Brace yourself for the first 10 minutes of How to Train Your Dragon. They're among the most chaotic ever seen in an animated feature, as Scottish-accented Vikings bellow and grunt while warding off a full-scale night attack on their village by flying fire-breathing dragons. All the while our protagonist (a boy named Hiccup) cynically provides commentary with a crash course on the various characters and breeds of dragons—the introductions come so fast amid the dark lighting and shaky "camera" movement, it leaves you wondering which Viking or dragon he's referring to as they run/fly by. I feared the whole movie would be as numbingly busy and confusing.
Have patience. When Dragon eventually finds its wings—along with its heart—it soars.
The latest animated feature from Dreamworks (Shrek, Kung-Fu Panda) is based on the first book in a celebrated series by Cressida Cowell. It's a conventional tale about a boy and his dog (alien, whale, creature du jour) that we've seen aplenty, but I think kids will be dazzled by what they see—as will the jaded adults, thanks to the beautifully rendered animation (well worth viewing in 3D if you can).
Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is a quirky and clumsy teenager who simply wants to fit in with Viking society by becoming a warrior, rather than remain the village punchline. His father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), is the heroic leader of the clan who has trouble seeing his incompetent offspring as anything more than a misfit. Nevertheless, he reluctantly agrees to let Hiccup attend Viking school, even though it probably means his son will get killed during his first (supervised) encounter with a dragon.
That might be the case if it weren't for one pivotal secret unbeknownst to the Stoick and the other Vikings: Hiccup successfully shot down a dragon during the opening battle sequence—a fearsome Night Fury, in fact. (The movie celebrates its varied dragon breeds in a masterful stroke of art design … and toy marketing.) The boy later finds the wounded dragon in the forest with plans to finish him off, but discovers he doesn't have the killer instinct to do it.
Instead, he nurtures "Toothless" back to health, and the two forge a soulful bond that causes Hiccup to better understand himself and realize there may be more to these creatures than the Vikings realize. And in a rather touching symbiotic twist, it turns out that the two need each other to fly.
So, adding an orthopedic wing, Hiccup saddles up his sleek black dragon friend, and then the movie really takes off. The flying scenes are the best thing about How to Train Your Dragon, recreating the exhilarating sensation of zipping between rocks and floating through clouds. It's the same sort of magic felt during E.T.'s famed moonlight flight, or in the case of the climactic sky battle, the same thrilling action from the finale of the original Star Wars.
But where the movie falters is its predictability; you almost always know exactly where it's headed. In befriending Toothless, Hiccup gains a better understanding of dragons, moving him to the head of the class and pleasantly surprising everyone in the village, including his father. Wanna guess whether the truth about Hiccup's success comes to light? Hiccup has a crush on his classmate Astrid (Ugly Betty's America Ferrera), a tough warrior who seems to hate his guts. Think she might end up seeing him in a different light? And of course, Toothless is a carefully guarded secret, but you know there will come a scene when the Vikings discover and capture him while Hiccup pleads "Don't hurt my friend!" in the background.
A familiar story can still be fun, if the dialogue and characterizations weren't equally formulaic. The father-son scenes have some emotional resonance, but resemble dozens of other relationships from animated features. Attempts at humor are often forced, relying on cheap slapstick wit to satisfy kids, but offering little that's truly clever or hilarious. And Hiccup's classmates are all stock characters from other movies requiring supporting friends: the tough minded love interest, the charismatic bully, the bickering fraternal twins, the fat nerd obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons.
Baruchel brings an enjoyably snarky quality to his voice performance, but at the same time, he seems out of place, sounding older than his character. (Baruchel is 28.) Butler returns to 300 mode for his character, but brings little to the role beyond his Scottish accent; the same could be said of late night host Craig Ferguson as Hiccup's blacksmith/teacher Gobber. There's just not enough memorable about the human characters.
So how ironic is it that Dragon does better in the scenes of silence? You get the feeling that Dreamworks is slowly learning from Pixar how to show (the flying and the dragon bonding) instead of tell (the opening sequence). Toothless is remarkably animated, expressing so much in body language. Fierce in once scene, cute as a puppy the next—the difference is in the eyes, but pay attention to what causes Toothless to let his guard down and befriend the humans.
Though this Dragon is conventional at worst, it's never awful. It's entertaining enough as a rousing adventure for families, but it's the animation that truly makes the film fly higher than others in the genre.Discussion starters
- Why does Hiccup so badly want to kill a dragon at the beginning of the movie? Why does Stoick want to keep his son safe from battle? What keeps father and son apart in this movie, and what do you believe ultimately brings them closer?
- Why does Hiccup choose not to kill Toothless? Why does Toothless spare Hiccup?
- What is the movie saying about finding our place in this world and proving our worth to others? Is there value to "fitting in" with others? Why is it better to "be yourself"? What does the Bible have to say about embracing who we are?
- Didyou notice how Toothless has serpentine slits for eyes when he's angry, and big pupils when he's friendly? What causes the change? Why is Toothless so fierce when confronted by humans in one scene, but so friendly in the next? What specific act or quality brings about this change of heart in the dragon? How is it applicable to our own lives?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
How to Train Your Dragon is rated PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language. The language is so brief and mild, it wasn't enough to catch my attention. The Vikings adhere to Norse mythology, referring to "gods," "Thor," and "Odin." The "scary images" might be too much for young children. Dragons attack a village with ferocity, teen kids are imperiled learning about dragon attacks at school, and an enormous super-dragon could inspire nightmares. As cute and family friendly as most of the movie is, take the PG seriously; this is not a G-rated cartoon.
Photos © Dreamworks Animation/Paramount.
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