Dreamworks’ How To Train Your Dragon is a great example of everything I love about animated movies. It’s a big, bold, colorful movie that isn’t afraid to blend stylized characters with exquisitely real and breathtaking details.
Unlike the recent slate of warmed-over kid’s film trying to compete furiously to cash-in on the 3D technology, Dragon swoops in, gathers the technique under its wing and folds it confidently into the final product in such a way that what ends up on screen is just as compelling and exciting as the images that James Cameron brought us in Avatar. The big surprise at the heart of Dragon? It wipes the floor with Avatar in the story/narrative department.
Adapted from the novels by Cressida Cowell, Dragon re-imagines the world of the book slightly to create a land of danger and peril, with hearty, rugged Vikings doing battle with the large, scaly pests of their age; dragons. Right from the outset, the audience is introduced to young Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a dubious Viking lad who doesn’t have any of the fierce swagger, motley spirit or physical imposition that everyone, including the women of his clan, possess. Hiccup serves as narrator and protagonist, and in a stunning and clever opening sequence we are introduced to his village, his blustery father, Stoick the Vast, and the numerous species of dragon that terrorize their land.
In his world, Hiccup has been taught that killing dragons is one of the greatest feats a Viking can achieve. They are monstrous pests that steal livestock and burn homes, and the whole village has based its social system around their ability to slay them. There are even dragon slaying schools, one of which Hiccup attends when Gobber, the class instructor, coerces Stoick to let him join. His classmates are all true blue Viking whelps who take the slaying seriously, but Hiccup can barely lift a shield.
Among these warrior adolescents is Astrid (America Ferrera) who is far more gifted and fetching in Hiccup’s eyes than her posse, comprised of Snotlout, Fish Legs and the bickering twins, Tuffnut and Ruffnut. When he does manage to capture a dragon, using his own ingenuity, it turns out to be a Night Fury, the most fearsome and secretive of all the species. When it comes to time to kill the beast, Hiccup can’t do it and so he frees the creature, it doesn’t immediately eat him, and a friendship is born.
The dragon, nicknamed Toothless, is a beguiling and endearing creation. Hiccup mostly observes him at first, from a distance, and eventually realizes the animal has a broken tail wing, which prevents him from leaving the valley. Toothless isn’t a giant, leather-winged monstrosity but rather he’s lithe and catlike, part salamander and part panther, with big yellow eyes and a wide mouth that curiously turns upwards in a snickering smile.
In a wonderful melding of the computer animation and classic cartoon styling, Toothless is both an exaggerated character and a visually realistic one. When he’s running around the valley and standing on his hind legs staring at Hiccup he resembles Stitch, the alien visitor from Sanders and Dublois last film. But when Hiccup is riding on his back, or running his hands across Toothless’ scales, we could be looking at a photographic image, so great is the clarity and detail.
The film works as well as it does, though, not just because of the visual elements but because of the story, which brings the Hiccup and Toothless relationship to the forefront, and forces Hiccup to follow his own instincts regarding right and wrong as opposed to the perceptions of his village. Sanders and Dublois have a strong and sincere handle on odd partnerships in fantasy films. They ran a wickedly comic spin on E.T. in Lilo and Stitch, with a young girl befriending a horribly destructive menace from space and here they evoke the wild wonder of connecting with a force of nature.
I was reminded of the touching relationship between the boy and his horse in The Black Stallion. When Hiccup rides Toothless for the first time, it’s a moment of staggering beauty and visceral excitement, but also one of emotional connection. This aspect energizes and amplifies everything else that happens.
Without giving away the rest of the story, I will say that How To Train Your Dragon hasn’t been conceived as a tepid kid’s flick or as a joke factory disguised as a fantasy movie. It takes the story it is telling seriously, and the world it presents is a dangerous and formidable one, with all of the teeth left in but never too scary or threatening that little ones can’t participate.
There is a confidence in the work here that is reminiscent of films like The Never Ending Story or, as I said before, Star Wars. The final battle that closes the movie, with dragons soaring frantically through the air, combating a larger more fearsome menace is easily comparable to the assault on the Death Star at the end of A New Hope. There is a unfettered sense of imagination employed here, and although it never hesitates to have fun with the concept, Dragon never disrespects its characters or its audience.
In regards to the characters, Toothless was easily my favorite, but I was also won over by Butler as Stoick the Vast. It is unusual in films of this type for the animation and the voice work to mesh so completely that we buy the character as something more than a ‘cartoon’. Butler imbues Stoick’s Asterisk build and big bushy beard with enough soul and Viking spirit, that even as his bulk is overpowering the film’s frame, his interior is revealing softer, nobler compartments that his son has barely guessed at. It’s amazing and often subtle work, and it echoes the approach taken with the 3D.
Aside from Avatar, this is one of the first times I can wholeheartedly recommend the 3D experience over a 2D one. Although never flashy, Dragon really mines the technology for big thrills, daredevil action sequences and yet reserves the most startling effects for very small, throwaway moments. There is a scene where ash is falling like snow from the sky, and it could very well be blanketing the seats in the theater. It is impressive and never draws attention away from the story.
How To Train Your Dragon is one of those welcome and joyful discoveries that we don’t get often enough; a satisfying and endearing adventure that brings its audience, both young and old, together. It imagines a world that will be worth returning to, over and over, for years to come.