March 26, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



How to Train Your Dragon

ANIMATED:

United States, 2010

U.S. Release Date:

2010-03-26

Running Length:

1:38

MPAA Classification:

PG

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

(voices) Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Kristin Wiig, David Tennant

Director:

Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois

Screenplay:

Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois

Music:

John Powell

U.S. Distributor:

Paramount Pictures

Subtitles:

none


Seen in standard digital 3-D.

When Dreamworks released Shrek in 2001, it appeared the company was ready to challenge Disney/Pixar in the family film arena. Since then, however, Dreamworks' animated efforts have been made more with kids in mind than kids and adults. Whether a blip or a reversal of a trend, How to Train Your Dragon is the sort of movie Dreamworks led us to expect would be the norm when Mike Myers' ogre made his debut. Technically proficient and featuring a witty, intelligent, surprisingly insightful script, How to Train Your Dragon comes close to the level of Pixar's recent output while easily exceeding the juvenilia Dreamworks has released in the last nine years.

First, let me dispense with the 3-D issue. Unobtrusive 3-D is immersive 3-D, and that's the case here. There are a few gimmicky moments in which something flies at the audience but they are few enough to be excusable. And, although the overall quality of the 3-D isn't up to Avatar standards, it's as good (or better) than anything we have seen in other animated releases. The visuals do not drown in murkiness and there's no blurring during fast-paced action scenes. The animators know what they're doing. I don't think the film will lose a lot in 2-D, but seeing it in 3-D doesn't put the viewer at a disadvantage. It's a matter of preference, availability, and price.

How to Train Your Dragon can be best categorized as a fantasy adventure. Unlike many animated movies, it's not a musical, nor is it overstuffed with age-appropriate comedy (there is some humor, but it's used sparingly and is sophisticated). Dragons aren't as hot a mythical commodity as vampires these days but, when one considers the increasing popularity of the fantasy genre, it's no surprise that they have gotten their own movie. Admittedly, the creatures in this production (with one exception) are closer to Puff the Magic Dragon than Smaug the Tyrant of Lonely Mountain. These aren't your typical Dungeon Master's dragons. Nevertheless, this is the first big-budget full fantasy animated movie since 1985's tragically ignored The Black Cauldron.

How to Train Your Dragon is a solid family values motion picture. It teaches two lessons: the importance of family and the greater importance of tolerance. It also wouldn't be far-fetched to read a conservationist message into this. The basic idea is that we humans often destroy what we fear and do not understand - in this case, dragons. They are initially presented as vicious, dangerous marauders, bent solely on destruction. As the film progresses, we learn that is not the case, and it's up to one boy to tentatively bridge a communication gap that's wider than the Grand Canyon. How to Train Your Dragon is suffused with allegory; kids may see it as a straightforward adventure with creatures both cuddly and frightening, but adults will read between the lines. The movie isn't saying anything original, but it's hard to disagree with its thesis.

Our narrator and the main character is a teenager named Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), the son of the Viking village's chief. Hiccup is a smart, thin guy who prefers reading and designing things to learning ax-wielding, and he longs for a girlfriend - specifically Astrid (America Ferrera), a blond-haired, blue-eyed fighter of about his age. He's essentially a medieval geek. When dragons attack his town, Hiccup's dad, Stoick (Gerard Butler), and the blacksmith, Gobber (Craig Ferguson), declare war. Stoick gathers the men and seeks out the dragons' lair while Gobber puts the next generation through their paces learning how to dispatch the beasties. As usual, Hiccup goes his own way, discovering a wounded dragon in the woods and bonding with it. He soon realizes that "everything we know about [dragons] is wrong" and they can be kind and generous creatures if treated properly.

How to Train Your Dragon is a good looking movie, with plenty of impressive visual moments to go along with the 3-D approach. The dragons are presented in a cartoonish fashion, dampening their traditional ugliness and ferocity a little to make them more kid-friendly. It wouldn't surprise me to find a seven-year old cuddled up next to a stuffed Toothless (the dragon befriended by Hiccup) at bedtime. In general, the dragons are represented like big, scaly dogs and cats. One of them even purrs.

The vocal casting is inspired. Jay Baruchel, who is currently playing a nerd in She's out of My League, sounds distinctive, but he's not well enough known that we immediately recognize him. Baruchel's pipes give Hiccup a voice that's not generic, and this helps cement him as an individual. America Ferrera, who is physically the opposite of her animated alter-ego, brings a fire and feistiness to Astrid, who is both foil to and love interest for Hiccup. Scottish-born actors Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, David Tennant, and Ashley Jensen are joined by Americans Jonah Hill and Kristin Wiig in supporting roles.

How to Train Your Dragon follows the familiar formula of the outcast child saving the day and showing the true path to his former detractors. As commonplace as that skeleton may be, it can exhilarate and entertain when creatively fleshed out, as happens here. Directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, who cut their teeth in the '90s Disney animated features, have come into their own with a tale that typifies the experience animation can provide when effectively employed. What's true here can be said of all good family films: adults without kids will enjoy this as much as kids and the parents who accompany them.

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