To completely give over to Dreamworks' How
to Train Your Dragon, you have to accept a couple of
things. First, there are dragons. That's really not a problem,
as whatever title you think it has, you know going in that
it's about dragons. Secondly, you have to believe that Vikings
were actually Scottish, but that you don't get your accent
until you achieve full adulthood.
Sorry, Scotland, but after about ten minutes
of this exuberant family film, it became abundantly clear
that in the dead of night those bloody Vikings snuck in
and completely pillaged your dialect. Your loss was their
Burly men need a burly accent, especially
when they have to defend their village against marauding
hordes of dragons. That village may be generations old,
but every building is new, as they have to rebuild after
every attack. Only one teenager, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel),
realizes that there's got to be a better way.
Except that when we meet him, Hiccup is
just as bloodthirsty as his people. With a willing spirit,
he has a problem being somewhat less than puny in comparison
to his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler). Having father issues
to spare, Hiccup chooses to dabble in advanced weaponry,
halfway under the tutelage of the village blacksmith Gobber
(a brilliant Craig Ferguson).
If only Hiccup could be more of something
other than all of what he is, Gobber advises, then maybe
the village would respect him. And maybe he could earn the
love of his life, America Ferrera's Astrid, looking like
ABBA joined Dethklok.
When the chips are down, Hiccup has his
chance to slay a dragon but makes a fateful choice putting
him on the path we expect. It's the telling, not the tale
itself, that works so extremely well. Even though many beats
of the story are familiar, Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris
Sanders have a few curves to throw and a willingness to
be lightly disturbing with their imagery.
Of course, it should be expected from Sanders,
a somewhat underrated creator who hand-delivered unto Disney
their greatest late 20th Century creation, Stitch. An old
hand at bobbing and weaving into family friendly anarchy,
he has a knack for finding the bizarre and helping us realize
film takes bizarre stretches with dragons, using design
influences from a variety of cultures' traditions. Some
dragons have a distinct resemblance to those in China's
mythology, some more Western, while the dragon we come to
love, Toothless, feels a lot like a lost Pokemon.
Yet Toothless has a lot more personality
than that implies. It's not a fast character arc from apparently
savage creature (a breed of dragon that the Vikings had
only known from the damage in its wake, never slowing down
enough to be seen) to domesticated pet. For far longer than
usual, Toothless' alliances are in doubt. Like Stitch, he
struggles with his own nature, and the understandable prejudices
of the Viking clan make that struggle harder.
All the character work is memorable, though
Hiccup's peers are mostly comedic stereotypes. Jonah Hill
steps in as a Viking boy full of bravado and clearly modeled
after Jack Black, while the creative team finds a way for
Christopher Mintz-Plasse to transplant his gamer nerd characterization
to actual dragon fighting.
of them have Scottish accents, but that's okay. It helps
them stand out from the older actors, including short bursts
from Ashley Jensen (Extras and Ugly Betty)
and David Tennant (do I really have to remind you?).
hasn't really touted the voice cast, and in truth, the concept
doesn't need it. But this movie has some solid acting work,
and Butler may have delivered his finest performance of
the year as a father struggling to connect with his son
but having no idea how to go about it.
this works in tandem with beautiful design and astounding
lighting. The team consulted with Cinematographer Roger
Deakins to create a world of wonder. The quality of the
movie alone makes it worth seeing; Deakins' work makes How
to Train Your Dragon worth seeing in at least 3D. (I
saw it in IMAX as well.)
Not every movie deserves to charge that
extra fee for glasses, but when one immerses you in a wondrous
environment like this one, you have to consider it. Even
if you're not sure what to call the movie.
And that's my strangest sticking point.
For the first time that I can recall, a major movie studio
has an ad campaign that is either absolutely brilliant or
absolutely insulting to the intelligence of the movie-going
public. If you have seen or heard an ad on television or
the radio for this movie, they sometimes call it Dragons,
immediately jumping to the title that small children and
grandmothers would be calling it anyway.
I feel a little bit like that's an approach
in how to train your sheep, but the whole family should
go, including those teens trying to find where they fit
in their village.