This story first appeared in a special awards issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Some people work on their personal issues with a therapist. Others manage their inner pain with alcohol or drugs. For still others, denial is the best medicine.
But Dean DeBlois? He deals with loss by making animated movies about dragons.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 director Dean DeBlois
Even before it became clear that there would be a sequel to his first DreamWorks Animation film, How to Train Your Dragon — which was right around the time the 2010 feature about a teenage Viking named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) grossed $495 million worldwide and got nominated for an Oscar — DeBlois was already thinking about possible plotlines for How to Train Your Dragon 2. As artists so often do, he took inspiration from his own life and decided to kill off a major character: Hiccup’s father. “I wanted the movie to be a tribute to parents, particularly those who some of us lost early,” says the Canada-born writer-director, 44, whose own father’s death helped DeBlois (then 19) make the transition “from boy to man.” DeBlois figured a death in the family might do the same for Hiccup.
How to Train Your Dragon 2, which opened June 13, was 2014’s highest-grossing animated film, raking in $619 million worldwide, and is a frontrunner for an Oscar this year (the first Dragon lost to Toy Story 3). That said, it was a fairly risky movie for DWA to make, at least with the plotline DeBlois had in mind. Beloved cartoon characters have been killed off before, of course — Simba’s dad bit the dust in 1994’s The Lion King, and Bambi’s mother’s death in 1942 scarred a whole generation of filmgoers — but it’s never been a parent-pleasing plot twist. When you take your kid to a movie about a boy and his dragon, you don’t expect to have to explain the five stages of grief in the parking lot afterward.
Still, says DeBlois, there was “a lot of support” at DWA. Especially since the studio’s CEO, Jeffrey Katzenberg — “who knows the value of a father’s legacy and the power of having a mantle handed down,” says DeBlois — also is the guy who made The Lion King. But DeBlois admits, “There was nervousness when we started to test the film, and we began to sense reservations from some parents.” Those reservations were understandable, considering DeBlois had arranged for the death of Hiccup’s dad — Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) — to be a particularly awkward and emotionally complicated one: Hiccup’s beloved dragon, the otherwise adorable Toothless, is put under a spell by an evil warlord named Drago (Djimon Hounsou) and incinerates Stoick with a plasma blast. “It’s a sad moment,” DeBlois acknowledges, “but most people understand it’s a rite of passage.” There’s also a plot twist about Hiccup’s long-missing, presumed-dead mother (Cate Blanchett) coming back to life, so you get the idea. Peel away the eye-popping 3-D flight sequences — made even more stunning by DWA’s new Apollo real-time animation platform — and Dragon 2 is one dark Nordic fantasy.
DeBlois, though, had a lot of credibility with DWA; not only did he co-write and co-direct the first Dragon movie (with Chris Sanders, who was too busy making last year’s The Croods to co-direct the sequel, although he does have an executive producer credit), but he also co-wrote and co-directed Disney’s 2002 hit Lilo & Stitch. So the studio gave the script a green light, set the budget at $145 million, and signed DeBlois for his very first solo directing job.
DeBlois reassembled much of the crew who made the first Dragon, including 11-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Like a master class in storytelling,” says DeBlois of working with him), as well as composer John Powell (Oscar-nominated for the first Dragon score). He also brought back two-time Oscar-winning sound designer Randy Thom, who created Toothless’ dragon roar from a variety of animal sounds — tigers, elephants, camels, hippos, horses and even dogs (“When I couldn’t figure it out, I would do the vocals myself,” he admits). But before beginning the long, arduous process of creating the stereoscopic 3-D computer animation at DreamWorks Animation headquarters in Glendale, DeBlois and producer Bonnie Arnold took the Dragon team on a fact-finding mission to Norway, where they soaked up inspiration from a Viking ship museum and other sightseeing adventures. “The six-day snowmobile safari was a highlight,” says DeBlois. “Traveling through polar bear country and photographing these amazing fjords and the majestic lighting … but I still managed to run into the back of Roger Deakins’ snowmobile.”
Of course, the real inspiration came from DeBlois’ own personal experiences with loss, grief and familial healing — and it sounds like he’s got enough material for at least a couple more dragon and Viking movies. “He’s at a crossroads,” DeBlois says thoughtfully of Hiccup, his big-screen cartoon alter ego. “He knows he’s not a carbon copy of his father, but he’s still in search of who he is.”