As previously discussed on many occasions at Pajiba, DreamWorks is widely considered second to Pixar when it comes to animation excellence. Still, I’m really a sucker for an underdog, so I was pleased to see that DreamWorks’ maturity level has grown in the few years since the studio’s ass-clenching hero of Kung Fu Panda graced the celluloid screen. Of course, the upcoming Shrek Everlasting will likely cause me to eat these words, but, with How to Train Your Dragon, DreamWorks has pulled off a Pixar-level story with affecting characters and a refreshing lack of pop-culture allusions and no bodily function jokes to be found. Quite simply, this movie was made to last, so parents can breathe a sigh of relief that repeated viewings on DVD shall not destroy valuable brains cells of their children.
How to Train Your Dragon is based upon the beloved children’s book by Cressida Cowell and directed by the duo who previously brought Lilo & Stitch to life, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. Here, the pair is on familiar but undeniably irresistible territory; that is, a child encounters, tames, befriends, and eventually adopts a dangerous creature. The story follows daily life upon the small Nordic island of Berk, a place where dragon slaying is the ultimate profession, and the movie’s opening scene quickly introduces the audience to a dragon attack upon the community. We first meet the protagonist, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), who is the unlikely son of the island’s most capable dragon slayer, Chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler). Poor Hiccup is in constant yet futile search for his father’s approval, so he attempts to shoot down a Night Fury, a species so fearsome that no one actually knows what it looks like (because, naturally, no one has seen this creature and lived to tell the proverbial tale), aside from a purplish streak across a starry sky. Surprisingly, Hiccup does strike his intended target, but his father doesn’t believe him and even scolds his son for disrupting the actual dragon slaying taking place. So, Hiccup finds himself dejectedly wandering through the woods when he stumbles upon the wounded Night Fury. Over time, he earns the trust of the creature and bestows upon it a name, “Toothless.” Slowly, Hiccup nurses Toothless back to health and eventually saddles him up and teaches the creature to fly again. So, Hiccup learns the tricks of taming dragons and becomes the star of his dragon-slaying class, much to the dismay of his fellow students, which include the somewhat fetching Astrid (America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and troublesome twins Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig).
Visually, How to Train Your Dragon is an ace in the 2D or 3D hole, although the latter may be too powerful for those who experience motion sickness. The film’s flying sequences (which rival last year’s Up of Pixar notoriety), as rumoured, are indeed rather breathtaking but truly spectacular when Toothless soars above the ocean and alongside the Aurora Borealis. The screenplay, thankfully, doesn’t anthropomorphize the dragons — a definite plus here — so that each species is appropriately differentiated with “pantomimed” attributes, whether they are fairly vicious or totally fucking cute. Unsurprisingly, Toothless, who looks a bit catlike but acts like a puppy, is the main attraction and displays the most accurate rendering of emotions and expressions. Where the animation falters is in its rendering of humans, who seem much less lifelike than their dragon companions. Astrid’s facial structure even seems to change from a squishy, undefined blob at the beginning of the movie to a round-cheeked, blushing beauty towards the end. Perhaps this was intentional to reflect the characters’ internal growth, especially when Hiccup teaches his cohorts that the dragons are not violent by choice but merely reacting out of their own fear of the humans. And vice versa. You see, there have been countless battles that resulted in hundreds of dead humans and thousands of slain dragons, but it’s all just one big misunderstanding. Somehow, How to Train Your Dragon manages to pass on this message without sounding preachy, and there is the lovely hidden irony that the boy who was considered the least brave of all the Viking progeny ends up being braver than the Vikings themselves.
A few cautions, however, do exist. The movie’s PG-rating is defied by its movie’s intense action scenes, many of which render How to Train Your Dragon wholly unwatchable by the younger kiddies and, at moments, some of the adults in the audience, including myself. Unfortunately, when I see animals in danger, I tend to seriously freak out, and there are a number of moments when Toothless finds himself in life-threatening situations. The situation escalated to a point where I actually shrieked, “I hate this movie!” Fortunately, this feeling did not linger for more than a few minutes, but what did linger is my distaste for Gerard Butler, who does Viking in his usual Scottish brogue but with some Americanized undertone in manner of Yosemite Sam. The other voice talent is much more reliable, as Jay Baruchel pulls off a nondescript portrayal of Hiccup and America Ferrera shines as always. Take the older kiddies and save this one on DVD for the others.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.