How to Train Your Dragon
Although Avatar’s visuals were beyond belief, other elements turned out to be rather disappointing: the intricate world of Pandora couldn’t conceal a generic story, flat characters, bad acting and a heavy-handed message. How to Train Your Dragon, the new digital 3D fairy tale from DreamWorks Animation, follows a similar path with its transparent beauty and Pocahontas plot. But unlike James Cameron’s magnum opus, it brings believable characters and more originality to the stock premise, making it a superior movie in terms of fun, genuine depth and human connectedness.
Loosely based on Cressida Cowell’s 2003 children’s novel of the same title, the fable centers around Hiccup, a smart and skinny nerd (Jay Baruchel) living on a remote island, where "killing a dragon is everything." Hiccup, however, has no desire to become a monster-slaying Viking, like his stubborn father Stoick (Gerard Butler), the red-bearded chief of the village. He is more interested in sulking or doing creative stuff.
Nevertheless, a miscommunication leads to Hiccup being unwillingly thrown into dragon training with a group of kids who all think he is useless, including Astrid (America Ferrera), his ruthless love interest. Hiccup initially lives up to their pitiful expectations with the inability to hurt a fly—much less a dragon. Though, before long, he begins to dominate the class, using unconventional battle tactics to control the beasts. But that's because he's hiding something.
While everyone else is killing dragons and talking about killing dragons, Hiccup is secretly befriending a dragon, and not just any dragon—a Night Fury, the deadliest of all. He dubs his new companion Toothless (for obvious reasons) and begins to discover that everything his people know about dragons is wrong: They aren't as mean as they look. They don't always go for the kill (as Viking legend would have it). They are merely fighting to survive.
Not only that, it turns out the fire-breathing creatures can be trained and ridden. After making the injured Toothless a wing and building a saddle, Hiccup goes for the ride of his life, in what is probably the best part of the movie—the flying. These youthful, colorful scenes with roaring waters, stunning skies and intricate dragons make the movie an optical delight that must be seen in 3D.
Because the Vikings mulishly want to continue their dragon-slaying tradition, Hiccup's new friendship and understanding, ultimately, create a major conundrum for him and his people—a classic dilemma we've seen a dozen times. The hackneyed story and theme, however, feel more convincing and less contrived in this apolitical, family-oriented film. Plus, directors and writers Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois throw the stereotypical storyline for a creative loop, making it wholly more original than it easily could've been.
How to Train Your Dragon doesn't just teach an important lesson on appearance versus reality, though. It is full of simple yet significant themes relevant to all audiences—and especially children—such as love, friendship, the relationship between father and son, the dangers of nationalism and believing in yourself. Fortunately, these moral concepts are, for the most part, byproducts of the story told, but that's not to say they don't become a little strained and redundant at times, which is quite possibly the movie's only downfall.
The voices for the movie couldn’t have worked out better. Jay Baruchel, whose young career is off to a promising start, is a flawless fit for Hiccup. Gerard Butler is undoubtedly in his element as Stoick, a ginger, Viking version of King Leonidas from 300. And Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad), Jonah Hill (Superbad, Funny People) and Craig Ferguson provide good humor in their well-cast parts.
Though DreamWorks is still several steps behind Pixar, How to Train Your Dragon, like 2009’s Up, is the kind of movie you can’t help but fall in love with. It certainly struggles through being overly didactic and retelling a story we’ve already heard; nonetheless, it overcomes these limitations with imagination, humor, memorable characters and what are some of the most breathtaking visual effects yet to make it onscreen.