Bottom Line: A lively though disjointed 3D cartoon that never quite entices an audience to invest emotionally in its fantasy world.
“How to Train Your Dragon” pits dragons against Vikings with one small child standing between them crying, “Why can’t we all just get along?” The Vikings are all brawn and matted, bushy hair — and there’s an implication of not much brains — while the dragons are a menagerie of fierce flying, fire-belching, multitasking creatures that fear and are feared in equal measure. From this, DreamWorks Animation tries to fashion a 3D movie that will intrigue kids and adults alike but might play raggedly in both camps.
Despite its jocular title, the film contains intense action scenes and violence, enough so that small children supplied a background of cries at one recent screening. Nonetheless, opening week should find long lines in front of cinemas. How favorably youngsters respond to the dragons might determine what kind of legs the cartoon eventually will achieve.
The film is directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, who did the marvelous “Lilo & Stitch.” In many ways, it’s the same movie: A child adopts, then tames a lethal creature.
But the intimacy and pop culture references of the “Lilo & Stitch” story are jettisoned in favor of ancient warriors and mythical creatures that feel remote. It’s hard to form a rooting interest in either Vikings or dragons.
More curious from an animation standpoint are the dull human characters. They are plastic creatures that look like ads for children’s dolls. Most of the male Vikings come off as no-neck athletes on steroids. The youngsters look closer to cartoon humans, and at least they come in different sizes, with our protagonist and a valiant young Viking girl who catches his eye being downright skinny. What are they eating that everyone else is not?
The centerpiece of the movie is a developing friendship between a Viking boy, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), and a dragon nicknamed Toothless. By befriending rather than killing a wounded dragon — as tradition and genes should dictate — Hiccup realizes that everything his elders know about dragons is wrong.
Dragons are trainable, peaceable and affectionate. But try telling that to tribal elders or your father (Gerard Butler) — who just happens to be the chief — or even that friendly dragon master (Craig Ferguson, thickening that Scottish brogue even more if such a thing were possible).
There are side issues here for the young protagonist, who tries to win over his dad and a young Viking girl (America Ferrera) while not embarrassing himself in front of other Viking teens. It’s all standard-issue coming-of-age stuff. Recasting the formula in a Nordic neverland doesn’t freshen things up much.
The film’s calling card is action. The extended battles and flying sequences — Hiccup trains Toothless to allow the boy to ride him with a saddle — provide plenty of thrills. Indeed, the directors and their animation team really seem to perk up during these bravado sequences.
Otherwise, the visual element is disappointing. Beyond the plasticity of the humans, the world of the story feels sketchy at best. The cold, glum Norse Isle of Berk, where everyone lives — borrowed from a book series by British author Cressida Cowell — grows wearisome, and its other world, that of the dinosaurs, never comes to life.
There is a wide array of dragons flying through the air, but the film introduces them so quickly that you never know one from the other. The film treats them with ambivalence as the animators can’t decide between ferocity or cuddliness. Toothless has a kind of feline look, and the others look like they belong in a Chinatown parade.
“Dragon” reps a solid effort from DreamWorks, but the audience perhaps feels the effort more than it should.