Director Dean DeBlois Dishes on the Evolution and Ending of ‘Dragon’

by | June 18, 2014 at 12:23 PM | Celebrity Interview, In Theaters, Movies

'How to Train Your Dragon 2' director Dean DeBlois (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty)

If “Avatar” set the benchmark for 3D effects in live-action movies, “How to Train Your Dragon” did the same for animation.

Both projects were conceived as 3D films, packed theaters in early 2010 and helped birth a renaissance of eye-popping visuals – some artistic, some gimmicky – in nearly every multiplex across the country.

“Dragon” continues its dominance over 3D animation with the recent release of a sequel, “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” which belies cheap tricks for a story-enriching depth that puts audiences amid the fantastical Viking world and creates breathtaking imagery that, for a cartoon, seems impossibly grand in scope.

The film picks up five years after the original, in which a teenage Viking named Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless brokered peace between the fire-breathing flyers and humans. Now a young man, Hiccup spends his days exploring new lands and territories with Toothless, while learning to fly with his own custom-made wing suit. When the duo stumbles upon a villain who threatens to break the treaty between Vikings and dragons, it’s up to Hiccup to save the day. The film also features the voices of America Ferrera (Astrid), Gerard Butler (Stoick), Craig Ferguson (Gobber), T.J. Miller (Tuffnut) and Kristen Wiig (Ruffnut).

The “How to Train Your Dragon” series is directed by “Lilo & Stitch” co-creator Dean DeBlois, and is based on the children’s book series by Cressida Cowell. I recently sat down with DeBlois to talk about the new movie, its connection to “Star Wars” and how he plans to end the series.

 

David Onda: How soon after “How to Train Your Dragon” did you get the call to make the sequel?

Dean DeBlois: In earnest, probably a month after the movie had been released. [Jeffrey Katzenberg] asked me about it, and I have generally strong feelings about sequels in that they’re usually disappointments, they recycle a lot of the same material, they don’t feel necessary. I said, “If you’re serious about this, then how about we do a trilogy, so that the first movie can be the first act, we’ll tell the meat of the story – which is the second act – and then there has to be a third culminating act that will bind it all together.

Astrid and Hiccup (Photo: Fox)

Onda: So when you get that official call, is there any dread over topping the first film, or pure joy that you get to make another one?

DeBlois: Oh, yeah, of course. I have one of the best jobs in the world. It’s just that, if you have your choice of taking new material and developing new characters and working in a new world as opposed to retreading old material, I feel jazzed about the idea of everything new. That said, I grew up with “Star Wars,” and “Empire Strikes Back” was a really pivotal experience for me when I saw it. I was 10 years old. It just had a massive impact on my own version of fan fiction and fan art, and I loved that world. It took everything I loved about “Star Wars” and made it bigger and better – so much so that, for me, it eclipses “Star Wars.”  And that was what we put out there as – “If we’re gonna try this, let’s hold that as the high watermark and do everything we can to not repeat ourselves, to expand the story, to deepen the characters and make everything feel fresh and different and necessary and new.

Onda: Speaking of “Star Wars,” there are a few nods to that series in “Dragons,” including Hiccups’ lightsaber-like fire sword. Is Hiccup’s lost foot a nod to Luke Skywalker’s lost hand?

DeBlois: It wasn’t necessarily a nod to “Star Wars” in that case. I think we were wrapping up the end of the first movie – Chris Sanders and I – and it was just feeling a little pat, like everything worked out just perfectly. And considering that we were trying to tell a story that had real world stakes, it just felt like it lost a lot of credibility to have Hiccup walk out of that unscathed. The fact that Toothless had lost a part of his physical form, it kind of bound Hiccup and Toothless together in a little bit more of a symbiotic way. They complete each other.

Onda: In what ways does “How to Train Your Dragon 2” borrow from the book series?

DeBlois: To be honest, the books kind of follow a completely different narrative in that they follow the adventures of a 10-year-old Viking and his talking sidekick of a dragon, who’s about the size of a Chihuahua, named Toothless. Very different tone, but the spirit is the same – he’s still an odd fit within his world. And so, that’s something that we tried to keep alive. It’s still about an underdog character miscast in the world he lives in, having to figure out that if he stays true to himself, he can alter the course of the world. I think the big thing Cressida brought to her books that we certainly kept was the idea of multiple types of dragons, each with their own abilities and personalities. Otherwise, we were encouraged, when we took over the film, to depart from the narrative and go for something that was a little bit of a wider reach in terms of its audience – less young, and a bit more fantasy-adventure.

Onda: Cate Blanchett is new to the “Dragon” cast. How did she become involved with the film?

DeBlois: We went to the Oscars in 2011 for the first movie, and she was there. There was a little cocktail reception before the ceremony began, and I walked up to her and I just introduced myself and I said, “I’ve written a part for you in ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2.’” And she said, “Well, that movie is a big hit in my household.” And it’s like, “Yes! A foot in the door!” I told her a little bit about the character, how she had this Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey-like presence and back story. And immediately, it was really cool – she had her hair all done up and she was in this beautiful gown and she started to hunch over and say, “Yeah, she should have all these dragon mannerisms with the way she interacts with characters and humans.” And she said, “Well, I’m not doing anything. Send me the script.” And I did, and she said yes.

Toothless and Stitch (Photo: Fox, Disney)

Onda: Do you ever get remarks that Toothless is reminiscent of Stitch?

DeBlois: Yeah, it does come up. I can see why, because when you see him straight on, there is a Stitchy quality to it. Toothless is actually a black panther combined with a salamander, and his head is the head of snake, like a cobra. When you see it in profile, it doesn’t look anything like Stitch, but the moment that he turns to face you, I think it’s the grouping of the eyes and nose and big ear plates behind.

Onda: I love details in animation, and one of the things I noticed was that Hiccup’s hair braids, which Astrid gives him early in the film, never come undone during the movie.

DeBlois: We thought that Hiccup, even though he’s a forward thinker, he should have something that grounds him in his Viking tradition. So, instead of wearing a skirt and armor and everything else, he’s wearing the Viking equivalent of motorcycle leather, but it’s all designed in the pursuit of mapping the world and being out there testing the limits and learning about aerodynamics. When he takes off the helmet, and you see what he looks like five years later, we thought it would be cool if there was, at least, a little Viking braid. And then you realize, when Astrid catches up to him, that she’s the one that’s been adding them to his hair. He just tolerates it.

Onda: You’ve said there will be a third “Dragon” film. What’s next for Hiccup? A wedding? A family? A beard?

DeBlois: [laughs] They’re all possibilities. I haven’t gotten that specific yet, because I’m kind of dealing with the larger overall story arcs. And I have an end goal, which is to end the movie as Cressida Cowell plans on ending her book series, explaining what happened to dragons and why they are no more. I had a real emotional chill on the very first page of Cressida’s first book. It’s Hiccup as an adult, reflecting back on his life, and the opening line was, “There were dragons when I was a boy.” It’s powerful and it’s bittersweet, but it feels right. So, I think to be able to conclude this story and return to the history we know, but to create the sense that there was a time when they were here and they could come back, there’s something powerful about it.

“How to Train Your Dragon 2” is in theaters everywhere now. Click here to order tickets through Fandango.

 

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.