by HELEN GEIB
I must admit I went into DreamWorks’ new animated family film How To Train Your Dragon with low expectations. The silly title, the been-there, seen-that trailer. If the choice hadn’t been between it and Hot Tub Time Machine this weekend, I probably wouldn’t have seen it at all. And I would have really missed out. The trailer did nothing to suggest the film’s charm and warmth.
(I saw it in 2-D, by the way. The movie looked great, I saved $3, and I didn’t have to wear those annoying glasses.)
The film posits an isolated Viking settlement besieged by dragon attacks. After generations of this, any other community would have packed up and moved on, but as young hero Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) dryly observes, admitting defeat isn’t the Viking way. Not even when disparate, colorfully distinct species of dragons continually steal sheep, go on the attack when met by armed resistance, and in the case of the fire-breathing variety, burn houses. The cumulative death toll is high on both sides.
Hiccup is the village misfit. He doesn’t fit in physically: he is short and scrawny and weak, the polar opposite of his huge, burly, strong father, village headman Stoick (Gerard Butler). He doesn’t fit in mentally: he is an ingenious boy with a scientific bent, an inventor, self-aware, and with a well-developed sense of the ridiculous in Viking life and village affairs. His life is further complicated when he has a sudden change of heart about dragon-killing, precipitated by a close encounter with a representative of the most mysterious and deadly of all the dragon kinds.
Co-writer-directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (2002’s Lilo and Stitch) strike a nice balance between comedy, drama, and adventure. Hiccup’s dad, master (he is apprenticed to the village blacksmith), and classmates at dragon-killing school are all comic characters, as is Hiccup himself. Viking inter-personal relationships and personalities are played for laughs, some clever and some easy. The humor is never crass or cruel, however, and though the villagers misunderstand and sometimes mock Hiccup, everyone is also brave and does the right thing in the end. The dramatic arc of Hiccup earning the respect of his fellow Vikings- particularly his father and Astrid (America Ferrera), the object of his affections- is appealing, if conventional, and the primary dramatic storyline of his finding his true strength and coming fully into his own idiosyncratic talents is very well handled.
While those are important elements in the film, the heart of the story is the friendship between Hiccup and the inaptly named Toothless the dragon. At its core, How To Train Your Dragon is a dressed-up version of that old standby of young adult literature, the young person taming a noble, wild animal with respect and love. Dog, horse, and wolf are more common variants than dragon, but the essentials remain the same: initial wariness and distrust gradually giving way to mutual understanding, devotion, and manifest courage. Hiccup and Toothless are a delightful pair. Toothless is intelligent, perceptive, and playful; a good match for Hiccup. The writing is very good, bringing them together in slow stages punctuated by comic moments. Animation and character design are excellent; their faces (yes, Toothless’ too) and bodies are very expressive. The filmmaking betrays a real affection for these characters that will be readily shared by the audience.
The many scenes of Hiccup and Toothless flying together are among the film’s best. The landscapes and cloudscapes are beautifully drawn and the soaring and swooping is exhilarating. A peaceful flight with Astrid above the clouds is truly lovely.
Putting aside the fantasy, the film is cheerfully ahistoric and anachronistic at many points, but there are also many good “period” touches in the backgrounds and character designs. Viking material culture supplies the weaponry, great hall, and longships with their magnificent carved-dragon prows. The end credits are a medieval illuminated manuscript, decorated with miniature dragons.
3 1/2 stars
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How To Train Your Dragon has much the same feel as the wonderful Kung Fu Panda.