Oscar Moment: “How to Train Your Dragon”

7 04 2010

Yesterday, “How to Train Your Dragon” passed $100 million at the box office, a reliable milestone signifying success finding an audience.  Naturally, I think this calls for an Oscar Moment discussing its chances in the Best Animated Feature.

Being a crowd favorite is something that helps when it comes to the Best Animated Feature category.  6 out of the 9 winners were the highest grossers in the field, and two of the others were $200 million grossers (the odd man out is “Spirited Away” which made only $10 million).  Although it’s unlikely to reach the bucks of a Pixar flick, “How to Train Your Dragon” still has the bucks to gain serious consideration in the category.

But can it topple a Pixar movie in the category that they practically own?

Based on the reviews, we know the critics aren’t against it.  The 98% critical approval rating of “How to Train Your Dragon” is equivalent to last year’s winner “Up” and bests all other winners.  Being well-reviewed is essential to win Best Animated Feature, which has scored an average of four percentage points higher than Best Picture winners since the category’s inception.  (The average would be a 96% – up seven percentage points – if you omit 2006, which really didn’t offer any good animated movies.)

The circumstances beyond the movie’s control will either kill it or give a giant boost.  Much depends on Pixar’s “Toy Story 3,” which is the obvious favorite to win and will open with massive expectations.  I see two scenarios working out: either “Toy Story 3” is a massive success and it takes the category like most are predicting, OR the tiniest thing is wrong and the movie is considered a disappointment.  Knowing Pixar, it’s best not to bet against the first scenario, but the latter is a definite possibility.  If Pixar doesn’t topple its own standards, voters might feel reluctant to give the studio another trophy.  Denying it to them would send a message that the lamp logo before a movie doesn’t ensure Oscar victory, and the beneficiary could very well be “How to Train Your Dragon.”

But as for other factors, the movie also has to contend with another DreamWorks Animation release in November, “Megamind.”  I’m not predicting this to be a critical hit just based on the fact that it stars Will Ferrell, but I could be wrong.  In the unlikely case that it does score critically, the studio will have a handful promoting two deserving movies for Best Animated Feature.  Depending on how many animated movies are released that year, there may not be five slots like there were this year.  If it does come down to three nominees in the category, the votes could easily cancel each other out.

The release date could hurt it as well.  Since it is being released about 11 months away from voting, it will have to really have staying power.  Voters will have to remember how the movie made them feel and how exhilarated they felt in 3D, because by the time DreamWorks starts screening the movie, it will most likely be out on DVD.

At the moment, it’s safe to say that “How to Train Your Dragon” is no longer a dark horse because it has a good outside shot at winning.  It will need some help, and we will see in a matter of months if that aid will pan out.  And in case you were wondering, I don’t think we are looking at a potential Best Picture nominee here.  “Up” was a deeply sentimental movie, and it was a reward for all the good work Pixar has done in the last 15 years.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Animated Feature

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REVIEW: How to Train Your Dragon

4 04 2010

Ever since the dawn of full-length computer animated movies, Pixar has been the most reliable brand name in the business.  But in the past few years, DreamWorks Animation has been slowly gaining ground and clipping at their heels.  With each movie, they move closer and closer towards raising their game to the Pixar standard.

Their latest output, “How to Train Your Dragon,” isn’t quite at that level.  But the bright side is that it is one of Dreamworks’ best animated movies so far.

The story or the morals aren’t highly original, yet the movie still works and delights.  The hero, Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), is a plucky youngster with a tiny frame.  In his Viking society, where bigger is better, that isn’t exactly a positive.  His father (a heavily accented Gerard Butler) has little faith in him, and the village doesn’t either as a result.

But this tiny little village has a big problem.  We like to think termites and ants are bad; they have to put up with dragons who terrorize their town, killing people and destroying houses.  The Vikings fight and kill the dragons, training the youth of the village to do the same.  But Hiccup has a different approach: he learns how to tame and train dragons after he rehabilitates one of the most dangerous species, which he affectionately names Toothless.  He then learns in a very Jake Sully-ian fashion that the creatures they had been treating with hostility could become great friends if they are treated with respect.

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