“How To Train Your Dragon” is, like “Kung-Fu Panda,” an exemplary, confident, streamlined piece of entertainment that suggests that when they get it right, Dreamworks Animation can stand toe to toe with Pixar in the realm of computer animation for family audiences. In some ways, seeing a film this good from this company is frustrating because they’ve made so many lazy and annoying pop-culture jukeboxes that they’ve devalued the brand name considerably. I am automatically wary now when I approach a new film from DreamWorks Animation, so when one works as well as this, it makes me wonder why they can’t be this good every time out.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that this one works so well, though, since it’s directed and written by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, the team who made “Lilo & Stitch” such a surprise from Walt Disney Feature Animation during one of their creative ebbs. This film shares many of the same virtues that made “Lilo & Stitch” such a breath of fresh air, not the least of which is a welcome sincerity that seems to stand apart from the typical snark that has been a trademark of the studio’s work so far. When you see a cast list that includes Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Craig Ferguson, you would be well within your rights to expect the film to be non-stop jokes and wise-ass attitude. But that’s not this film at all. Instead, Cressida Cowell’s book has been adapted by DeBlois, Sanders, Adam Goldberg and Peter Tolan into something very heartfelt and gentle, which might sound odd when you realize it’s a movie about Vikings killing dragons and vice-versa.
Baruchel, who seems to be everywhere this year, stars as Hiccup, a gangly kid who is the son of Stoick (Gerard Butler), the leader of the Viking village that is routinely raided and burned by dragons of all types. These Vikings have two major jobs: gather food for winter and kill dragons, and Hiccup isn’t particularly good at either. He’s determined to get good at dragon-killing, though, and decides to try out a new weapon he’s built that will hopefully shoot a dragon out of the sky. In particular, he wants to kill a Night Fury, since they’ve never been seen and they are deadly accurate with their attacks. No one has much faith in Hiccup, including the girl he likes, Astrid (America Ferrera) and the blacksmith that he is apprenticed to, Gobber (Craig Ferguson).
The weapon works, although the result isn’t really what Hiccup expected. The downed Night Fury isn’t killed, but just injured, and so Hiccup is faced with the prospect of killing the dragon himself, face-to-face, and in attempting to do so, he learns something that changes his entire worldview: the dragons aren’t the monsters they’ve always seemed to be. The Night Fury, which he names Toothless, turns out to be a smart, intuitive creature with a real personality, and little by little, Hiccup finds that everything he’s ever been taught about these animals is wrong. Since he’s been ordered into dragon-fighting training at the same time, he’s pulled in two directions. Should he stand against his people because of what he knows, or should he ignore his encounter with Toothless so he can be a good Viking and make his father proud?
The film is appealingly designed, something that is of utmost importance in an animated feature. You can throw all the tech in the world at something, and if it features characters as ugly as the ones in last fall’s “A Christmas Carol,” it just doesn’t matter. Here, the humans are all sort of Mad magazine looking, and it works, while the dragons walk the fine line between menacing and personable, which is crucial for the kids who are, presumably, the biggest audience for the film. The voice work by Baruchel, Butler, Ferguson, Ferrera, Wiig, Mintz-Plasse, Hill, T.J. Miller, and more is all top-notch, honest and unforced. I was particularly taken with Ferrera’s work, and with the idea of casting her against type. It’s the sort of thinking that should happen more often in animation but doesn’t. Only in an animated film will you ever see Ferrera play a lithe blonde Viking girl, and she’s a lovely foil for Baruchel. The relationship between Butler and Baruchel works really well, too, tapping into the very real tensions that exist in father-son dynamics.
One of the most impressive things about the movie is the rich, vibrant cinematography, and it makes sense when you realize Roger Deakins signed on as a visual consultant. It’s important that people working in these amazing CGI environments shoot them as if they are real places, and that includes how they’re lit. This film looks gorgeous, and the 3D print I saw yesterday was damn near flawless. It’s the right sort of 3D, too, pulling you into the frame and simply adding depth and heft to what you’re watching. There are a few instances of things (specifically dragons) lunging out of the frame, and each and every time, my son reacted with a full-body recoil.
Which raises an important point… this movie may be too much for younger viewers to handle. Toshi’s about to turn five, and he’s fairly movie-savvy. He loves monster movies, and he’s addicted to being scared by movies, but there were scenes in this film that pushed him just outside his comfort zone. There’s a big monster towards the end of the film, and the introduction of the character was scary enough that he took his glasses off for about five minutes before he finally calmed down. The film’s a real treat, but because it refuses to pander or play too safe, I would say that for parents of kids under five years old, proceed with caution.
The thing I enjoyed most about the film is relatively simple and has nothing to do with story or character, and it’s something I’ve always loved about Miyazaki’s films as well. The sensation of flight in this movie is extraordinary, and it is a major part of the bonding between Hiccup and Toothless. Hiccup has to build a prosthetic piece to repair the damage he did to the dragon when he shot him out of the sky, and he ends up building himself a harness that allows him to ride Toothless and even steer him. It’s handled casually, step by step, and each of the major flying sequences is exhilarating and visceral. Toshi kept saying “wow” over and over during the sequences, and I agree. Thanks to the exceptional use of the 3D, it’s the closest thing I can imagine to the real feeling of flight, and I would imagine it will be a major factor in repeated theatrical viewings of the movie.
Right now, “How To Train Your Dragon” is running close to 100% at Rotten Tomatoes, an unusual situation for a DreamWork Animation film, and I hope they enjoy the sensation enough that they focus their energies on more films like this and less of the endless sequels and terrible pop culture jokes. I don’t need to see the President dancing to “Axel F.” in a nod to “Close Encounters,” and neither do my kids. Just give us real characters, genuine heart, and spectacle grounded in story, and we’ll come back for more.