How to Train Your Dragon (2010) / Animation-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language
Running Time: 98 min.
Cast (voices): Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig
Small role (voice): David Tennant
Director: Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders
Screenplay: William Davies, Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders
Review published June 1, 2014
Jay Baruchel (Fanboys, Knocked Up) voices the protagonist, Hiccup, a young Viking living in a tiny village called Berk. Berk's inhabitants have little to live for except to fend off countless attacks by a wide variety of fire-breathing dragons. Hiccup has disappointed his father, the Viking leader named Stoick (Butler, PS I Love You), for not being manly enough to join the dragon-vanquishing warriors in defending the village, which has strained their relationship greatly, to the point where the elder thinks his son is a lost cause.
Things take an interesting turn when Hiccup has a face-to-face encounter with an injured "Night Fury" dragon in the wild, dubbed 'Toothless' by the lad, and though there is much fear on both parts at first, eventually the two form a special bond of friendship. However, such a relationship is not tolerated by the dragon-hating clan at home, and Hiccup is going to have a hard time convincing them that dragons aren't the evil creatures they've always grown up thinking they were.
How to Train Your Dragon is directed and co-written by the Lilo & Stitch team of Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, who very loosely adapt the Cressida Cowell book to great success. It's the basic 'Hero's Journey' formula, but, being a family film, meant for a new generation, and very well made in that regard. It's a very human film, underneath the eye candy, really about a boy and his new friend, which is a time-honored tale with a spin that invites viewers to not judge too soon groups you've been told are the enemy without actually getting to know why they do what they do.
The visual effects are gorgeous, especially in the depiction of the all-important dragon fire and its explosiveness. The animation, while still cartoony, is top notch as well, with lots of moving parts that are well rendered and tightly developed. It's a cinematic experience through and through, and despite it being an animated film, acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins (True Grit) was brought in as a consultant to get the look just right for the screen. If you're one of the lucky people to have seen it in 3D on a big screen, you know just how much of a difference solid camera-work can make, as How to Train Your Dragon stands as one of the best to use the process, with stunning shots of the beauty of dragon flight, and massive, soaring aerial battles that illustrate their destructive power. That these sights are punctuated by a memorably epic John Powell (Hancock, Kung Fu Panda) score makes this a truly thrilling action-adventure.
Though I do have a certain love for the film overall, there are a few things that do count as detractions: Jay Baruchel may have a distinctive voice that will work well in animated features, but he just sounds too old to play the part of a boy who might not even be in his teenage years. The accents are also wildly inconsistent with no explanation, as Butler and Craig Ferguson (Saving Grace, Doc Martin) imbue their Viking leaders with a thick Scottish brogue, while the younger characters all have American accents (they all grew up in the same town, one would presume, which makes this especially perplexing). The climax of the film, in which the Vikings venture out to take out the dragon nest, is also problematic, as they have no real game plan. Given that their world gets often gets rocked by just one dragon while in the heavily-defended walls of Berk, it seems exceedingly illogical that they'd venture far out of their to try to take on hundreds of dragons head-on within the beasts' own turf with just their swords. Also, Hiccup's narration describing Berk suggests that it snows in Berk nine months out of the year and hails the other three, and yet for the entirety of the film's time span (Weeks? Months?), it's little but clear and sunny skies.
But these are only minor issues compared to the sheer delight of the overall experience. Setting aside a bit of clunkiness that kids (and most adults) won't really care about, Dreamworks has knocked it out of the park on this one, crafting one of their best efforts to compete with the likes of Pixar. How to Train Your Dragon is a smart, rousing, fun, funny, and heartwarming family adventure that will delight and awe young and old.
-- Followed by How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)
©2014 Vince Leo