Disney’s loss has clearly been DreamWorks Animation’s huge gain. Chris Sanders hit the animation scene in 2002 with Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, the first time in a long time Disney’s hand drawn animation division had produced a financial and critical success. Sanders suddenly became Disney’s darling director and he set about writing and directing his next project, American Dog. However, Disney apparently became unhappy with the development of American Dog and it unceremoniously fired Sanders from the project (the film eventually came out in 2008 as Bolt, which was not a bad film, but you have to wonder how much better it may have been had Sanders been left alone to make his own film). Newly jobless, Sanders got picked up by DreamWorks Animation and got put on How to Train Your Dragon. Many of you who read this blog know I used to work for DreamWorks Animation. However, despite my past association with the studio, I’m not afraid to admit that, despite its financial success, many of its films are not very good. I still watch all of their films mostly to support my friends who work on them, but I never walk into a DW animated film with the expectation that I’m actually going to enjoy what I’m seeing. So with all this said, I am DELIGHTED to announce that not only is How to Train Your Dragon the BEST animated film DreamWorks has yet to put out, it even surpasses many if not most of Pixar’s titles. I absolutely LOVED this movie and I have not been this excited about a movie since I saw Avatar (coincidentally, both films have a lot of plot similarities).

How to Train Your Dragon takes place in a Viking village thats plagued by invading dragons who steal the villagers’ sheep. The story centers on a boy who is the son of the village’s head chief. He yearns to be a great dragon killing viking like his father and the other men in the village, but his scrawniness prevents him from being one. On one particular night, however, when the dragons launch another attack against the villagers, the boy manages through sheer luck to hit the most difficult and mysterious type of dragon there is. The next day he goes about searching for the dragon he fell. However, upon finding it, he cannot bring himself to kill it. Instead, he and the dragon develop a friendship, which becomes a problem for the boy as he’s finally admitted to training on how to kill dragons.

Are there significant story similarities to Avatar? Yes. Should that matter? No. Why? Because the story still works. Its your classic character journey, which is a narrative theme that rarely fails to not work in a film. The main character of the boy is interesting, funny (and phenomenally well-animated), and you give a shit about his conflict. More importantly, you absolutely buy into the relationship between the boy and the dragon. The scene where they become acquainted with each other is very moving and so fucking effective in establishing chemistry between them. This movie could have easily turned schmaltzy and overbearing. Although the emotions and conflicts are not subtle, they work and they work very well. I knew the kids in the theater were eating this all up because for the duration of the movie, the kids were practically silent throughout. How many animated films have you been to where children shut the fuck up and behave?

There have been some criticisms that How to Train Your Dragon also bears a striking resemblance to Avatar in the dragon flying sequences. I think any intentional copying from Avatar is purely speculative and unfounded. Could the DW filmmakers have seen the dragon sequences in Avatar and been inspired enough to put them into How to Train Your Dragon? Absolutely and there is nothing wrong with that. People fail to realize that the film community is pretty small and everyone, for the most part, knows what everyone else is doing. Its impossible to not be influenced by work someone else is doing. For my part, I was blown away by all the dragon-flying scenes and it didn’t bother me one bit that they could have been lifted from Avatar.

I would also like to point out that this may be the first DW Animated film that thankfully contains no pop culture references or jokes. The film for once relies on telling a good story without resorting to the usual crutch of pop cultural references. This is a problem that most DW films suffer from and, consequently, they don’t age very well, especially when compared to the Pixar films. How to Train Your Dragon seems to have HOPEFULLY turned a new leaf for the studio by focusing strictly on the narrative. It shows to me that the filmmakers had enough faith in the material that they didn’t have to litter it with end-to-end jokes.

Finally, this is a gorgeous looking movie. The style of animation and artwork differs from what we’ve seen in the past from DW’s animated films and this is a welcome change. I felt that last year’s Monsters vs. Aliens took a step backward with the quality of its art and I suspect the cause of it may have been a rushed production schedule. I know many of the extremely talented individuals who work at the studio so it was hard for me to believe that Monsters vs. Aliens represented their best efforts. Happily, How to Train Your Dragon has restored my faith in the quality of art and animation the studio puts out. I appreciated the filmmakers’ decision to not give us a photorealistic look, which would have taken away from the story’s fantastical elements.

How to Train Your Dragon gets my highest recommendation and I cannot convince you enough to go see it this weekend (especially given the fact that the other high-profile fantasy film coming out this weekend is the badly-buzzed about Clash of the Titans). Its a film that your kids will actually sit through in a theater and enjoy as well as something that adults will get into.