Welcome to the island of Berk, where Vikings reign supreme, and constantly fight against the onslaught of dragons. These Vikings are all trained in the art of battle with these dragons. The biggest and best of them is Stoick (Gerard Butler) who just happens to have a son, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), that isn’t keen in following in the family footsteps. Hiccup is more interested in his inventions than plundering loot and slaying dragons. He stands in stark contrast to the beefy and brawny Viking clan around him. Although, when Hiccup takes down the biggest and baddest dragon of them all, a Night Fury, using his own ingenuity, he finds an unlikely ally in the dragon. Quickly, Hiccup learns that the dragons aren’t the enemy, but can he convince his clan of this as well before it is too late?
While the story focuses on fanciful tales of dragons and fictional Viking clans, the story manages to hit home due to a stellar voice cast and eye popping animation. The film is littered with themes of self-identity, the need to be accepted, and teaching you not to judge a book by its cover. Reading this on paper, you might think How To Train Your Dragon comes off as an over the top morality tale, but the message never becomes heavy handed. The themes themselves might be a little too obvious for adults, but this film isn’t really marketed towards them (although it does manage to keep every age group entertained). It is great that the message is just strong enough, without overwhelming the emotional aspects with in the film.
Jay Baruchel tries for effort number two of his breakout year, and this is probably his best shot. (It’s a shame not many people will be able to place a face to the name on this one.) His voice is perfect for the slightly awkward, but highly intelligent Hiccup. Gerard Butler finally has a role where I can enjoy him in, and finally one where I don’t have to hear his silly American accent. Although the supporting cast is where the film really comes alive with great turns by T.J. Miller, America Ferrara, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, and Kristen Wiig. I know some people really lament the death of the traditional voice actor, but I think many of these live action actors do some great voice work. Although, some people might confuse Craig Ferguson’s voice with Mike Meyer’s Shrek, but believe it or not the man is actually Scottish.
This is by far the best visual effort for the team at DreamWorks Animation. The 3D in the film is simply astounding. There are flight scenes in the film that will take your breath away, and that are on par with a film like Avatar. I have no doubt that this is the best use of 3D I have seen in an animated film yet. The bright visuals and unique character design seem to pop off the screen. The creature design is very good, although the main dragon in the film, Toothless, will remind you of Stitch from the Disney film Lilo & Stitch. That is of no surprise since the duo of Chris Sanders and Dean DuBlois were the directors of the spirited Disney animated film.
Sanders and DuBlois seem to have brought a little of the Disney magic over with them to DreamWorks. This is a film the whole family will love. Great characters, awesome voice acting, brilliant animation, and spectacular 3D sequences make it a sure fire hit. It isn’t every day that you get a film where you can take the whole family and share the same amount of laughter and tears.
How to Train Your Dragon is a high quality effort from DreamWorks that while still a far cry from Pixar overcomes its duller moments with some really amazing scenes of wonder.
The film follows our unlikely hero, Hiccup, who on an island full of Vikings that’s only goal is to fight dragons is not very good at the job. To make things worse, Hiccup is the son of the tribe’s leader and best warrior, Stoick. Hiccup spends most of his time as the town blacksmith’s, Gobber, apprentice and actually shows some skill as a craftsman. When the latest dragon attack brings the illusive Night Fury Hiccup gets a clean shot on it with a grappling device and takes it down in the woods outlying the city. When Stoick leads the village on an expedition to find the Dragon’s nest to try and eliminate the dragons for good, Hiccup gets enrolled in the dragon slaying training course with the local youths but has problems getting involved as he forms an unlikely bond with the downed Night Fury and the two become closer and closer friends.
Now I will say the film does take a bit to warm up, the first third of the movie or so is pretty standard and unoriginal stuff save some decent dragon carnage at the beginning of the film. It’s when Hiccup and Toothless, his affectionate name of his Night Fury, begin to bond and train that the film really takes off; literally. When the film takes to the sky it is awe inspiring and jaw droppingly beautiful. The 3-D is solid to top-notch throughout and I really can’t express how affecting the films scenes are between Hiccup and Toothless as they fly through the sky. What hurts the film is how it gets our juices going in the 2nd act when we get scenes with Toothless but then jumps back to the dragon slaying scenes that are just really dull and boring by comparison. Luckily, these scenes get shorter and shorter as Hiccup becomes a stronger trainer and the film cleverly blends his skills back and for the between Toothless and his classes.
The films third act works almost head to toe with a thrilling and exhilarating final fight scene. The twist to the dragons is a nice move on the writers’ part and while they cheat a bit with the kids learning the dragon ways too easily it’s easy to forgive as the imagery and story works so well. The design of Toothless is also extremely inspired and awesome with the sonic booms, screeching, and awesome blue fireballs. The character of Toothless is also the high point of the film delivering tons of heart and laughs for viewers of all ages.
The voice work in the film is also solid with Gerard Butler standing out and fitting perfectly into the role of Stoick. Jay Baruchel is good as hiccup and captures the balance of geeky and confidence of the character as it comes and goes throughout the picture. Craig Ferguson is a bit hit or miss as Goober but hits more than he misses, and that problem is more a writing issue than anything. The rest of the cast isn’t in it enough or do anything really all that special, but Jonah Hill’s character seemed a bit off to me.
In the end, How to Train Your Dragon is the best DreamWorks effort since Kung Fu Panda and while it might fit in the top 5 of the DreamWorks releases it is at the bottom of that bunch I think. The dull and unoriginal bits holds it back a bit but the flying scenes will be in the running for my favorite scenes of the year when it is all said and done. Kids will love it, Toothless is amazing, and there is plenty of humor and material for the adults as well. The 3-D is also worth the extra cash and while it is not as good as Coralline or Avatar it is probably the best I have seen beyond those, especially in the flying scenes which are worth the price of admission alone.
How to Train Your Dragon is a B+