On DVD: How to Train Your Dragon, by the Directors Disney Let Get Away

One of the most profitable fields in the movies today -- and thus the most competitive -- is feature animation. Ever since Disney's animation division came roaring back 21 years ago with The Little Mermaid, cartoon have reaped big bucks for studios, not only at the box office but also through merchandising, DVDs, spinoffs, theme-park attractions, and other ancillary goodies. All of which brings me to a big question: How the heck could Disney let Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois leave the fold?

It's a question that leaps to mind with today's release of How to Train Your Dragon, one of the best-reviewed animated films to be made outside of the Disney/Pixar workshop. Before Sanders and DeBlois made tracks for DreamWorks Animation -- a studio co-founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg, a former Disney exec famously not enamored with his previous employer -- they collaborated on Disney's 2002 Lilo & Stitch, one of the sweetest, funniest and most moving films to come out of the studio in the last decade. What made the film even more exemplary is the fact that it stood outside the ubiquitous CG-animation paradigm, instead featuring old-school pen-and-ink-and-watercolor animation that give the film a richness that even Pixar at its lushest can't duplicate.

With a domestic gross of $145 million, Lilo & Stitch would fit anyone's idea of a hit -- except perhaps for Disney's, since all but two of Pixar's titles earned north of $200 million. Whether it was over money or technology, it's certainly unclear how the studio could let two such rising stars go. But go they did, and Paramount/DWA is already mounting an aggressive Oscar campaign for How to Train Your Dragon in the hopes of keeping a Toy Story 3 win in the Best Animated Feature category from being a done deal.

Sanders and DeBlois's craftsmanship is evident in every frame of Dragon -- which, not to worry, still looks great on DVD without 3-D glasses -- and even more so in their director commentary (with producer Bonnie Arnold). Rather than the usual auto-backslapping you get in many commentaries, they praise their collaborators and go into detail about everything from story and character issues to the film's visual style (shaped with assistance from ace cinematographer Roger Deakins) to performance (unlike many animated films, Dragon features several scenes in which the voice cast recorded their parts together in the booth rather than separately and discretely).

If the Dragon extras whet your appetite for more from Sanders and DeBlois, check out the "2-Disc Big Wave Edition" of Lilo & Stitch, which contains a staggering amount of extras, including another incisive commentary as well as a two-plus-hours making-of documentary.