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“How to Train Your Dragon” producer credits DWA team with that film’s come-from-behind box office success

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“How to Train Your Dragon” producer credits DWA team with that film’s come-from-behind box office success

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Do you recall – just a few weeks back – how quick industry analysts were to write off “How to Train Your Dragon”? That – because this Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois film “only” earned $43.3 million over its opening weekend (as opposed to the $59.3 million that DreamWorks Animation’s “Monsters vs. Aliens” pulled in over its opening weekend) – DreamWorks Animation’s latest was now considered something of a disappointment?

Well, did you see what happened this past weekend? Where – depending on which box office report you believe – “How to Train Your Dragon” either out-earned, did just as well as and/or came within inches of duplicating the ticket sales of that much hyped new release, “Kick-Ass”?

That’s not the way that things are supposed to work in Hollywood. Films that have previously been written off as disappointments are not supposed to be still going strong during their fourth week in theaters. Or – for that matter – be moving a ridiculous amount of merchandise at WalMarts all over the country.

Bonnie Arnold at the red carpet premiere of DreamWorks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon"
 Bonnie Arnold at the red carpet premiere of DreamWorks Animation's "How
to Train Your Dragon." Copyright DreamWorks L.L.C. All Rights Reserved

FYI: That’s what actually convinced Bonnie Arnold (i.e. the producer of DreamWorks Animation’s latest release) that “How to Train Your Dragon” was going to be far more popular with the public than pundits had initially predicted.

“I had animators who work here at DreamWorks who were driving to all the WalMarts in LA, trying to find a plush Toothless to purchase,” Arnold said. “But they told me that this character was sold out at all the stores that they’d visited. Which told me that audiences had already connected with that character and our movie.”

So to now have “How to Train Your Dragon” emerge as this come-from-behind winner in the 2010 box office derby … Well, that’s especially sweet for Bonnie. Particularly given all the behind-the-scenes drama that was involved with the production of this DreamWorks Animation film.

Hiccup, Astrid, Fishlegs, Snotlout, Ruffnut and Tuffnut learn how to train a Monstrous Nightmare dragon
Copyright DreamWorks Animation L.L.C. All Rights Reserved

“Don’t get me wrong. Every film that I’ve ever worked on has had its share of problems (EDITOR’S NOTE: Given that Ms. Arnold is far too humble to flaunt her formidable resume, let me do it for her: Bonnie was the producer of Pixar’s “Toy Story,” Disney’s “Tarzan” and DreamWorks Animation’s “Over the Hedge”),” Bonnie continued. “And with ‘How to Train Your Dragon,’ we had a terrific production team as well as Cressida Cowell’s wonderful book to work with. We all knew that there was a great movie in there somewhere. It just took us a while to figure out how to make it.”

In this case, it meant bringing in a brand-new directorial team – Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois of “Lilo & Stitch” fame – less than a year-and-a-half before this animated feature was due to arrive in theaters. Who – while being respectful of all the work that had been done on this project prior to their October 2008 arrival – still had some pretty definitive ideas about how to fix “How to Train Your Dragon.”

“Take – for example – Hiccup’s relationship with Toothless. In both the book as well as the original version of our movie, Hiccup was a younger boy and Toothless was a much smaller dragon. And since Chris felt that Hiccup needed to face a real challenge, needed to overcome a big obstacle if the audience was going to care about this character and his struggles … Well, that’s why Toothless went from being this little cute dragon to becoming this large leopard-like creature,” Arnold explained.

A Terrible Terror dragon (the original form of Toothless) from Dreamworks Animation's How To Train Your Dragon
Copyright DreamWorks L.L.C. All Rights Reserved

FYI: If you’d like to see what Toothless was originally supposed to look like in “How to Train Your Dragon,” keep an eagle-eye out for the sequence in this movie just after Hiccup & Toothless’ first somewhat successful flight. As the boy and his dragon are resting by the sea, this trio of Terrible Terrors (i.e. that’s the name that this teeny-tiny dragon go by) fly up and then try to steal Toothless’ food. These itty-bitty dragons are actually based on Toothless’ original production design.

This is fairly typical of the way that Sanders and DeBlois approached their creative overhaul of “How to Train Your Dragon.” They found clever ways to make use of all the characters & settings that had been designed & rigged before they came on board this DreamWorks Animation production. While – at the same time – they made all of the changes necessary to improve this film, make its characters & storyline that much more engaging.

And then when you factor in that Chris & Dean (with Bonnie’s help, of course) managed to pull this all off in just 17 short months (More to the point, that none of this behind-the-scenes strife & struggle ever shows up on the screen. The film itself is seamlessly entertaining) … Well, that just makes “How to Train Your Dragon” ‘s come-from-behind success story seem that much sweeter / all the more remarkable to Arnold.

Hiccup and Toothless the Night Fury dragon eventually become friends in Dreamworks' "How to Train Your Dragon"
 Copyright DreamWorks L.L.C. All Rights Reserved

Of course, Bonnie – being the old pro that she is – is quick to spread the credit around. When we talked on the phone earlier this week, she made a point of lavishly praising the film’s stereoscopic supervisor Phil McNally, head of layout Gil Zimmerman and Visual Effects Supervisor Craig Ring for the terrific job that this trio did when it came to handling all the 3D aspects of “How to Train Your Dragon.”

“The three of them had a plan for every shot. They were always about ‘What best supports the story in this particular scene?’ And that’s exactly what they’d do. Phil, Gil and Craig would dial the 3D up or dial it down. These guys did such a terrific job that Chris, Dean and I rarely had any notes for them,” Arnold stated.

So have all of this hard work pay off, to watch “How to Train Your Dragon” ‘s box office totals shoot towards infinity and beyond (“Given that I produced the original ‘Toy Story,’ I’m the only person at DreamWorks who’s actually allowed to make that joke,” Bonnie laughed) … What’s that feel like? As you might expect by now, Arnold once again shifted the focus away from herself and then talked about how proud she was of the DWA team.

Bonnie Arnold gives Toothless the dragon a pat on the nose at the premiere of Dreamworks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon"
Bonnie Arnold and Toothless at the premiere of  DreamWorks Animation's "How
to Train Your Dragon." Copyright DreamWorks L.L.C. All Rights Reserved

“They’re the ones who kept the energy positive while we were making all those changes. They’re the ones who really deserve the rewards & applause here,” Bonnie concluded.

So here’s hoping that someone at WalMart corporate headquarters actually reads today’s JHM article. And – as a belated “Thanks-for-doing-such-a-nice-job-on-”How-to-Train-Your-Dragon” present – then sends a box full of that hard-to-find Toothless plush to the DreamWorks Animation campus in Glendale, CA.

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  • I've seen HTTYD twice now, and I'm in love with the movie. I think it, along with Kung-Fu Panda, are the two best non-Pixar animated films to be released in a decade. I think it's sure to become a classic, while more "hip" and modern fare like Monsters vs Aliens are eventually forgotten.

  • I've seen it three times - I'm so happy to see it doing well. This is one movie I'd love to see a sequel to. I was just so engaged by the story, characters, and setting, that I want more of it. I think it's on par with Pixar's best, and it's the first CGI movie since "Toy Story" that I've collected merchandise from. I didn't follow this film's development, so I am surprised to hear of it's production troubles. It's a near perfect movie.

  • It's a good movie, but far from perfect.  It's very predictable, and the changes of heart on the parts of Astrid and Stoick are not well developed; they both seem very sudden and thus somewhat out of character.  I would have liked to have seen more development on Astrid, in particular, explaining what makes her tick, which would have made her turnaround more believable.

    Compare and contrast to Ratatouille, which is a movie whose characters I like so much I didn't want the film to end.

    But I should point out that HTTYD is a kids' flick, first and foremost, and so the predictability of the story is not as big an issue.  We adults have seen that type of story many times before, but kids haven't necessarily.

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