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Friday Family Movie Night: How to Train Your Dragon, Movies in the Parks

Are you a Netflix subscriber? If you're like just about every urbanMama or dad I know, you probably are, and you may be shaking your fist in the general direction of Netflix headquarters thanks to the price changes (you say "increase," they say "lowest prices ever") announced this week. When I wrote a post about it for WalletPop, after "library" the first great free alternative that sprung to mind was the ultimate big-screen, close-to-home experience: Movies in the Park. No: it's not streaming over your internet, it's not something you can pause while you answer the phone. But as a family entertainment experience, a Friday Family Movie Night like no other, it's as good as it gets.

Portland Parks scatters its free movie nights around the city and lets neighborhood boards weigh in on the movie selection. There is something for everyone; vintage Oregon favorites like The Goonies (Sellwood Park, Sunday, July 31); brand new movies like Karate Kid (the one with Will Smith's kid, Knott Park, Saturday, July 16); adult recent releases that may have been on your own Netflix queue, like The King's Speech (Laurelhurst Park, Friday, July 29) and The Social Network (Laurelhurst Park, Saturday, August 27). There is the climbing wall for the afternoon preceding most showings, often free popcorn or other goodies, and local bands. With Tangled (Glenfair Park, Tuesday, August 2; Hazeltine Park, Sunday, August 14), a hair styling and braiding competition. I've only been to a few of these showings over the past few years, but everyone who's gone to one agrees: it's like a block party or a truly old-fashioned drive-in movie theatre, where families show up with wagons and picnic baskets and blankets to share with young singles and older couples, babies fall asleep on their fathers' shoulders and get walked home while their mother and siblings watch the end of the show. It's as Norman Rockwell as you can get, with a big screen movie.

How to Train Your Dragon is showing several times this summer, and as it's a movie my family saw and loved, I'll review it with this column, too. (And oh yes: How to Train Your Dragon is not available streaming on Netflix, for the record.)

Paramount Pictures
Like so many children's movies, How to Train Your Dragon is the story of an underdog who surprises everyone -- most of all himself. Hiccup is the son of the toughest Viking in a village high on the side of a mountain on the edge of a wind-tossed ocean. He comes from a long line of dragon-slayers in a community where dragons are the chief threat; and killing them, the most valiant sport. Children come of age by training to defeat dragons, and ultimately going up against a dragon in the village stadium.

Hiccup is nothing like his mountain of a father; he has no desire or physical ability to kill dragons. He would rather read or design innovative mechanical solutions to his neighbors' problems. But when he tries to tell his dad how he feels, he somehow ends up in the middle of a dragon training class with the other tweens of the village. There are all the stock characters here: the tough-as-nails girl/love interest; the ditzy girl; the geeky jokesters; the fat kid; the kid who can't read. At first, they all roll their eyes at Hiccup's ineptitude. He can't even pick up most of the weapons.

Then, Hiccup comes across a wounded dragon on a lone excursion into the forest. At first, he thinks he should kill it and prove he can actually cross this necessary threshold into adulthood; but when he looks in the beast's eyes, he can't do it, and instead cares for the dragon he calls Toothless. Toothless and Hiccup become friends, and Hiccup learns to observe the dragons and find their unique abilities and how they can bond together with the Vikings to fight against the real enemy; a monstrous dragon that is demanding smaller beasts pay it in flesh and blood. In the end, Hiccup surprises everyone by turning the perceived bloodthirsty beasts into valued partners -- and the stock characters surprise us, too; the dumb Viking kid is compassionate; the father willing to trust his screwup son even though it risks everything.

I think this movie is too violent and deals with truly frightening content for the youngest watchers. Its zoomy nature is made for 3D, but difficult for sensitive little ones (and even this sensitive mama) on the big screen (and even in 2D). I found it much more tolerable on a small screen; you would probably find it less of a whole-body experience watching in a park. But still, even children who were five or six might have a hard time with the 3D-style wooshes and zooms and explosions and screams.

As an allegory, I thought How to Train Your Dragon was wonderful; first, in its portrayal of a child-parent relationship utterly unlike those of my college classmates' with their parents. Hiccup earns the faith of his dad when he follows his alternative-path dreams; no investment banker or corporate lawyer, Hiccup is the environmentalist and bike builder or furniture maker or artist or programmer. His father learns how valuing his son's uniqueness can benefit everyone.

Second, there is the concept of observing and learning about the things we most fear; and in the process, discovering how much they have to offer us. I enjoyed the movie a lot, once I got over the en-vogue technique of keeping all your adrenaline on MAX VOLUME. Other than the style of noise and action, my major quibble -- and it seems small but really bothered me -- is that the main character dragon is just ugly. The fish-like eyes and rounded nose did not grow on me as I watched the movie, nor the second time; I couldn't really relate to a creature whose designer seemed to value innovation over beauty.  When the dragon was flying, it was majestic; looking in its face made me wrinkle my nose. It seems the DreamWorks guys have worked really hard to get the public to love ugly stuff -- hello, Shrek -- and enough already, OK? Let's have some classic beauty and elegance if we're going to spend so much time and money creating, animating and marketing it. Is there anything wrong with that?


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North Clackamas also has movies in the park, including Despicable Me (loved it!) at Ashley Meadows Park off of Sunnyside Rd. http://ncprd.com/sports-recreation/programs/movies-in-the-park

There are also concerts in the park at Happy Valley Park, which is such a fantastic place: large splash pad, tennis, running trail, playground, many shelters, bathrooms, a wetland with boardwalk and duck pond, volleyball, two dog parks. The concerts are on Thursdays around 7. Here's a link, but I'm not sure if it's a pdf: http://www.ci.happy-valley.or.us/DocumentView.aspx?DID=903

thanks for the links blair! sounds like it would be even worth a road trip for inner Portlanders.

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