What a refreshing change “How to Train Your Dragon” brings to the cartoon world: The creatures are not all that cute, and they do not speak a word.
DreamWorks Animation has been at the head of the pack for adorable, fast-talking critters with such movies as “Over the Hedge,” ”Kung Fu Panda” and the “Madagascar” series.
With “How to Train Your Dragon,” the filmmakers tone down the glib factor and tell a pretty good action yarn, a boy-and-his-dragon story filled with fiery Viking battles, swordplay and dazzling aerial imagery aboard the flying reptiles.
For small children, the movie may not rate as high on the laugh and sight-gag meter as some of those earlier, more slapstick-y DreamWorks tales. After a slow, rather droning start, though, “How to Train Your Dragon” takes off on an exhilarating ride through the ancient Norse world, the hardscrabble landscape also a pleasant change from the softer realms of other cartoons.
Based on Cressida Cowell’s children’s book, the movie follows the adventures of Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the scrawny, misfit son of Viking chief and master dragon-slayer Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler).
A disappointment to his dad and a joke to his community, Hiccup is determined to make up for his lack of brawn by using his wits to bring down a Night Fury, the fiercest breed among the dragons that besiege his island village.
He actually succeeds, but finds he lacks the hard heart it takes to finish off the dragon. Instead, Hiccup feeds and nurses the wounded dragon, which he names Toothless.
A shrewd observer, Hiccup picks up on the finer points of dragon behavior from his new pet, which he applies to his dragon-slaying lessons run by blacksmith Gobber (Craig Ferguson).
With his skills as a dragon whisperer, Hiccup becomes a local hero among the villagers and a rival for fierce classmate Astrid (America Ferrera).
Inevitably, Hiccup must prove his worth in battle, banding with his fellow trainees (played by a voice cast that includes Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) in an assault against a colossal dragon that would send a T-Rex scurrying for cover.
The voice work among the cast is a bit uneven, Baruchel’s nasally monotone threatening to whine the movie to death early on.
DreamWorks has gotten good mileage out of a Scottish accent in the “Shrek” movies, so the filmmakers let Scotsmen Butler and Ferguson go to town with boisterous brogues that liven up the dialogue. But their voices also beg the question, why do the adults speak in Scottish accents and the youths in American ones? No biggie, just wondering.
In Cowell’s book, the dragons also spoke in their own language. The filmmakers, including writer-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (“Lilo & Stitch”), wisely dispense with the talking reptiles.
The creatures are more fierce and mysterious in attack mode â€” and more comical when they fall under Hiccup’s spell â€” without opening their yaps to chew the fat.
“How to Train Your Dragon” really soars in the visual department, the animators presenting a 3-D world of bleak, mythical beauty in the island’s crags and mists. Some of the flying scenes are gorgeous, Toothless the dragon hovering above pillowy clouds against a shimmering night sky.
And to clarify an earlier point: While these dragons are not all that cute, Toothless, like any faithful pet, proves utterly endearing by the end.
“How to Train Your Dragon,” a DreamWorks Animation release distributed by Paramount, is rated PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language. Running time: 98 minutes.
Three stars out of four.