How to Train Your Dragon

starring Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Craig Ferguson, and Gerard Butler
written & directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Rated PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language.

Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Baruchel) is a scrawny young viking desperate to join his community’s battle with the dragons that constantly raid their village. Unfortunately, no one takes him or his inventions seriously. One night, he brings down an incredibly rare Night Fury, and discovers that everything the vikings believe about dragons is wrong. But convincing everyone else in time to avert all-out war is going to take every ounce of cleverness and courage he possesses.

This may very well be DreamWorks’ best animated feature yet, though I’d be willing to hear arguments from fans of Kung Fu Panda and the first Shrek. It’s also (probably not coincidentally) their first film since Shrek that doesn’t rely on a sardonic, rapid-fire stream of pop culture references for its humor (i.e., the Shrek and Madagascar films), or on the tropes of a well-established genre for its story (i.e., Kung Fu Panda and Monsters vs. Aliens). Perhaps someone over there has realized that, while such devices may keep audiences in their seats for ninety minutes, the results often fail to enrich, enlighten, or even leave a lasting impression.

How to Train Your Dragon definitely made an impression on me. Its world feels both refreshingly original and comfortably familiar. “Of course,” one thinks, “dragons are the natural enemies of vikings.” Everything is conceived and designed more or less just as one would expect it to be, even though I can’t quite recall ever having encountered anything like it before. The concepts are fresh, but they are configured in broad strokes, which will occasionally stand out to anyone familiar with (for instance) the typical character arc of an animated, youthful protagonist.

This isn’t to say, of course, that the film is overly obvious or predictable in its design and storytelling. The lore is broad, deep, and rich. Everything about this movie conveys a sense that the creative minds behind it had far more wonderful ideas than they could possibly use; so many, in fact, that they can highlight their best ideas, and still have lots of great stuff left over to populate the margins of the story. There is a scene where Hiccup is poring over the vikings’ dragon manual, flipping past tantalizing glimpses of all of the different species, many of which we never actually see in action.

In any case, what we do see is great. Several species of dragons are highlighted throughout the film, each with particular unique abilities (some are explained by a particularly nerdy young viking who, today, would be memorizing the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual). Of course, the real star of the dragon gallery is Hiccup’s Night Fury, Toothless. He has personality, and his relationship with Hiccup feels real and important. One of the great things about this movie is that the dragons don’t talk. They are animals, albeit very intelligent ones in some cases. Denied spoken dialogue, Toothless comes to life as a character via body language and facial expressions, and feels as fully-realized and developed as any of the human characters.

What really brings it all to life, though, (in addition to the engaging design) is the texture. That’s not necessarily something an audience will notice in an animated movie, unless it is done wrong. With a movie that deals in such a fantastic range of textures, from leathery or scaly dragon hide to thick, bushy viking beards, it is particularly essential. And, in this case, the textures are noticeably fabulous. And How to Train Your Dragon sounds as great as it looks, with a gorgeous, Celtic-tinged score by John Powell.

I’m not sure quite at what point this turned into a rave, but it definitely is one now. I’ll just highlight one more thing, and then put this to bed. There’s nothing remotely new about a misfit outcast learning to just be true to himself, especially in animated movies. What’s not so common is what sets Hiccup apart from the other vikings. In a centuries-old culture of war that values skill in battle above all else, he does what no one else would ever have considered: he spares a life instead of taking one. I might not go so far as to call this story “radically nonviolent” in its values, but it’s definitely moving in the right direction.

~ by Jared on March 26, 2010.

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