Versus: Toy Story 3 vs. How to Train Your Dragon

By Josh Spiegel and David Mumpower

November 11, 2010

How David imagines himself and his cat.

Toy Story 3

There’s a great moment in The Incredibles, the Pixar superhero film from 2004, in which the main character, Bob Parr, has a heated argument with his wife and fellow superhero, Helen, that he doesn’t understand the point of an elementary school having a graduation ceremony. He hits his point (and the point the film’s writer/director, Brad Bird, is trying to make) when he says, “They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity.” I don’t mean to implicitly call How To Train Your Dragon mediocre; it’s not. However, I do feel like this quote is applicable to the nearly unanimous critical praise for the film. Is How To Train Your Dragon a good movie? Sure. Is it as great as some critics have said? No. Is it as good as or better than Toy Story 3? Don’t make me laugh.

First, I feel like some people have gone out of their way to throw metaphorical flowers in this movie’s path because it’s from DreamWorks Animation, a studio not typically known for churning out quality films. This year alone has been mixed, as they jump from Dragon to the fourth Shrek film to Megamind. But Dragon, unlike most DreamWorks movies, has no huge celebrity voices, no pop culture humor, and an actual story. What does this make How to Train Your Dragon? A movie, not a grab bag of references. I’ll also say that How to Train Your Dragon does an excellent job with utilizing the 3-D format; the flying scenes are genuinely breathtaking, partly because you kind of feel like you’re flying. Toy Story 3 doesn’t really go crazy with 3-D effects, but its heightened depth is not as notable or flashy, so I’ll give this to Dragon.

Where the two films diverge is in the characters and emotions. Toy Story 3, granted, has the advantage of familiarity. While How to Train Your Dragon is based on a series of books for children, Toy Story 3 is the third film in one of the most successful and popular franchises ever. Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Rex, Mr. Potato Head, and Jessie are almost automatically iconic simply for being Disney characters. However, How to Train Your Dragon tells a story that’s so rote and basic that its most notable qualities are the aforementioned 3D animation and its relationship between a pet and its master. I’m not blind to the latter quality; I’ve got three cats, and recently lost one to a long illness. At the very least, having just rewatched both films, I should be more emotional with How to Train Your Dragon.

For one reason or another, I felt no true suspense or danger when watching How to Train Your Dragon either time. Even the first time through, I never thought that Toothless or Hiccup would get seriously hurt; that meant I was surprised that Hiccup lost a leg, but I never thought either was in mortal danger. In the climactic sequence set inside a landfill incinerator in Toy Story 3, though, I was genuinely freaked out. I rationally knew that the filmmakers wouldn’t be dumb enough to kill one of the toys…but then, Bo Peep had vanished between films, given away at a garage sale. So, when Rex took the first tumble towards the pit of fire, I let out a gasp. “They’re going to kill Rex? They can’t do that!” This was my thought process; Pixar had reverted me to a childlike state of terror.

Of course, all ends up very well, as you know. Though I won’t lie that there are solid moments in How to Train Your Dragon, and that it’s DreamWorks’ best animated film (again, not really very high praise), I found too many flaws, from the nitpicky (why did Hiccup and the other kids have American accents when the adults had Scottish ones?) to the more general (the main drama between Hiccup and the other human characters was a mishmash of, most recently, Ratatouille and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs). Telling a story that’s not wholly original isn’t a sin, but if it’s not told well or uniquely, it fails. I was comparing Dragon to Ratatouille and Cloudy in the theater, which is a bad sign.

I’m glad that How to Train Your Dragon exists; it proves that DreamWorks Animation employs at least a few people who know that success doesn’t happen when you sprinkle idiotic jokes about whatever was a hip reference two years ago, but by telling a story. When I saw Kung Fu Panda, another DreamWorks animated feature that garnered inappropriately positive praise, I thought that the animation would’ve been impressive in 1995 and the story was impressive circa 1990. How to Train Your Dragon has very impressive animation, but the story’s still stuck in the 1990s. Toy Story 3 closes out the trilogy by presenting a lead character whose devotion to what amounts to his master is not only slavish, but sometimes meant to be insane.

That an animated film would go this far - and then push everyone towards that scene in the landfill - proves that Pixar still wins the battle of the movies by going as far to the brink as possible, taking every audience member to the edge of what’s considered normal for mainstream animation. Woody and Buzz are always going to be memorable Disney icons, but in the Toy Story films, even the last one, what the filmmakers at Pixar make them are fully formed, three-dimensional characters as relatable as we are. (Josh Spiegel/BOP)
How to Train Your Dragon

The debate today is simple. I am of the opinion that the best animated film of the year is not a Pixar release. Instead, a relatively unheralded DreamWorks Animation title, the animation house’s worst opening since 2007, won me over just as much as it did all of the North American consumers who turned a $43.7 million North American debut into a $217.6 million final tally. It bears noting that this result surpasses the final takes of the previous three films that all opened well ahead of How to Train Your Dragon in the $60 million range. Those films, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa and Monsters vs. Aliens, all had higher expectations at the start, which is why they opened stronger. What they lacked was the holdover appeal that identifies someone as a satisfied customer of the movie industry. Both of the films we discuss today, Toy Story 3 and this, demonstrate the sort of old school movie legs that the industry has witnessed all but vanish in the 2000s. Clearly, we are arguing between a pair of films that most people consider so wonderful that they have run out and told all of their friends to watch them.

Given that both titles are hallmark achievements in terms of box office and particularly word-of-mouth, picking between the two is an argument of opinion. At no point during this conversation will I diminish Toy Story 3 for being anything other than an exceptional film, another triumph from the best movie makers in the world, Pixar. Instead, I want to state in straightforward terms why this title did not move me the same way that How to Train Your Dragon did and I want the reader to understand as I do that there is a solid chance both films wind up on my top ten list for 2010. I think they’re both films that will stand the test of time. I just happen to vastly prefer one to the other.

Why is Toy Story 3 not my favored film? For me, the problem is simple. We complain about sequels being difficult to enjoy as much as the original because the reality is that there is a clean slate whenever a new movie is created. Sequels are tethered to something; they have a prior history for the characters that has been established. Viewers grow angry when the characters they have grown to love behave in a manner they deem inconsistent. Pixar is three films into the Toy Story saga and they have cleared that hurdle each time, which is a hallmark achievement in movie production. The problem is that stories also need to avoid repetition. This is the area with which Toy Story 3 struggles.

I was one of the many people who watched the 3D theatrical re-release of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 last year. During this screening, I connected the dots in every way about how Toy Story 2 prepares for Toy Story 3. No, they don’t say that Ken is going to do a fashion gala in the middle of the movie, but it’s readily apparent that Andy will go away to college, that their current life cannot stay the same. Toy Story 3 will be how the toys adapt to deal with these changes. And it is. The problem is that much of it is predictable. The jokes all work, of course, because Pixar has mastered that measured style of humor wherein they combine humor with plot development. It is, however, too-familiar territory by now.

The place where Toy Story 3 particularly loses me is toward the end of the film. Prior to the touching ending that is a worthy (temporary) send-off to the characters we love, there is a showdown between good guys and bad guys at a garbage dump. And then there is a showdown between the good guys and the bad guy at a garbage dump. This sort of repetition is shocking to me in that the scenes happen back to back, almost as if they intended to be one extended sequence. For me, the end result is that there is a superfluous ten minutes right there at the end of the film, whether that be the first or the last one.

I simply do not need both and their existence in short succession takes me out of the film as well as bores me, words I don’t often use to describe any portion of a Pixar movie. While the ending is so tender as to make me overlook this in evaluating the entirety of the movie, it’s something I’m certain will cause me to fast forward some when I watch Toy Story 3 on TiVo. The imperfection will linger, impeding upon my overall enjoyment.

How to Train Your Dragon works better for me because the film resounds on an emotional level. The makers of this movie have clearly studied the behavior of pets, particularly cats and dogs. As a pet owner for almost all of my life, I am a huge animal lover. What takes my breath away about this particular work of fiction is this. In a fantasy world wherein dragons exist, the star of the show, Toothless, looks and acts just like a couple of my cats. He has the physical appearance of a cat sitting in my lap as I type this yet he has the mannerisms of a cat that was with me for 17 years. The moment at the end of the film where Hiccup awakens to discover Toothless starting at him with anticipation is the way I’ve awakened most of my adult life. Scenes like that forcibly remind me why I fell in love with movies (and my pets) in the first place. They take moments from real life and make them magical and otherworldly.

The particular moment where my love for How to Train Your Dragon is crystallized occurs seconds later when we realize that Hiccup did not make it through the battle unscathed. A touching choice is made to show the vulnerability of people in combat, a brave decision that we rarely see in non-animated movies, much less one that is ostensibly written for children. Rather than come across as manipulative, however, Hiccup’s new limitation gives him a further unification with his dragon. The two of them fit together symbiotically already but now both of their lingering disabilities entitle them with a direct physical connection. They are permanently linked. The beauty of that bond is the height of 2010 cinema to date in my estimation.

We here at BOP are well-chronicled supporters of The Iron Giant, a film by one of Pixar’s finest artists, Brad Bird. How to Train Your Dragon takes a similar premise but tells it in a much different manner in a totally unique setting. The end result is the same, though. We grow to care about a boy and his dragon just as we did in the '90s for a boy and his giant. This film impacts me on an emotional level in a way that few ever do. It’s an instant masterpiece and one that pet owners across the world should find relatable and wonderful. It treads new ground in a way that the third film in a well established franchise such as Toy Story never could. The limitations of sequel storytelling prevent Toy Story 3 from achieving the heights of the wondrous new tale that is How to Train Your Dragon. (David Mumpower/BOP)

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