The Hidden World of Non-Verbal Animation

Hey all!  Here’s an essay I wrote for my DreamWorks/Pixar class at school this past semester.  I was able to discuss the visual style of any DreamWorks or Pixar film and I specifically went out to see the latest How to Train Your Dragon (The Hidden World) so I could write about it (and add it to my list of movies seen in 2019).  Since I didn’t give you guys any succinct thoughts on it in February, enjoy this longer discussion!

“Show, don’t tell.” This old adage is resoundingly true in every aspect of filmmaking. If someone just explains something, it does not optimize the true visual component of cinema. Perhaps no professionals understand this principle more clearly than animators. Seeing how precious every frame truly is, animation teams attempt to convey the majority of their ideas through their artwork, not the supplemental voices of hired actors. In doing so, audiences can marvel in the cinematic wonders of animation and appreciate the medium more thoroughly. Perhaps the most relevant example of this “show, don’t tell” mindset is the recently released How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019). Having bowed just weeks ago, the supposed conclusion to the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy was very well received by critical reviews and fans at the box office. Yet, The Hidden World is not a sequel spawned purely to make a quick buck. Rather, the How to Train Your Dragon series, particularly in The Hidden World, is one of the few that chooses not to anthropomorphize its creatures. In doing so, the picture and its lead are enhanced. Lead dragon Toothless is a fully realized animated character whose non-verboseness and narrative-shaping actions fully exploit the medium of animation. By diving deeper into Toothless’s properties as a character and his decisive impact on The Hidden World’s story, it will become clear just why the third How to Train Your Dragon is the perfect embodiment of the “show, don’t tell” principle.

How many films can you list that convincingly create an entire civilization of animals? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and its 2017 sequel used motion capture to effectively render lifelike apes in their natural habitats. However, devising entirely new designs of creatures like dragons seems like an impossible feat. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) had a few dragons, but for only a single sequence, as they were surely expensive to generate. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, though, does not face these budgetary concerns. Rather, animators have the freedom of designing entire species of dragons who interact with humans and all look radically different. Toothless, in particular, has a defining puppy-like quality to him. His kind eyes, slobbery mouth, and playful back-and-forth movements all take a completely fantastical creature and make him something familiar. Combining this originality and familiarity would only have been easily doable in the animated medium. Toothless’s main action, as a dragon, is unsurprisingly his gift of flight. Yet, even this does not appear in the same way that a live action dragon flaps around and breathes fire. Rather, Toothless darts up and down, plays with his friend Hiccup while doing so, and (most importantly) can shoot through a beam of fire, becoming invisible in doing so. These feats, though achievable with modern VFX, are made special because of the gracefulness animation offers them. Toothless’s movements have a softness to them, making him all the more loveable and realistic because he is animated. Similarly, the dragons surrounding him all have distinct flight styles which could barely be differentiated in live action, if the dragons were convincingly designed at all. Creating hundreds of dragons, each with unique properties, is a challenge, yet the entire animation and art teams behind The Hidden World achieved it with spades, while still ensuring protagonist Toothless be remembered in his own unique way.

Very few production companies are eager to burn money. Creating fantasy-based, medieval settings are extremely costly, as evidenced in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Game of Thrones series. Yet, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World does not require extremely heavy expenses. Rather, with animation, the possibilities are limitless. Speaking to the island of Berk, every color is vibrant, yet the predominantly wooden structure still makes it feel old fashioned. Such a contrast could easily seem cheesy in live action, but the careful creation by animators is beautiful. However, the narrative of the film soon diverts from Berk to a new island where Toothless plays with and begins to love the Light Fury. On this new island, there are forest landscapes, a serene lake, mountains, and more. As Toothless draws a picture of the Light Fury in the sand, his paw moves each grain so convincingly. In live action films such as Bumblebee (2018), which have very impressive visual effects, the relationship between a CG being and its environment are noticeably not as fluid as the animated relationship between Toothless and the Light Fury on this beach. Seeing that Toothless’s main desire in the film is to win the affection of the Light Fury, this beach scene displays how he can make use of his beautifully rendered and diverse environment to express his feelings and drive the narrative forward.

As both an individual character and acting mover of story, Toothless the Dragon is a pristine example of the “show, don’t tell” philosophy. So often, animated films (even the predominant number of DreamWorks films) make their creatures verbal and snappy, teaming them up with the human lead. Yet, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World gives Toothless his own love story. In this, his sincerity and desire are purely communicated by how he is visually depicted and his actions with the animated landscapes around him. The beauty of motion pictures is their inherent ability to show us imaginative stories that we never imagined would be presented to us. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World does exactly this, showing us a journey through the eyes of Toothless, particularly in a way that is extenuated by the beautiful medium of animation.

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