There’s a good number of reasons that Dreamworks’ â€œHow to Train Your Dragonâ€ reclaimed the top box office spot this week against a handful of new releases (including â€œThe Back-up Plan,â€ â€œThe Losersâ€) despite being in theaters for nearly a month, but the main explanation for this rare phenomenon is very simple: it’s a better, more entertaining movie than most anything else onscreen right now.
To be honest, the story itself, liberally adapted from the well-received kid-lit series by Cresida Cowell, is no lightning bolt of originality. If you’ve seen â€œOld Yeller,â€ â€œBlack Stallion,â€ â€œFree Willyâ€ or even â€œThe Waterhorse,â€ there will be few thematic surprises in store. Kid saves beast, kid loses beast, beast saves kid. It’s been done into the ground, certainly, but fewer films have managed it with so deft a balance of humor, compassion, tenderness and full-blown fire-balling aerial combat sequences. Together with some breathtakingly effective applications of 3D, you’ve got a bona fide roadmap to the hearts of 9-year-olds of all ages.
Set in a stony coastal village somewhere north of Neverland and west of the Iron Age, a community of Viking roughnecks wage a centuries-old battle against marauding hordes of ravenous, flame spewing, flying reptiles. Having grown as toughened to the attacks as they might to stormy winter weather, the villagers, led by their tree trunk of a chief Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler in full roaring â€œ300â€ mode), dig in their heels nightly and take turns beating the creatures back with little more than hammers and axes, and sometimes with their bare knuckles.
As much a sport as a defense, the local younglings train and compete to be the next big slayers of the town. Only one, the chief’s son Hiccup (played with playful charm by Jay Baruchel), as scrawny as his dad is brawny, has no talent or inclination for such adventures. Weak, meek and accident prone, but comfortable enough in his own pasty skin as an observer and inventor, he really only worries that he’s not living up to his pop’s burly expectations.
One night, Hiccup manages against all odds to knock one of the monsters out of the skyâ€”a Black Fury, no less (the worst of the lot)â€”wounding it in the process. Finding that he hasn’t the heart to finish the job, he furtively nurses the beast back to health.
Taking no small cue from Pixar’s recent proof that silence, even in a kids movie, can be golden, the pair’s relationship develops with nary a word spoken. As the wary creature and the anxious boy come to trust and understand each other, the boy devises a mechanical prosthetic replacement for the thing’s lost tailfin, allowing it, with his help as navigator, to fly once again.
And fly it does. Just as the rather clumsy, obvious first act begins to evolve into a touching and intelligent story, the beast launches, and the movie really, well, takes off. It might not have been half so effective if the filmmakers had not given such room to underline the symbiotic nature of their bond, but by the time this emotional investment is made, you’re sold. The tricks of 3D may be getting gratuitously overused of late, but rarely have they been applied to such joyous results as in these wheeling, reeling, vertiginous moments as the boy clings for dear life to his new friend’s back, soaring and plunging and pinwheeling high and low over the craggy shores.
Brought to life by the writing/directing/designing team of Dean Dublois and Chris Sanders, who haven’t done much since 2002 beyond mopping up residuals from the movie, sequel, and TV versions of Disney’s â€œLilo and Stitch,â€ it’s probably no coincidence that the Black Fury, equal parts frog, dog and stealth fighter plane, bears a striking resemblance to the capricious little alien monster of their previous success. The other dragon breeds are a wonderfully, wildly unhinged beastiary of improbably matched biologies, adding a fabulously comic element to the otherwise fearsome fight scenes. The rest of the visuals, overseen by genius cinematographer and award winning Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins, are as luxuriant and textured as any of his live action work, serving to delightfully set the stage and anchor the action.
On the finicky side, as celebrations of thoughtfulness, observation and ingenuity go, the film does take a few incongruous right hand turns into brutality and bombast, especially when the narrative inevitably finds it’s way to confrontations on all sides at the dragon’s island hive. The peripheral characters could use a shade more definition, and it’s a little curious that all the adults sport thick Scottish accents, while the children (including the voices of Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, and America Ferrera) are all so distinctly American. But so what? When a movie is this much fun and well executed, it just ceases to matter that much.
If you have a chance to see this one while it’s still in its full glory on the big screen, do yourself the favor. It’s not everyday you get to catch a dragon, and certainly not one half this friendly.