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Tim's Toons: How to animate your dragon

Tim here. This weekend sees the release of How to Train Your Dragon 2, the first of just two major animated features coming out this summer (and having to imply that Planes 2: The Plane Fight Fire Now is a “major” film tastes like ash in my mouth). More importantly, it’s the sequel to a four-year-old film that’s broadly regarded as the best movie DreamWorks Animation has ever made. And there have been many appreciations advanced through the years as to why How to Train Your Dragon is so good – a comic tone that never trumps the basic sincerity of the story, John Powell’s gorgeous, Celtic-tinged score, the first actual decent animation of normal humans in the studio’s history – I can tell you pretty easily why it’s my own personal favorite: it’s the best movie about cats ever made.

Okay, that’s a stretch. But the film’s main dragon, Toothless, is about as great a cat-analogue as the movies have made, and it’s not an accident. There’s a gif that’s been going around forever, so I’m sure plenty of you have seen it by now, that compares footage from the sequel with footage recorded by one of the animators of his cat with duct tape on the tail. For “reference”, which is the code word professional animators use when they torture animals for their job.

But I’m already drifting a little bit from my point (a bit of drifting is worth it for that gif), which is that of the many reasons the HTTYD franchise is artistically the best thing DreamWorks has going for it, Toothless being one of the most charmingly designed and well animated characters in any big budget animated film of the 2010s is near the top. It’s his eyes, that’s what does it; we’re hard-coded to find anything with big eyes to be just the damn cutest, and Toothless’s are as wide and interested and alert as they come.

Broadly, Toothless borrows from the design of Stitch, the alien creature introduced in Disney’s 2002 Lilo & Stitch, which was not coincidentally directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, the same team who found a happier home at DreamWorks when they made the first HTTYD (DeBlois has stayed on for the sequel, while Sanders has jumped ship to make The Croods and its own sequel for the studio). What worked there worked here: big, ovoid eyes; floppy ears, a giant mouth that’s perfect for being, messy grins, and body language based somewhat on everyday animals. Dogs in Stitch’s case and, yes, the common housecat here. Specifically, in the first movie, the cat owned by the character’s supervising animator Gabe Hordos (who isn’t working on the sequel).

Linking the movements, shape, and personality of an animated creature so specifically to a real-life animal that wouldn’t be the first thing you’d necessarily think of when the word “dragon” comes to mind paid of terrifically. When Toothless moves, it’s with the thoughtfulness and smoothness of nature, stretching, looking, twisting in ways that communicate his thoughts swiftly and elegantly; and anyone who has ever tried to interact with a cat can recognize the exact meaning of all those individual gestures.

It’s a beautiful piece of animation, but beyond the technical elements, this is just plain good storytelling: making us fall in love on the spot with the adorable, but not too cute to seem implausibly cartoony dragon. And once that’s all done, the rest of the film can do what it will: we’re either 100% on board with the characters or we’re probably not ever going to be. Luckily, like all cute animals, Toothless is easy as hell to love, even if he’s just a bunch of 1s and 0s all in a line.

It’s for that reason, more than anything to do with its world-expanding story or character arc, that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is worth getting excited over: it’s another chance to spend time with this remarkably well-made, personality-filled little creature. DreamWorks can run the franchise into the ground as hard as they want: as long as the spectacular physical performance of Toothless is still part of the production, they can’t make a story shabby enough to make it an entirely bad experience. The fact that the films are, so far, pretty great otherwise is really just icing on the cake.

P.S. Like I said, the Stitch/Toothless relationship is obvious even if you’re not looking for it; it’s also the inspiration behind one of the goddamn cutest pieces of fanart I’ve ever seen, by deviantART user TsaoShin. Voila:

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Reader Comments (8)

I love the second movie but i will say that i was disappointed in its lack of catness. they seem to be trying to spin dogs into the dragons too and i'm like NO, THEY ARE MAGICAL SCALY CATS!

June 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

OMG, that FanArt!
I think I just died of cuteness overload....

June 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

I have always had a thing for dragons, so I was sold on the first one before I even saw it. Toothless was my pick, when pressed, for favorite dragon in the first one, and it probably is because he's the most cat-like of them all (and I have always been more of a cat person than a dog person), but ALL the dragons are terrifically designed and animated. I am so freaking excited about the second one. Heck, I've even watched the silly little kids TV show they made out of the movie. Just because the dragons are so freakin' cute/awesome.

Also, Stitch is my FAVORITE. That fan art is TO DIE FOR.

June 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Here's one of the many problems with 'How To Train Your Dragon 2', in the original film, everything that Toothless did felt entirely natural. But in the "sequel", you can tell that the animators were deliberately trying to make him as cute as possible. It doesn't come off as natural or subtle anymore, just forced. And it's one of the many reasons why 'How To Train Your Dragon 2' may very well be the worst film ever made.

June 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterConMan

Nathaniel - now hold up there. One of the reasons I liked Toothless so much in the first one is that he managed to remind me both my favorite dog AND cat!

June 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

ConMan: Really? Not "I did naht hit her, it's not true, it's bulls***! I did not hit her. I did naaaht" or "While you were learning how to SPELL YOUR NAME, I...was being trained...to conquer galaxies" or "They're eating her! And then they're going to eat me! Oh my Goooooooooooooooooooooosh!" A bit of forced cuteness in a Dreamworks film is all it takes?

June 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

ConMan, girl, take it easy.

June 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSanty C.

I have a black cat, and when I saw the first movie home on DVD, I was squeaking all the time "look, just like you!" to my cat. It is so so cute.
And this fan art kills me.

June 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterIvonne

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