Many movies aimed at children are abject failures. They pander to kids, pretending they're smarter than their parents, and insult adults, reducing them to simpering caricatures. Soaring and swooping, both visually and emotionally, How to Train Your Dragon avoids those traps, instead playing out as a grand, invigorating, all-ages adventure.
Adapted from a book by Carolyn Cressida Cowell *, the film takes significant liberties with its source material, but starts at the same place. Vikings landed on the North Atlantic island of Berk and made it their own. The older generation speaks with a thick Scottish brogue -- historically accurate, if delightfully disconcerting -- and preaches the old Viking ways. Young Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel at his most diffident) wants nothing more than to be a good Viking, just like his father Stoick (Gerard Butler, born to play a character with that name). Hiccup's resolve is tested by his adolescent clumsiness and a sneaking suspicion that he may never be half the man that he imagines his father to be.
Dragons besiege the island. Thus an annual coming-of-age ceremony involves a young lad or lady demonstrating their qualifications as a Viking by killing a fierce flying creature in battle. Hiccup is all too eager to begin training as a dragon-killer, hoping to prove his manliness, but his father is reluctant to put his soft, gentle son on the battle lines when he seems too gentle and awkward to survive.
Everything from the angle of the shot to the speed of the editing projects an end visual that feels like you’re either on Toothless’ back – sweeping in, out and thru small alleys on the cliff – or you get an outsider perspective of just how fast he’s flyng. It’s a combination of the wonder of flight in Avatar mixed with the speedy dogfights in Top Gun. I didn’t even have to experience the movie in 3D to feel it.
The rest of the picture is, for the most part, typical Dreamworks Animation storytelling with little surprises. The characters (voiced by the likes of America Ferrara, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, and Kristen Wiig) will be more fun for kids probably than their parents, but the grown-ups should be able to appreciate and enjoy the bulk of the film about the bond between Hiccup and Toothless. Dreamworks may not have yet steered clear of their habits fully, nor do they feel they probably need to, but I value baby steps in another direction when they attempt something against their own conventions; especially, if the steps are as exciting as those in How to Train Your Dragon.
The Upside: Incredible flying sequences, some interesting visual angles, and Toothless – the first character Dreamworks has produced that rivals the characters Pixar gets such an emotional response out of. The careful evolution to friendship between Toothless and Hiccup is also a big plus.
The Downside: The story is telegraphed, and most of the human characters are much less entertaining than the dragons who say nothing.