some large themes explored from familial relations to bullying to general acceptance. The film seeks not to teach people to be nicer, but show them learning to be tolerant of those different from you. They just happen to have a lot of cute dragons that counterbalance the darker subject matters. Also, there's breathtaking animation and the final half of the film is an exhilarating ride through what animation could be as of 2010. Where films often feel like they cut corners to make their work more accessible, it feels great to see a film put effort into background detail. Even if you're not into Medieval subject matter, it would be difficult not to appreciate the craft that went into establishing Dreamworks as a legitimate competition against Pixar and not just the comedic, lowbrow alternative.

With the sequel, the world was only expanded and made more beautiful. I don't claim to be an expert on the animation genre, but I know that on American landscapes, it is tough to find much art in the CG boom that has taken over entertainment. There have been great films, but there's also a sense of laziness that comes with the territory. Very few films embrace the depth, sticking with familiar and dull character models. There isn't anything interesting in what they're doing. At least with DeBlois' two dragon films, there's a newer sense of passion and dedication to making something stronger than just entertainment. He wants to make mainstream art akin to what Pixar could do if they weren't sometimes a self-aware franchise maker. Either way, 2010 marked a turning point that we didn't know at that point. It was Toy Story 3 vs. How to Train Your Dragon. Both were peaks for their studio, but which one has thrived since? That is the subjective part of this equation.

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