As with practically every North American kid of his generation, Dean DeBlois had his mind blown by the original “Star Wars” trilogy. DeBlois — who was born in the tiny town of Aylmer, Quebec, where “Hollywood seemed so, so far away” — had just turned 7 when the first “Star Wars” movie opened in summer 1977, and three years later, soon after experiencing “The Empire Strikes Back,” he felt compelled to write his own fanfiction stories about the characters.
A case could be made that no film event has had a greater impact on the school of animation storytellers working today than George Lucas’ space opera, mostly in the form of inside jokes and hidden homages designed to amuse other “Star Wars” fans. Such hat tips are woven throughout nearly every show on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, and regularly find their way into animated features as well. When it came time for Pixar — a company once owned by Lucas — to make its first “Toy Story” sequel, the writers included a joke in which Buzz Lightyear accuses his nemesis Zurg of killing his father, prompting the Darth Vader-like villain to quip, “No, Buzz. I am your father.”
DeBlois is being celebrated by Variety as part of its Billion Dollar Director series on the eve of the release of “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.”
In DeBlois’ case, “Star Wars” not only sparked his storytelling impulses as a child, but also inspired the solution that would elevate the fantasy-film franchise for which DeBlois himself was responsible — DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon” — from cash-grab sequel to something unprecedented in the computer-animated arena: a self-contained three-act trilogy, in which the second installment expanded what the original film had established, revealed fresh family connections and set up a finale that sees the characters through to their emotional maturity.
Already on the first film in 2010, DeBlois and co-director Chris Sanders had achieved something special. “Now, when I tell people about it, it seems so simple: a boy and his dragon,” says producer Bonnie Arnold, who was an early believer in the franchise. “Historically speaking, dragon movies have not done all that well, and according to the consumer products people, Vikings were not that popular. Believe me, everybody brought up every reason under the sun that it wouldn’t work.”
The story of a teenage dragon-trainer named Hiccup and his forbidden connection with the last known Night Fury, named Toothless, “How to Train Your Dragon” feels more thought-out than other DreamWorks toons. In truth, “Dragon” had already gone through two sets of directors and was in deep trouble when DWA chief Jeffrey Katzenberg pulled Sanders off another project, “The Croods,” to salvage the film — a challenge Sanders accepted on the condition that the studio bring in DeBlois, the longtime collaborator with whom he’d made “Lilo & Stitch” at Disney, for a “page one re-conceive,” as DeBlois refers to it.
With the release date set and most of the character designs already locked, the rushed schedule turned out to be a blessing, says DeBlois, since it eliminated much of the second-guessing that goes into a longer production schedule. As Katzenberg had told him going in, “Normally, we have time to make these movies two or three times in iteration. With this one, you’ve gotta nail it on the first time.”
Even so, Katzenberg encouraged Sanders and DeBlois to take risks — perhaps most famously, the way Hiccup loses a limb at the end of the film. In their first few drafts at the script, everything tied up a little too neatly, DeBlois recalls. “It was Jeffrey Katzenberg who said that we had surprised him with so many of our choices that it felt a little disappointing that it ended in such a conventional way. He pitched, ‘What if Toothless were to die?’ But we thought that was a little too extreme. At the time, we were seeing so many stories of people coming back from wars in the Middle East, who had lost limbs as a consequence of their heroism.”
Against the odds, DeBlois and Sanders finished “How to Train Your Dragon” in time, and the film went on to earn just shy of half a billion dollars at the worldwide box office, after which Katzenberg asked DeBlois to consider ideas for a sequel. “My first response was, ‘I’d rather work on something new,’” DeBlois recalls. “I’m not a fan of sequels in general because they so often lack real purpose.”
But DreamWorks pressed, and DeBlois thought about it. “The studio was asking for one movie, the next adventure,” he says. Since he first came aboard, DeBlois had been touched by the prologue of Cressida Cowell’s novel, from which the first movie was very loosely adapted. The book opens with the line, “There were dragons when I was a boy.” Cowell visited DWA as the team was finishing the film, and she had mentioned to DeBlois that she was working on the 12th and final installment of her book series, in which she planned to reveal what had happened to dragons and why they aren’t here anymore.
DeBlois was intrigued by the idea that he might follow the stories of Hiccup and Toothless through to their natural conclusion, so he took a gamble on a different approach: “There are opportunities and unanswered questions that could warrant a larger story of Hiccup’s coming-of-age from the nuisance, Viking runt of his tribe to the wise and selfless leader he’s destined to become,” he suggested.
Katzenberg was intrigued, but stipulated one condition: “He said, ‘Fine, but they have to exist as complete films. I don’t want any cliffhangers.’ ”
So DeBlois set out to write two standalone sequels that would be satisfying in and of themselves, even as Hiccup and his fellow Vikings age nearly a decade during the course of the stories.
“Rather than just do another day in the life of these characters, one idea that always appealed to Dean was the aging up of Hiccup,” recalls Arnold. Originally, the plan had been to make films two and three back-to-back, the way a number of live-action franchises, including “The Matrix” and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” had. But as Katzenberg, Arnold and company started to look at the story reels for the second film as DeBlois first pitched it, the movie seemed to be missing something emotionally, so they poached elements DeBlois had planned to save for the third movie — such as Hiccup’s mother, Valka, and the villain Drago — to give it the “Empire Strikes Back”-like heft DeBlois had intended.
Of course, doing so sent DeBlois back to the drawing board when it came time to write the third movie, since he was still committed to the idea of seeing the characters and story through to their natural conclusion. And then, two years after the release of 2014’s “How to Train Your Dragon 2” — whose box office dipped a bit domestically, but swelled by 60% abroad, earning more than $621 million worldwide — Universal acquired DWA, and Katzenberg left the company, throwing things into uncertainty.
During the transition, Arnold was promoted to president of the studio for a time, and while her attention was being pulled in other directions, they brought on Brad Lewis (another Pixar vet who’d worked at DWA years earlier, on “Antz”) as a producer. “Dean has this movie in his heart and soul,” Lewis says. “He has a conviction in the story he wants to tell, and that’s the only kind of director I want to work with: somebody who’s going to stand up for what might be the unpopular idea, because it’s the right idea, who’s going to take the risk with the emotional or character arc of the story.”
Shortly after the acquisition by Universal, DeBlois went in for a meeting with studio chairman Donna Langley, during which he referenced some of the films that had inspired his vision for the third and final film — such movies as “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Born Free,” in which a human who has bonded with a creature of some kind must eventually let it go.
“Because it’s such a long-term commitment, I think a big part of the job directing animation is to guard against the outside forces so the thing itself can be nurtured and worked on and strengthened as best you can,” says DeBlois. “All along, my greatest fear was that they were going to say, ‘Abandon this idea of a trilogy.’”
Luckily, when he met with Langley, she lit up at the mention of “Born Free,” he says. “She grew up with that story, which she loved, so it felt like I had her support from the start.”
And so DeBlois was allowed to complete the “Dragon” saga as he envisioned, bringing closure to the story, which releases Feb. 21 in the U.S. “I’m not delusional,” says DeBlois, who has given a decade to the franchise. “I know it’s been a money-making franchise for them, so they may want to go back into it in the future.”
Indeed, the third installment is already racking up big numbers overseas.
After all, “Star Wars” may have originated as one trilogy, but it has since spawned additional prequels and sequels, as well as countless spinoffs in television, video games and other media.
“What I tried to do was complete the story of Hiccup and Toothless and their era of dragons, but also leave alive the idea that dragons could be under our feet to this day,” DeBlois explains. “There could be another timeline, another set of characters, and a purpose for bringing them back out into the upper world.”