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'How to Train Your Dragon' and a baptism of fire

Filmmakers Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders faced a tough deadline when they were brought in to rework the animated film.

March 14, 2010|By John Horn
  • "Chris said, 'What are you doing right now?' I bought a plane ticket. And we started that week," says Dean DeBlois, right, of co-director SandersÂ’ call.
"Chris said, 'What are you doing right now?' I bought a… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

Animated movies can take forever to make -- three or four years is well within the ordinary. “How to Train Your Dragon,” which tells the story of a scrawny kid destined to prove his hecklers wrong through an unusual relationship with a dragon, moved at a radically different pace: the two filmmakers behind March 26's 3-D adventure had just 12 months to make their film, inheriting a project needing a top-to-bottom overhaul.

Pressed for time, writer-directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (the team behind 2002's "Lilo & Stitch") tried to avoid some of the pitfalls -- such as polishing a joke to within an inch of its life -- that an unhurried production schedule often engenders. "It's a model that allows for too much indecision," DeBlois says of the often endless stops and starts that are part of the time- table for most animated movies. "You can get into a situation where the only thing that 30 people in a room can agree on is a cliché."

While reviewers have yet to weigh in on the artistic merits of the DreamWorks Animation production, "How to Train Your Dragon" feels unlike some of the studio's previous animated movies, particularly a few of its star-driven movies ( Jerry Seinfeld's "Bee Movie," Will Smith's "Shark Tale," Brad Pitt's "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas") that were critically battered for having more concept and celebrity than originality and heart. "How to Train Your Dragon," in other words, plays like a director's movie, not a committee's.

"Chris and Dean," says Bill Damaschke, co-president of production for DreamWorks animation, "are part of an overall shift in what we're trying to do."

Loosely based on Cressida Cowell's children's book, the approximately $165-million "Dragon" is the first release in a potentially landmark year for the animation studio, which will introduce two other features before 2010 is over: May 21's “Shrek Forever After” and Nov. 5's "Megamind." It's the first time Jeffrey Katzenberg's studio has released three movies in a year (having only one film, "Monsters vs. Aliens," in 2009), as DreamWorks increases its output to five movies every two years.

Extensive story and character renovations and director replacements are scarcely unique to animated movies at DreamWorks. Brad Bird was not the original director of Pixar's "Ratatouille" (he took over from Jan Pinkava), John Lasseter replaced Ash Brannon on Pixar's "Toy Story 2," Glen Keane left Disney's upcoming "Tangled" and was replaced by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, and Sanders was the original director of Disney's "American Dog," the movie that became Howard and Chris Williams' " Bolt."

But rarely has the clock been ticking as fast as it was on "How to Train Your Dragon."

Walt Disney's creative vision was that there is a child inside everyone no matter his or her age. Particularly in its modern classic animated titles, the studio he founded packed films with youthful protagonists: Simba in "The Lion King," Ariel in "The Little Mermaid," Jasmine in "Aladdin" to name but a few. Under Katzenberg, the 16-year-old DreamWorks (whose animation division went public in 2004) turned Disney's notion on its head, populating its animated movies with adults (Shrek being the prime example) who might appeal to children.

Cowell's novel about Vikings and their complicated relationship with dragons, however, is filled with pre-pubescent kids, a perfect book for second-graders. In the studio's efforts to remain true to her reluctant hero story, original director Peter Hastings (who made "The Country Bears" and has TV credits on "Pinky and the Brain" and "Animaniacs") assembled a movie that in DreamWorks' view played more to the "SpongeBob SquarePants" crowd than followers of " Harry Potter."

In an era when more and more families attend sometimes intense movies together -- "Avatar," " Spider-Man" -- the initial version of "How to Train Your Dragon" felt too young to the studio: the kind of movie for which parents drop off their kids but do not attend themselves.

"It was a little small and personal story, and I think that's the way Cressida wrote it," says Bonnie Arnold ( "Toy Story," "Over the Hedge"), the film's producer. As the studio saw it, that faithfulness became a perceived liability: If "Dragon" didn't have older characters and more ambitious action scenes, its audience would become limited and it would suffer at the box office. "It was not a universal story that everyone would love," Damaschke says.

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