Tuesday, July 1, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2 Art Book Review: Part One

I was lucky enough to receive a free copy of the (AMAZING) How to Train Your Dragon 2 art book from Harper Collins's imprint, Newmarket Press, in exchange for my thoughts. So, this is the first blog of many detailing my reactions to the wonderful art book. Each week, I will add another blog to this series. I plan on releasing them on Tuesdays, so stay tuned!

PLEASE NOTE: This blog contains spoilers from the film, How to Train Your Dragon 2...and if you haven't seen it yet, go. NOW. Thanks!

Before I even opened the art book, I was entranced by the cover. I like to play at being an artist (as anyone who has seen my work can attest to), and the bold colors of the cover took me back to the dragon-based fantasies of my childhood--Anne McCaffrey's work in specific. I was reminded of a hero facing immense odds, and Hiccup's very position on the cover, how he holds himself, and the cluster of Vikings in the lower right corner, ooze the sensation of something more sinister and powerful at hand. The fact that Toothless is flying alone in the sky made me wonder, "Is this reflective of Drogo taking him in the movie? Or does this allude to something else, something that will develop later in the trilogy? Maybe their ability to stand without one another, to be free of that dependence on each other?"

Part of me hopes it is an allusion, but part of me also sees the most tragic part of the film reflected here--the rift that develops between Hiccup and Toothless after Drogo's Bewilderbeast takes over Toothless. The fact that Hiccup looks as though he's going into battle against Toothless resonates so well with the plot that I at first did not notice something more subtle about the cover. Something I've never felt in another art book before--quite literally.

The texture of the cover itself. For those who don't know, the How to Train Your Dragon 2 art book is a hard cover book, like most art books, but what sets it apart and makes it a true pleasure is that, unlike, say, the Avatar: The Last Airbender or Howl's Moving Castle art books, it has a jacket. And what a lovely jacket it is! It's soft to the touch, not slippery or shiny, which I think is a lovely change from the norm of jacketed books. The texture of the jacket is akin to velvet, which when combined with the image on the cover, makes one believe she can almost feel the dust of the battlefield against her skin. The coloration of the cover offers a hint of a dusty sunset or sunrise, and makes one think of a battle about to start. The physical feel of the cover so wonderfully echoes that sensation that it draws the reader in immediately.

After opening the book, I noticed something else that almost brought me tears. Now, keep in mind I received this lovely gift after seeing the movie, so I think the impact the first image had on me was resonant of the film more than anything. Stoick was sitting on Skullcrusher in a rather stylized Viking-esque image, arms in the air, and Skullcrusher is grinning. It's less of a nod in Stoick's honor, and more a giant bow to his character, and to his fans. I was so overwhelmed by this gesture by the layout designer at Harper, that I instantly showed my boyfriend, who, like me, was still broken up over Stoick's death. He, too, was moved, and I feel that Harper's choice of placing this "tapestry" of Stoick doing something he loved--riding his beloved dragon and friend--couldn't have been better positioned. Thank you, whoever you are, because I think fans of the film and Stoick will greatly appreciate it.

Next, I flipped to a gorgeous scene of dragons flying through a landscape. The whimsy of this scene sets the reader up for the freedom of the images and text within. After all, nothing can be freer than flying on the back of a dragon. Nothing. The sense of such freedom is important, not because it allows readers to say, "Oh, hey, neat!" but because we are so dragged down by our day-to-day routines that we crave that freedom, that openness, those wide skies and the notion that anything is possible. In this image--which spans two pages--the reader realizes for the first time how absolutely vast the world around Berk is.

The original film had viewers so centered on Berk itself and the task of training dragons and saving them that we never really questioned what might exist beyond the island. The premise of the second film explores just that; now that the Vikings of Berk have dragons, the world is theirs to explore. Just as the cover reflects the rift between Toothless and Hiccup, this image prepares the reader for everything that exists beyond the known boundaries of Berk itself. And, above all, it invites us with the promise of freedom to explore this world.

Next on my list of this opening blog is the text. Most art books are filled with more art than explanation, because they rely so heavily on the readers having seen the films or shows they center around. This is the exception to that rule...and what a nice exception it is. Instead of bogging down the images with text, or vice-versa, the text of this art books works in tandem with its images, helping readers to understand the creative process of the film. The first example of that is the call-back to the Stoick image at the opening of the book. The Foreword is written by Gerard Butler, voice actor for Stoick. Opposite it is another image of Stoick the Vast, and in its center is a picture of Mr. Butler reading lines for the film.

Now, forgive me, but this Foreword actually made me think it was written before the second film's script was completed, and during a time when Mr. Butler thought his character would live longer than he did. It's probably the only part of the book that jarred me a little, which is fine, but I was half-hoping he would discuss his feelings about Stoick's death, at least a little. He did a great job, and again, hat's off to the Harper team for their great editing of the piece. It flows well, and I love how Mr. Butler discusses accents and language--trust me, this made up for any lack of Stoick-death-discussion...I am a fan of language and how it sounds, appears, and works--in relation to his role as a Viking chief. He made some great points about historical accuracy, as well as the artistic choice made by the actors, directors, and writers (that being the "more modern" children using an American accent to contrast the Scottish accents of the older--and more conservative--characters).

I could go on a tangent about accents and the artistic choices of the film in using them for an entire blog itself (and who knows, I might), but this blog is about the art book, not the film, so let me return to the topic at hand. Mr. Butler's Foreword is a powerful tool, and one of two that the Harper team included in the book.

An Introduction by the film's writer, Dean DeBlois, follows. Mr. DeBlois, in the third paragraph of his Introduction, makes a point I feel some other series could use as advice:
"Too often, sequels feel recycled, disconnected, or unnecessary, but here was a chance to tell a story that would evolve as organically as its hero did, charting Hiccup's coming of age while expanding upon story threads that were set up in the first film, and planting seeds that would flourish in its third and final chapter" (10).

As you may recall from my previous blog on the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, I loved the fact that the team aged Hiccup and that they took so many huge and rewarding risks to expand the film as an art form, and not just to entertain. I'm saddened that this is only to be a trilogy, but also feel blessed that Mr. DeBlois is taking his job as the writer for the franchise so seriously. I'd have loved to hear a word or two from the book's author, though, and her reactions to the massive changes in the film from the original text. Maybe for the How to Train Your Dragon 3 art book, the Harper team might consider including a few words from her near the beginning of the book?

That's it for my first blog on the How to Train Your Dragon 2 art book! Tune in next Tuesday for my thoughts on the next major influence of the film, the research behind setting! This was a rather text-heavy section, but I loved reading every word, and can't wait to tell you why! Until then, Gremlins, write on!