How to Train Your Dragon

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By Michael T. Dennis

“How to Train Your Dragon,” the new 3-D feature from DreamWorks Animation, continues the studio's recent trend of entertaining family pictures with a reasonable amount of surface action but a hollow core. The Viking adventure story is a swashbuckling romp that’s almost consistently fun to watch.
Compared to recent animated films, like the sugar-sweet entries from Pixar or DreamWorks's own “Kung Fu Panda” and “Monsters vs Aliens,” “How to Train Your Dragon” seems to skew slightly older. There are no pop culture references or kitschy double-entendres for the parents of toddlers to enjoy. It also has no shortage of intense action to earn its PG-rating. This leads to an ironic disappointment; although it might have been made for a slightly older audience, “How to Train Your Dragon” puts forward the same old moral lessons that drive the simplest children's stories.
The movie's main character, Hiccup, is a classic misfit. His searching, intellectual nature has no place in a society of stubborn, manly Vikings who prefer to solve their problems with brute force rather than understanding. It quickly becomes apparent that we are about to witness Hiccup finding a way to use his own unique talents to surprise everybody else and rise to the rank of an unlikely hero.
Believing in yourself and not judging a book by its cover are important sentiments, to be sure. But “How to Train Your Dragon” uses them as built-in lessons that enable the rest of the story, rather than finding anything new to say about them.
We learn everything we need to know about Viking society in a rapid-fire introduction as a swarm of dragons (which, in this world, come in all shapes and sizes) descend upon the small town of Berk. The Viking men, led by Hiccup's father Stoick, battle to save their livestock and homes, but the fight ends badly.
Hiccup is scolded for his clumsiness and left to contemplate his place in the world as the Viking men go out to sea in search of the dragons' nest, hoping to exterminate the species. While they're gone, Hiccup discovers a dragon that was injured during the raid and begins to apply his own solution to the misunderstanding between the two species.
This is where “How to Train Your Dragon” abandons its interesting premise and starts to offer easy answers to conventional questions. Hiccup discovers that dragons can be trained, putting his aptitude for strategic thinking to the test while also stretching long-held beliefs that dragons are nothing more than dangerous monsters. At this point there is very little to pay attention to besides the on-screen spectacle, which is, in a word, ample.
DreamWorks's artists and technicians are at the top of their game, rendering an environment that has a distinct style slightly removed from reality. Fire, water, fog, and smoke are beautiful to behold and add dimension to just about every scene. 3-D sequences of dragons in flight have the effect of a soaring helicopter shot, and some in the audience are likely to feel their stomachs drop.
However, the look of the movie is far from flawless. At this stage in the CG game, there's no excuse for human characters who fail to express emotion. Outside of the bearded men, whose faces are largely obscured by thick, painstakingly-crafted hair, all of the characters look alike. Hiccup looks like a rough draft for Linguine, the protagonist in Pixar's “Ratatouille,” but with far less dynamic range. Too much of the performance aspect falls to the voice actors, who perform admirably (especially Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson as leaders of the clan) despite downright boring visual counterparts.
All of the emotion and expression seems to have been reserved for the dragons. Toothless, who becomes Hiccup's first real friend, is rich in endearing mannerisms that are equal parts catlike and birdlike. The rest of the dragon family, played out entirely in pantomime, are equally compelling, with each beast getting its own personality in its few minutes on-screen.
The 3-D effects are a mixture of visual set pieces and silly gimmicks, with more of the former. By the time “How to Train Your Dragon” reaches its climax, the tone has become so eerie and dark that the 3-D flourishes are forgotten in favor of visual storytelling, which is exactly as it should be.
Things end on an uplifting note, though for a moment it seems possible that the filmmakers are going to boldly attempt a tear-jerker ending. One of the great things about shallow characters is the ease with which they can be brought to a comfortable conclusion, and “How to Train Your Dragon” takes full advantage of this fact.
Viewers should be careful not to believe the film's trailers and TV ads, which make “How to Train Your Dragon” look like a slightly more animated and toned-down version of “Avatar” and “Harry Potter.” While it has its share of formulas and clichés, “How to Train Your Dragon” succeeds on the strength of little details, which are borrowed more from family adventure classics than the recent rash of supernatural, computer-enhanced popcorn franchises.
In short, “How to Train Your Dragon” is easy to enjoy but impossible to fall in love with. The lessons seem slapped on, but this is almost to be expected in a genre where parents demand a moral at the end of every story. Like so many blockbuster actioners, it's best if you don't think too much. But in this case, that “best” might be good enough.
Hiccup – Jay Baruchel
Stoick – Gerard Butler
Astrid – America Ferrera
Gobber – Craig Ferguson
Snotlout – Jonah Hill
Fishlegs – Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Ruffnut – Kristin Wiig
Tuffnut – T.J. Miller
DreamWorks Animation, Mad Hatter Films and Vertigo Entertainment
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Written by Dean DeBlois, Adam F. Goldberg, Chris Sanders and Peter Tolan
Story by Cressida Cowell
Producers, Bonnie Arnold, Kristine Belson, Michael A. Connolly, Tim Johnson
Original Music, John Powell
Editor, David Teller
Production Designer, Kathy Altieri
Art Director, Pierre-Olivier Vincent