|(Photo source: Berk's Grapevine)|
I'm a fan of animated comedy shows made for adults like Rick and Morty, The Venture Bros. and most of the first three seasons of The Boondocks. They're examples of shows that are taking animation back for us adults (American animation started out as being originally for grown-ups; an example of its adult-oriented roots was the Fleischer Brothers' Betty Boop franchise, which began as a risqué series of shorts and then thanks to the Hays Code, turned into a family-friendly and bland-as-shit one). I hate using the word "cartoon" to describe Rick and Morty and The Venture Bros., so I don't do so anymore. "Cartoon" connotes childishness, and the writing on Rick and Morty and The Venture Bros. is far from childish. I'm not so much a fan of animated shows for kids, so I spent about a year of writing reviews of kids' animation as a writing exercise to see if my patience would wear thin. It eventually did wear thin, but I did discover a few decent kids' shows along the way, like Dragons, the TV version of DreamWorks Animation's best feature film to date, the original How to Train Your Dragon.
Because How to Train Your Dragon 2 opens this week, the "Show of the Week" is the most celebrated episode of Dragons, which will move from Cartoon Network to Netflix for its third season in 2015. The episode, which I wrote about in 2012, went on to win two Annie Awards, one of which was for score music composed by John Paesano, who took over for How to Train Your Dragon composer John Powell.
Most family films put me to sleep, but How to Train Your Dragon didn't because it was so imaginatively directed and well-written, even during the "inflexible father learns to better understand his progressively minded son or daughter" trope that's present in so many family films. I'm a cold fish, so I don't get emotional during movies, but there's a quietly powerful moment involving that trope in How to Train Your Dragon that comes close to making me verklempt whenever I think back to it.
It takes place after Stoick the island chief lashes out at Hiccup because of his alliance with dragons and tells him he no longer considers him his son. Stoick walks away from Hiccup and has a moment to himself where, with just a pained and remorseful sigh from Gerard Butler and expressive facial animation by directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, we see how much it hurts Stoick to have said such dismissive words to his son. We've all experienced that shameful moment where we regretted saying or doing something so vicious and awful to a family member in the heat of an argument, and How to Train Your Dragon captured that pain so well without dialogue.
Except for a majestic flight sequence where Stoick is moved by his first aerial view of Berk, Dragons: Riders of Berk's lighthearted "How to Pick Your Dragon" episode doesn't contain a moment that's as dramatic as that non-verbal scene in the film where Stoick's hard-ass and macho authority figure demeanor briefly disappears, but it revisits in an equally effective manner Hiccup's difficulties in getting Stoick, who's so attached to "the Viking way," to better understand both him and "the dragon way." Hiccup is finally able to persuade Stoick that the dragon way simplifies and quickens arduous tasks and is relieved that his dad is now eager to take up dragon riding. However, he's not so pleased with Stoick using his dragon Toothless to practice his dragon riding, partly because carrying such a Chris Christie-sized Viking on his back for so long exhausts the undersized Night Fury (at one point, Toothless is so tired of dealing with Stoick that he hides away from him).
There's some great subdued character animation by "How to Pick Your Dragon" director Louie del Carmen during Toothless' scenes. Because Toothless' character design was based largely on cats, he's as emotionless as a feline, so del Carmen's ability to convey exasperated body language on a non-verbal and not-so-facially-expressive dragon is remarkable. He accomplishes it mostly through the animation of Toothless' eyes, which is fitting because as Hiccup attempts to point out to Stoick in this episode, eyes are one of the few tools in which humans and dragons can communicate with each other (is it me or does Hiccup sound like the world's first dating coach?).
"It's a father's job to listen to his son without ever letting on that he's heard a word," explains Gobber to Hiccup, who's frustrated by his dad's stubbornness, especially after Stoick prefers to train his new dragon Thornado through Viking-style physical intimidation instead of the eye contact, patience and gentleness that Hiccup's trying to teach him. At the end of the episode, Stoick defies what Gobber says about fatherly communication when he does let on that he's absorbed his son's lessons. But in keeping with the refreshing economy of words and emotion in How to Train Your Dragon and now on Dragons, which are both basically about the challenges of limited communication, whether it's between human and animal or human and macho Viking dad, Stoick simply admits to Hiccup, "I listen."