This week, “How to Train Your Dragon 2″ swoops into theaters and, trust us, it’s a treat (our review will be running later this week). It’s the tale of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a young dragon rider who was introduced in the first film, this time dealing with the reemergence of his long lost mother (played by Cate Blanchett) and the threat of an evil maniac back by a fearsome dragon army (Djimon Hounsou). This one is deeper, darker, and more emotionally intense. It’s also a whole lot of fun.
And it made us think about some of the things that you might not know about Hiccup and co., which has already risen to the crop to become one of DreamWorks Animation’s most beloved franchises. Read on to find out things that you probably don’t know about the imaginary world of Vikings and dragons!
Gallery | 10 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘How to Train Your Dragon’
- 1. The Franchise Wouldn’t Exist Without Pixar
When Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, it installed Pixar head John Lasseter as the chief creative officer at Pixar, Walt Disney Animation and Disney ToonStudios, as well as principle creative advisor at Disney Imagineering. And John, well, John isn’t a big fan of “Lilo & Stitch.” Lasseter found “Lilo & Stitch” to be the exact opposite of Pixar’s “story first” mandate and when he arrived at Disney promptly fired its two directors — Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. That means that Sanders and DeBlois were able to be scooped by DreamWorks Animation and create the first “How to Train Your Dragon” (total worldwide gross: around $ 500 million). Whoops.
- 2. Originally, the Movie Was Much Closer to the Books
The “How to Train Your Dragon” movies are, at least on some level, based on a series of bestselling books by Cressida Cowell (pictured). The original version of the movie was largely faithful to the book, but when DeBlois and Sanders took over, things changed drastically – for the better. “Previous versions were heavily loyal to the book – sweet, whimsical, and too small for Jeffrey’s taste,” DeBlois told USA Today before the release of the first film, referring to DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg.
- 3. In Fact, It Was The First DreamWorks Animated Movie Where the Hero Was the Same Age as the Audience
Most DreamWorks Animation movies feature main characters that are adults. “How to Train Your Dragon” broke the mold by having a main character, in Hiccup, who was actually around their age; he was a kid! Not so, in the sequel, where the character is now 20 years old. But it’s neat that he’s aged appropriately to the time in between movies, and it’s still a benchmark that can’t be taken away from the first film. (This year’s “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is the only other DreamWorks Animation movie to have a main character that is young as the movie’s intended audience.)
- 4. Coen Brothers Collaborator Roger Deakins Advises on the Films
Roger Deakins, one of the most beloved cinematographers currently living (amazingly, he’s never won an Oscar, although he’s been nominated eleven times), was a special visual advisor for the first film. He gave filmmakers tips on how to make the lighting more dramatic and cinematographer feel more grounded and real. He returned for the sequel, which explains why so many of the sequences are lit almost exclusively by candlelight; it’s like “Barry Lyndon” meets “Brave.”
- 5. Not Everyone Thought It Was Going to Be a Hit…
While it now seems like a forgone conclusion that “How to Train Your Dragon” was going to be a smash, this just wasn’t the case back in 2010. While you can now grab an extensive array of merchandise at your local big box store, back when the first movies opened the toys were strictly relegated to Walmart (and there weren’t that many of them). Even Jeffrey Katzenberg, known for thinking of the big picture (and franchise potential) of each of his films, seemed positively caught off guard. The movie connected, in a big way, to those who saw it.
- 6. … And Not Everyone Got to See It in 3D
Another thing that is striking, thinking back to the original movie, is how it got caught up in a 3D logjam. At the time, the new 3D technology was in its infancy (and really, really popular). “Avatar” had been released several months earlier and was still hogging many 3D screens, and Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and Warner Bros’ “Clash of the Titans” were also in wide release. Katzenberg publicly criticized the decision by Warner Bros to hastily convert “Clash of the Titans” to 3D. But those that did get to see “How to Train Your Dragon” in 3D were blown away – it remains one of the high points of the recent 3D movement.
- 7. It’s a More Expansive Franchise Than You’d Imagine
Yes, the second film is coming out this week, but this is just the tip of the “Dragons” empire. There is a television series, called “DreamWorks Dragons,” that has already aired for two seasons (and a total of 40 episodes), with a third on the way. There are also two short films and a 30-minute Christmas special (“Gift of the Night Fury”), as well as an ice show and stadium show (that features creatures like the ones in the “Walking with Dinosaurs” show) and a host of video games, books, and soundtrack albums. “How to Train Your Dragon” exists in many forms, and makes lots and lots of money.
- 8. The Sequel Was Inspired by Miyazaki and ‘Empire Strikes Back’
DeBlois, who is a solo writer/director on the sequel (Sanders is overseeing his own DreamWorks Animation franchise with “The Croods”), was heavily inspired by the work of Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki, and in particular his beloved “My Neighbor Totoro.” “I’m such a fan of Hayao Miyazaki that the idea of having an organic form coupled with early mechanics seemed visually and, from a narrative point of view, very appealing,” DeBlois said. He also cited “Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back” saying, “What I loved especially about Empire is that it expanded Star Wars in every direction: emotionally, its scope, characters, fun. It felt like an embellishment and that’s the goal.”
- 9. There’s a Cool Reason Why Jonsi Does Songs for the Movies
Jonsi, from the Icelandic art pop band Sigur Ros, contributed brand new songs to both “Dragons” and the reason such an esteemed performer is contributing to these movies is pretty nifty. DeBlois, after “Lilo & Stitch,” made a really beautiful and moving 2007 documentary about the band called “Heima.” DeBlois and the band became close, and he asked Jonsi to come aboard the film. He did. And the results are pretty magical.
- 10. A Third Film Is Already Being Planned
Unlike the “Shrek” movies and, presumably, the “Madagascar” films, “How to Train Your Dragon” is being envisioned as a definitive trilogy. In fact, the third film even has a release date (and will once again be written and directed by DeBlois). Mark it in your calendar: June 17th, 2016. Plan accordingly.
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Photos courtesy Fox/DreamWorks Animation