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Largely based on the Cressida Cowell novel by screenwriter Will Davies and directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, How to Train Your Dragon finds Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), a Viking teenager who resides on a desolate island where fighting dragons is what separates the men from the boys.
And as the skinny, never-do-well son of the Vikings’ chieftain, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), Hiccup is no doubt still a boy. However, he’s now reached the age where he must face the rite of passage of slaying a dragon. The problem is that Hiccup doesn’t have both the nerve and the physical ability to do it.
As the village’s unluckiest and most accident-prone citizen, Hiccup has no real friends save for maybe the blacksmith Gobber (Craig Ferguson), who also serves as the dragon training instructor. Hiccup soon finds himself on a crossroads when he starts dragon training with the other kids in his tribe, namely Astrid (America Ferrera), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), and twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (TJ Miller,) even as he secretly befriends and cares for a injured dragon which he calls Toothless.
In Viking culture, there’s nothing more treacherous or hazardous than making friends with the enemy — especially when it’s a dragon. But Hiccup discovers that maybe the dragons fear the humans as much as they fear them. Will Hiccup ultimately grow into the man his father always wants him to be by slaying a dragon, or will he cherish his newfound friendship with Toothless?
DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon is a sweet film that, despite a valiant effort, never truly rises to the occasion. Its most notable drawback is its formulaic “zero to hero” storyline, where the result is a foregone conclusion from the beginning. Beyond just clinging to Joseph Campbell’s oft-used “Hero’s Journey” paradigm, HTTYD also retreads some of the same ground covered in Disney’s 1997 animated feature Hercules and its direct-to-video prequel Hercules: Zero to Hero, where the main character is a gawky misfit who, after accidentally creating chaos on his own village, must undergo training in order to find his true potential. (The upcoming Clash of the Titans remake also owes a fair deal to Disney’s Hercules, but I’ll get into that in next week’s review.)
On a technical level, it would be nice to see a CG-animated movie that actually appears different. Every CG-animated character nowadays, whether human or animal, has the same body type, facial structures, movements, etc. I know studios probably want audiences to be confused as to whether they’re watching a Pixar movie or a DreamWorks one (or a knock-off of both), but there was a time when you could tell animated films apart. It gave the movies and the ones who made them — whether it was Disney, Ralph Bakshi, Hanna-Barbera, Warner Bros., Rankin-Bass — a sense of identity and a distinctive brand look. Now everything looks handsomely produced but generic. How to Train Your Dragon film’s no different.
But what helps elevate How to Train Your Dragon above the glut of other recent animated movies is its message about tolerance and learning that your enemy may not be as different as you think. I’m sure some film student will read too much into the movie and find a post-9/11 or War on Terror metaphor to use as the thesis for a term paper. But the movie is really just trying to send a positive message (albeit a heavy-handed, sermonizing one) to kids about the perils of fear, prejudice, and violence. It’s tough to really knock a kid’s film that tries to do something more than the usual spate of fart jokes and musical numbers. It would be nice if How to Train Your Dragon had been a bit more original and daring considering its intriguing Vikings versus dragons premise.