How to Train your Dragon, the latest film from Dreamworks Animation, tells the story of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a young Viking and the only son of village chief, blacksmith and single dad Stoick The Vast (Gerard Butler).
Hiccup is a disappointment to his father because he’s a klutz and not interested in slaying the dragons that constantly attack their village and steal their livestock.
Hiccup is also attracted to Astrid (America Ferrera) but, a tough Viking girl, she’s only interested in boys who want to kill dragons. The story begins in earnest when Hiccup is thrown into dragon training class with Astrid and other town children, while he is secretly befriending an injured Night Fury dragon he names “Toothless”.
Cute and predictable, there’s nothing exceptional about How to Train your Dragon, but it’s still a good diversion. There’s also a dry sarcasm throughout the film that I found appealing and amusing, helping adults alleviate boredom while escorting their younger charges. For example, at the beginning of the film Hiccup explains “We’re Vikings, we have stubbornness issues” and later, one of the kids in dragon training insists “it’s only fun if you get a scar!” Worth seeing in the theater? Probably, especially if you like 3D, but it’ll be on DVD soon enough too.
As is common in children’s movies, there’s a group of misfit kids who tease each other but band together when the going gets tough. Curiously, though, we almost never see the children interacting with their parents and are instead left to their own devices. Even when they have meals, the children are together in the Great Hall, not with their parents. Coupled with Hiccup’s missing (and barely mentioned) mother, it reminded me of how rarely children in these movies live with their birth mother and father.
The animation style was delightfully whimsical and many of the dragons were almost elementary-school-style drawings with teeth impossibly big and curved. Still, when they spit fire and attack the village, it’s frightening and certainly might be a bit intense for the youngest of filmgoers. If you have a young child, you might want to screen the film in advance to make sure they can handle the imagery.
The animation team also deserves special kudos for the character names. You don’t necessarily catch the wry silliness of the names when you watch the film, but just about every character in How to Train your Dragon has an amusing name. Here are some of the best: Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Phlegma the Fierce (Ashley Jensen), the twins Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Spitelout (David Tennant).
Hiccup and Toothless fly through the clouds
Unlike films that retrofit the 3D technology onto an already completely film (Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans), a film like How to Train your Dragon is rendered in 3D from the first frame, and it shows. There’s more depth to the visuals and they’re rendered as three-dimensional objects rather than multiple 2D layers. The exterior shots and the scenes where Hiccup and Toothless are flying high above the village, swooping through precarious terrain, are terrific.
However, there was a problem with the 3D that I noticed too: in many scenes there was a visible motion blur. In one scene the camera pans down the mountainside to show you the boats preparing to depart from the dock, and it’s not until it “stops” panning that the objects in the scene gain clarity. Once I noticed that effect, I saw it occur again and again as the scenery raced by in 3D. Perhaps it’s a limitation of how our brains can process the forced dimensionality, but it marred an otherwise fine example of 3D technology.
I was also startled at how much Toothless looked like Stitch from the 2002 Disney animated feature Lilo and Stitch. One’s a dragon and the other is an alien refugee, but the scenes where Toothless tries to smile or eats fish make him look a lot like Stitch. A curiosity, but as you can see in the image above, there’s another “inspiration” that seems to have impacted the Dreamworks Animation team: Avatar. The exterior mountaintops, constantly wreathed in clouds, are often remarkably similar to the planet Pandora in the James Cameron blockbuster.
Oh, and one more parallel: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. What most stands out in my mind about ET was how it simplistically made all adults bad and untrustworthy and all kids good and able to really band together and save the day. In a similar way, How to Train your Dragon has a strong subtext of adults ignoring children and being stupid and violent while children are good and generally want to work together to achieve harmony.
I enjoyed How to Train your Dragon. The visuals were impressive, the story was predictable but lively and interesting, and the voice characterizations were amusing. It’s not a great children’s movie but would be a pleasant 98 minute diversion, particularly with its generally splendid 3D imagery.