How to Train Your Dragon film takes a simple approach: It’s selling journey. Wild, high-flying, wind in your hair adventure. A lot happens along the way and sure there’s a message but DreamWorks movies at their best, and this is one of them, are all about escapism.
How to Train Your Dragon takes its audience on a fire-breathing, dipping, diving ride and never looks back.
Animated movies come in all shapes and sizes, with different goals, ideas, and aims. Pixar’s movies, for instance, are usually focused on making an emotional connection with the characters. You shed your tears during the first ten minutes of Up, go on, admit the truth. Other animated movies are played mainly for laughs, others lean on some moral lesson. How to Train Your Dragon takes a simple approach: It’s selling adventure. Wild, high-flying, wind in your hair adventure. A lot happens along the way and sure there’s a message but DreamWorks movies at their best, and this is one of them, are all about escapism. How to Train Your Dragon takes its audience on a fire-breathing, dipping, diving ride and never looks back.
It begins in Viking village, one which resembles a lot like the hillside halls of Rohan in Lord of the Rings. In the village lives a horde of sturdy, ass-kicking Vikings and a kind of nerdy, gangly kid named Hiccup. They’re at war, pretty much all the time. They have to deal with a horde of fire-breathing dragons who invade their homes, almost nightly, snatching livestock and burning everything in sight. Anyone else would have moved long ago, but they’re Vikings, and stubbornness comes with the territory. Yet, Hiccup is far less Viking than usual and he’s not much good at fighting or looking at danger in the eye and lopping off its head. Still he wants to fit in and so, desperate to prove himself, he concocts a catapult and uses it knock one of their aerial attackers out of the sky. When no one believes he’s done the thing, Hiccup sets off on his own to seek his downed foe, and discovers something surprising.
Hiccup finds his dragon trapped and injured. Unable to kill a helpless animal, he frees it, helps it, and eventually actually learns to ride it. The film launches into a series of completely breathtaking flying scenes, soaring through clouds and skimming along an endless ocean as Hiccup and the dragon he names “Toothless” sort things out together. For a time things seem to be going well, Hiccup keeps his secret and uses the dragon know-how he learns while working with Toothless to impress his fellow villagers. But of course, it’s a state which can’t go on forever, and eventually things come to a head.
It’s the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless which really carries the film. Toothless, in particular, is a brilliant piece of animation. He’s drawn in the mold of DreamWorks Animation’s purposely cartoony style but they use movement to give him a life that is more than just a few silly pixels. It’s easy to imagine Toothless as your own loyal friend (I couldn’t help but see my English Spaniel in the way he asks for food) while at the same time getting the feeling of danger and destruction he’s able to create. It’s expertly visual characterization, and Toothless is just one of the greatest spots in a bright and stunning movie.
How to Train Your Dragon is filled with great characters and Jay Baruchel’s voice work as Hiccup is an ideal fit for the film’s dweeby, awkward lead character. Gerard Butler is gruff and hilarious and menacing all at once as Hiccup’s Viking father Stoick and TV talk show host Craig Ferguson, in an unexpected turn, steals the spotlight as Hiccup’s demented mentor Gobber. Ok, maybe Vikings don’t have to strictly speak in Scottish accents, but this is pure fantasy and a good one.
If there’s a problem with Dragon it’s that I wanted more of it. They’ve kept the story almost too simple, stripped it down, and let a lot of major moments happen off camera. This could have easily served as a two and a half hour epic but DreamWorks, probably sometimes a little too focused on catering to children, stops at a surface level, glossing over more complex elements of the tale to focus in on adventure.
But who doesn’t like adventure? How to Train Your Dragon soars to epic heights. It’s DreamWorks’ best movie since Kung Fu Panda and maybe even, second only to Panda, their best work so far. Those two films show a new level of work at DreamWorks, the kind of moviemaking capable at last of going head to head with the established greatness of Pixar and, in some aspects, bettering them. More of this DreamWorks. More of this.