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Double Feature: 'Dragon,' 'Waking Sleeping Beauty'

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Read Bob Mondello's review of "How to Train Your Dragon."

NPR movie critic Bob Mondello reviews the new animated picture from Dreamworks, How to Train Your Dragon, and Waking Sleeping Beauty, a documentary about the troubled Disney animation unit in the early '80s and how it reinvented itself with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and other films.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Two films arrive in theaters today - one animated, the other about animation. "How to Train Your Dragon" is a digitized adventure from the hit-makers at DreamWorks Animation. "Waking Sleeping Beauty" is a documentary about a period when animation grew so unpopular, the Disney studio almost gave up on it. Bob Mondello has our reviews.

BOB MONDELLO: If your kids are hankering for some dragon-riding, soaring, vertigo-inducing 3-D, and you just can't bear the thought of sending them back to Pandora, consider a trek to the Viking island of Berk.

Judging from some of the accents in "How To Train Your Dragon," it's just off the coast of ancient Scotland. And with nightly dragon attacks, it's a pretty thrilling place to be, unless you're so scrawny that your dad named you Hiccup.

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Mr. JAY BARUCHEL (Actor): (As Hiccup) Oh, come on. Let me out, please? I need to make my mark.

Mr. CRAIG FERGUSON (Actor): (As Gobber) Well, you've made plenty of marks, all in the wrong places.

Mr. BARUCHEL: (As Hiccup) Please, two minutes. I'll kill a dragon. My life will get infinitely better. I might even get a date.

MONDELLO: Bravado aside, Hiccup hasn't got a killer bone in his dweeby body. In fact, when he succeeds in wounding a dragon, his un-Viking-like impulse is to nurse it back to health. Before long, in a semi-wordless, getting-to-know-you sequence that owes a lot to "The Black Stallion," he's turned a fierce, ebony creature into a very big, fire-breathing pet, and they're flying together through the night skies.

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MONDELLO: This would be wish fulfillment for any kid, except that in Hiccup's case, if his fellow Vikings find out, he'll be toast.

Adapted from Cressida Cowell's children stories by the writer-directors who made "Lilo & Stitch," "How To Train Your Dragon" has all the things that "Shrek" and "Madagascar" and other DreamWorks pictures have trained audiences to look for in a digitally animated film: snarky dialogue, belched-fireball-in-the-face-3-D, a little too much aerial swooping and soaring. And in a story that's not just about a nerd making good but also about overcoming and accepting physical handicaps, it has a good deal of heart.

If that sounds like a pretty obvious recipe, "Waking Sleeping Beauty" reminds you that it wasn't always. Don Hahn's documentary looks back at the 1980s, a dark decade at the Disney studio, when expensive flops like "The Black Cauldron" prompted rumors that the house the mouse built would shut down its entire film unit.

Instead, new management arrived: Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg from Paramount and Frank Wells from Warner Brothers.

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Unidentified Man #1: It was an invasion from Hollywood. The parking lot was jammed with BMWs and Porsches. I remember interior decorators tearing down walls that hadn't been touched since 1939. New Berber carpeting replaced decades-old linoleum, and I couldn't figure it out. What's wrong with linoleum? I mean, Walt Disney walked on that linoleum.

MONDELLO: Some animators left. Others hung on as the new guys reconceived their pictures. Did a mermaid story seem too much like the Disney hit "Splash"? Well, turn it into a musical. Bring in computers to jazz up "Beauty and the Beast," and what's this twice-rejected live-action mash-up, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" Let's green-light that.

By the time someone proposed a hand-drawn version of "Hamlet" featuring lions, hyenas and a warthog, no one was talking about shutting down Disney's animation unit anymore.

Now, while there's lots of talk of bruised egos in the picture, no one is going to mistake "Waking Sleeping Beauty" for a tell-all documentary. It's hardly impartial. Its director produced many of the pictures I just mentioned, and it seems to have a score to settle with Jeffrey Katzenberg, who is depicted as a raging egotist.

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Unidentified Man #2: We heard one day that Jeffrey was going to come in with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, and he was going to follow us around to show how the movie got made. And Jeffrey performed for the journalist, and in that article, Jeffrey was proclaimed the guy who was saving Disney animation.

MONDELLO: By later that year, Katzenberg was out. And while "Waking Sleeping Beauty" doesn't mention what happened to him, you'll be pleased to know he's done okay for himself, as co-founder of DreamWorks, the folks who are bringing you "How To Train Your Dragon."

I'm Bob Mondello

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