How to Train Your Dragon 2: When Animated Films No Longer Appear Animated

How to Train Your Dragon 2 has been one of the most anticipated films of the year. The massive sleeper hit that was the original, made out quite well back in 2010 thanks to its brilliant blend of story, animation, and character; setting a new bar for a DreamWorks film and proving that they had the chops to match Pixar if given the chance. Fast forwarding a few years, and after viewing the sequel, I came away with the feeling that although inferior to the original, there was something else that bothered me about How to Train Your Dragon 2.

HTTYD2

This isn’t a review of the film itself (although overall, the script was weaker than the Croods and the brilliant streak of character development from the original is shoved aside in favour of what amounts to a near-fatal dose of action.) Instead, what struck me during the screening and what stayed with me afterwards was the notion that what I had watched could hardly be said to be an animated film.

Ouch!

Fighting words? Perhaps, but hardly unwarranted. The lines between animation, live-action, and VFX have been blurring for years now and have gotten to the point where the average person cannot tell them apart. Films like Life of Pi may indeed have real actors, but are essentially animated. Andy Serkis can crow all he wants about the actor doing the heavy lifting in mo-cap, but it takes two to tango, and it’s the animator that makes the stuff the audience actually sees.

The original HTTYD had a great sense of realism but that came with a dose of mythology courtesy of the dragons. The sequel, in contrast, expounds the realism in spite of the dragons. While undoubtedly a visual feast in more ways than one, the film appears more like a live-action one populated by animated characters.

The influence of the Croods is evident here; lush vegetation, massive landforms and vast landscapes are all present. Yet even on the smaller scale, detail abounds within Berk and the characters themselves (mainly their clothing and props). A great deal of effort has clearly gone into HTTYD2, but at the expense of wonder. The desire to make everything appear as realistic as possible undermines the goal of animation to convey the illusion of life. There is no illusion any longer because it isn’t necessary; real life can be replicated exactly and tweaked, just enough if desired, to appear animated.

That’s right; I’m implying that animated films have advanced to the point where they need be dialled back in order to appear animated rather than live-action. Uncanny valley issues aside, does having characters that are obviously animated enhance or detract from such films? The Dragon sequel isn’t harmed by them, but they do appear out of place amongst their surroundings in a manner not unlike any live-action/CGI hybrid film.

What else can I say? Animation has plateaued as far as realism goes; it’s practically impossible to get any better, any more detailed. Will there be more technological developments? Sure, but they’ll be on the back end; what the audience sees will remain much the same. The hope is that we’ll start to see movement away from the visual spectacle and a return to more character, and plot-driven storylines; delivering films that are more than mere eye candy.

7 Comments on “How to Train Your Dragon 2: When Animated Films No Longer Appear Animated

  1. Now I want to go check out the film even more! Can’t wait to see in action what you’re talking about here. Maybe I’ll get to it this weekend…

  2. It’s partially the fulfillment of a dream to create a fully photorealistic world. I’d say it’s the completion of the illusion of life. Without the veil of technological incapability it’s now possible to create any number of looks. It should be the responsibility of the filmmakers to decide which one works best for them. I think that How to Train your Dragon would look good as a hand drawn film with some deliberate crudeness in the linework. I haven’t seen the second movie yet, so I don’t know if I’ll like it.

    I agree that visuals have trumped storytelling in feature animation. I’ve come to crave good storytelling after reading webcomics and watching tv series with continuing plots. I think that more movies should be made as series intentionally. That’s what they’re doing with the Chinese animated movie series Kuiba and I think that a similar thing could be done elsewhere.

  3. You forgot to add how DreamWorks animated characters here like they have never done before, by using mo-cap actors for “reference” (Ie- tracing and using them anyway), and putting animated heads over them. They retain the expressive faces as cartoons but have the body movements of the mo-cap actors. It’s essentially a cast of advanced theme park mascots. I have yet to see if this film utilized them effectively, but I heard it was excellent, even if I only saw wobbly heads and ever-moving bodies in the clips.

  4. Has the science finally overtaken the art? Trying to be all philosophical. Movies like HTTYD2 ask us to suspend our belief; there really aren’t dragons flying around, and the style of the animation helps with that suspension. However, if the animation comes so close to realistic that it “becomes hard to tell the difference” between what’s real and what isn’t, I feel it detracts from the experience.
    I like know that it’s animated and being able to see the animation.

    • The science already overtook the art. The crew of Finding Nemo had to tone down the realism of the oceans because it seemed too real. It could have stopped there but in order to create the feeling of artistic advancement, studios have amped up the realism slowly and entered the area once deemed too realistic. I don’t want this for all animated films but animation that looks real is fine by me.

      The real worry for me is that it’s now next to impossible to detect forged video without scouring locations for evidence of its authenticity. What’s going to happen when people make fake surveillance footage or religions make fake videos to witness purported miracles? It’s a trifling matter that a film or a video game appears too real. It’s another matter that the only evidence that’s verifiable is a physical object. And 3D printing is likely to make even real objects forgable. What happens then? A technologically induced slip into solipsism?

    • I agree. One of the strengths of animation is the fact that the same reason you have to suspend belief when watching it is the same reason that permits it to portray stories in a way that live-action can’t.

      What has been quite interesting to watch is that audiences have no problem embracing animated films masquerading as VFX spectaculars but simultaneously rejecting any attempt to make an animated film outside of the family comedy straitjacket.

  5. The LEGO Movie and the upcoming Peanuts film point towards the direct you (and I, and most readers) want feature animation to go in.

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