Oh how Pixar has spoiled us. After a decade and a half of the studio releasing one classic after another from 1995’s Toy Story to last year’s Up! we’ve grown accustomed to animated films both visually stunning and emotionally captivating. And when another studio’s animated offering however solidly-crafted falls short of these impossibly high expectations it’s inevitably damned with the faint praise of “It’s not Pixar but...” Such is the plight of Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon a movie only superior to say 65% of live-action films as opposed to 99% of them.
Based on the children’s novel by Cressida Cowell How to Train Your Dragon is set on the mythical island of Berk home to a tribe of macho stubborn Vikings who refuse to relocate despite near-constant attacks from fire-breathing dragons. The most macho and stubborn of the tribe is the their chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) a brave and burly ginger beast whose teenage son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) inherited virtually none of his father’s traits. Scrawny self-effacing and intellectually curious — making him pretty much the anti-Viking — he’s a constant source of shame to his mighty father.
Eager to win his dad’s approval — and by extension the respect of his tribe — he enrolls in Dragon Training where young Vikings learn to slay the winged demons that prey upon Berk. But Hiccup is ultimately a pacifist at heart and when he manages to wound a highly-prized Night Fury dragon he can’t bring himself to finish off the injured creature choosing instead to nurse it back to health. He names the creature Toothless develops a tight bond with it and evolves into a sort of Jane Goodall of dragons learning how to subdue and eventually domesticate them.
As 3D-animated experiences go How to Train Your Dragon ranks among the best of them surpassing recent entries like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and even Pixar’s last Oscar-winning release in its exploitation of the burgeoning format. An airborne sequence in which Hiccup pilots Toothless on their first test run together is truly exhilarating as is the film’s chaotic opening battle sequence between the Vikings and their dragon nemeses. But its story lacks the same energy its humor the same punch and its pace too often drags — a fatal flaw for a movie tasked with occupying the minds of fidgety pre-teens for 98 minutes.
Oh and don’t bother trying to figure out why all the child Vikings in How to Train Your Dragon have American accents while the adults have Scottish ones. Remember this is the same studio that gave us Shrek featuring another inexplicable Scottish brogue. The artists at Dreamworks just have a weird Scot fetish.
Probably one of the most improbable storylines ever even by kiddie film standards Good Boy! is the story of a 12-year-old boy named Owen (Liam Aiken) who wants his own pet desperately and is thrilled to adopt a scraggly little stray dog he names Hubble. Aptly it seems--what Owen soon discovers is that Hubble whose actual name is canine 3942 isn't from the pound; he's from the Dog Star Sirius. Turns out he's been sent to Earth to make sure dogs have fulfilled their original thousand-year-old mission: To colonize and dominate the planet. But somewhere along the line dogs went from being super-intelligent creatures with interplanetary travel capabilities to being an overpopulated breed of household pet devoted to man. The ruler of Sirius the Greater Dane is so shocked by what has happened that she has sworn to recall all Earth dogs back to their home world. Hubble accidentally bestows upon Owen the ability to understand and communicate with dogs which turns out to be a good thing because the boy joins Hubble in the struggle to keep dogs on Earth and live happily ever after with their human masters.
The human star of Good Boy! is Aiken who has starred in several feature films including Road to Perdition and Sweet November. Aiken has an endearing presence on screen and his character Owen is a pretty good match for the young actor. The script however calls for Owen to be more naïve than he should be; he's a bright kid who buys into the notion that dogs talk and come from outer space too easily. But the most refreshing thing is that he's actually a 12-year-old playing a 12-year-old. Saturday Night Live alums Kevin Nealon and Molly Shannon play Owen's doting parents who are too much like comic caricatures to care about. More impressive than them is the roster for the dog voices which include Matthew Broderick as Hubble and Delta Burke Donald Faison Carl Reiner and Brittany Murphy voicing the pack of neighborhood dogs. Following the predictable stereotypes Burke voices the snooty poodle Faison voices the boxer Reiner voices the big Burmese mountain dog and Murphy voices the skinny Italian greyhound.
First-time director John Hoffman's Good Boy! is a cutesy children's movie that has been dumbed down to a five-year-old level which doesn't make sense considering it has been given a PG rating for some mild crude humor. Hoffman along with author Zeke Richardson adapted Richardson's story Dogs From Outer Space and although there are a few poignant moments in the film it's mostly a lot of fluff. If you suspend your disbelief for 88 minutes and accept the yarn about dogs being so far superior to man (after all they did travel to distant planets a thousand years ago) it's difficult to understand why Hubble would want to stay on Earth. Hoffman would like moviegoers to believe it's because of the undying affection they get from humans but at the same time he is reminding us that dogs have subsequently been conscripted into the service of man. Producers Lisa Henson and Kristine Belson however did a wonderful job with the dogs and were wise enough to use real animals instead of animatronic puppets. The dogs seem pretty natural in their actions and you never get the sense that a trainer was lurking behind the cameras holding a biscuit and giving orders to roll over or play dead. And fortunately post-production was used to make the dogs appear to be talking instead of having them eating something to mimic talking lips.