“How To Train Your Dragon” is a new animated film set in an island/village called Berk. Completely surrounded by water and far from any land, this area is populated by two things: fierce Vikings and vicious dragons. More accurately just the Vikings; the dragons appear just to terrorize the island and it is the Vikings’ so-called duty to fend them off. The most untamable species of dragon is called Night Fury, which is so destructive that the Vikings’ handbook of dragons doesn’t even give assuring tactics for defense: “Hide and pray it doesn’t find you.”
So is anyone really to blame for not believing that scrawny, dorky Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) had in fact blown a Night Fury straight out of the sky? The story happens to be true, but it was out of pure luck that it happened. Hiccup’s father Stoick (Gerard Butler) is one of the village’s chief barbarians when it comes to fighting dragons and couldn’t be a farther contrast from his son. He lives to kill.
As many of Berk’s Vikings set off to find the source where all the dragons are coming from, Hiccup, along with teenagers Astrid (America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse a.k.a. McLovin) and twins Ruffnut and Tuffnut (Kristen Wiig and T.J. Miller) undergo dragon defense training. Their teacher is an old weaponry expert named Gobber (Craig Ferguson). Unlike the other kids, who become bloodthirsty at the thought of rumbling with the dragons, Hiccup is viewed as an outcast because he doesn’t see the point of it all.
While roaming the terrain one day, Hiccup comes across the Night Fury he shot and trapped. While at first frightened by the beast, he soon discovers it is not ferocious, but is instead a rather friendly creature. Keeping secretive in a small haven, he practices and experiments on numerous exercises to train or outwit dragons. As time moves along, Hiccup both metamorphoses into a celebrity among Vikings and develops a kindly relationship with his dragon (which he names Toothless).
“How To Train Your Dragon” is being distributed by the Dreamworks Animation company, most of whose work I find much inferior to the masterful Disney-Pixar animators. While some efforts by them have proven to be good (such as the first two “Shrek” movies and “Over The Hedge”), a major division between this company and Pixar is that Dreamworks much-too-frequently uses of-the-moment pop culture references to stand in for their comic relief and their films are more about extracting laughs from the audience rather than conveying an interesting story.
“Dragon,” in my humble opinion, is a huge step up from efforts of that variety. Not only does it rank near the top of my favorites by the animation studio, but also it feels very honest with itself, which I really have to admire. The film does have a sizable amount of heart in its characters. The chemistry between Hiccup and Toothless is rather adorable to watch unfold and characters, though sometimes underdeveloped, have enjoyable quirks and layers. Also, when the broadest cultural reference in the movie is an allusion to Dungeons and Dragons, it can’t be too riddled with the now tired and needless caveats.
The voice acting is very strong in the film as well. My favorite performances were Craig Ferguson as the bumbling Gobber and, oddly enough, Gerard Butler as the rugged Stoick. Butler, one who I’ve never been able to click with as an actor, surprised me with his voice acting ability. Ferguson, who is pretty much just using his speaking voice, plays his character with much energy and humor, making for a comically inspired portrayal.
And hot damn! Dreamworks especially upped the ante in terms of the animation itself. The CG characters, dragons, environments, and everything else looks absolutely phenomenal. While the company has in the past been very cartoony with character designs (they still occasionally appear, such as in Gobber), “Dragon” makes a much more involved attempt to make them actually look like real people. The characters’ surroundings are colorful, vibrant and nearly flawless. I can only hope that future releases could look as good as this movie does.
The only major drawback I had was that, just like many other modern day movies, it feels it has to sum up everything with an elongated action sequence. Honestly, it is possible for me to go for an action scene here and there. Yet in order for a sequence like that to be effective, it has to be forwarding the story in some way. Instead the sequence only acts just as an alternative to exposition. Unfortunate circumstance, but what can you really expect?
“How To Train Your Dragon” still remains as complete as most other animated features to be released in the last year. With great animation, characters with more than two dimensions to them (there is a pun in there somewhere) and a solid voice cast, the film is a definite winner. While not quite as memorable as some of Pixar’s best, or even the first Shrek movie, it stands as one of the best movies of the young year.