Annecy: ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ Director Dean DeBlois on ‘Lazy’ Studio Live-Action Remakes, Quarantine Writing

Dean DeBlois'How to Train Your Dragon:
Stewart Cook/Variety/REX/Shutter

“How to Train Your Dragon” writer-director and Annecy favorite Dean DeBlois took part in a Q&A style virtual masterclass on Thursday evening as part of the Annecy Intl. Animation Film Festival’s online edition.

A main talking point came just around the one hour mark, when Peter Debruge, Variety’s chief film critic and moderator for the conversation, sinisterly proposed to “stir up some controversy,” prefacing a question sent in by one of the viewers of the stream.

“What are your thoughts on the rising trend of ‘live-action’ remakes of animated films?” the question read, with Debruge adding, “Because I know there is a project in the works for a ‘Lilo & Stitch’ remake, so this is directly going to relate to things that you had a hand in.”

Anyone who has heard DeBlois speak publicly before knows that the director is not timid when it comes to sharing his honest opinions, even on sometimes controversial topics.

“I’m not interested in them,” he replied casually. “I haven’t seen many of them. They’re made by capable filmmakers and I don’t want to disparage any of the talent or the hard work that went into them, I just think that it’s lazy on the part of the studio.”

Earnest and articulate in his explanation, DeBlois elaborated his take on the issue.

“I think it’s easy to go back to something successful that a really talented team put a lot of years of hard work into and then redo it… but to me that is a missed opportunity to put something original into the world.”

Few in the animation community speak on the subject from such a place of authority. In addition to “Lilo & Stitch,” the first film DeBlois worked on at Disney was “Mulan,” for which a live-action remake, although less strictly adherent to the original than other recent rehashings,  is slated for release later this year.

He expressed regret that studios, Disney in particular, would dedicate so much money to budgets “required to do a live-action remake of an animated movie… I would rather see something original… [It] bugs me knowing how well-to-do the studio is, how capable they are of taking risks, to then watch them not take the risks.”

Calling back to Debruge’s question about a possible “Lilo & Stitch” remake, he was even less enthused.

“’Lilo & Stitch’ has such a quirky, singular voice. It’s Chris’ sensibility and a story that is very personal to him,” he observed. “(Chris’ voice) is so specific that the idea of another team coming in to remake it as a live-action movie, without Chris or any of us involved, is kind of crazy.”

Of course, Deblois knows the score as well as anyone, and admitted as much.

“Stitch is ubiquitous in merchandising and makes a lot of money. He has to be up there among the bestselling characters in consumer products, so I can see why they want to go back into it… I just don’t like it,” he said.

“[Remakes] seem to suggest that the animated version is a lesser form than the expensive glossy live-action movie. Even if it’s not actually live-action,” he finished, alluding to the ongoing argument as to whether films like the entirely CG animated 2019 “The Lion King” remake can be considered live-action.

Debruge agreed, lamenting that in a way the new versions almost replace the classics which preceded them. He seems to have a point too. Googling “101 Dalmatians,” “The Lion King,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Jungle Book,” “Aladdin,” “Dumbo,” “Lady and the Tramp” or “Mulan,” the top returned results are almost exclusively IMDB and Wikipedia pages for the modern remakes.

Unavoidable by the very nature of the remote discussion, how the filmmaker is passing his time in lockdown was also discussed.

“I’ve personally been writing and would have been anyway,” he explained of his isolation at Big Bear Lake. “Writing for me is an isolating experience. I must cut myself off from the world, so in a way this imposed quarantine hasn’t changed a lot about my work habits.”

“It’s interesting because so many of us [in animation] wished we could work from home,” he said, before pointing out that “It’s proving not to be quite as romantic a notion as everyone thought.”

He talked about the distractions that one faces when working from home and how, in animation – a particularly collaborative art form – many miss the camaraderie of running into colleagues on a daily basis, and the inspiration that comes from interaction.

Fielding another question from the “audience,” DeBlois talked about his own personal directorial style, and how being a writer impacts it.

“My definition of directing in animation is surrounding myself with the most talented people I can find and acknowledging that I’m not an expert in every one of those fields. I’m not gonna walk into a watercolor background painters’ office and tell them how to do watercolor or the top animators’ office and instruct them on how to animate something. But I can walk into both of those offices and talk about what is needed from a story perspective, because that’s my area of specialty within the mix,” he explained.

“I see my primary job to be the steward of the story and constantly be challenging and questioning it and taking feedback from the team on what could be better,” he went on, explaining that as a writer, “I have to use the script as the means to explain the visual so the rest of the team can understand what I intended and come back with ideas that either challenge or embellish it.”

“For me, the most important is making sure everyone feels empowered to bring their best ideas and talent to the mix and to be responsible for their own work. I think they feel really invested that way and hopefully proud of the result.”