More and more animated films have been relying on pop culture references and fart jokes to mask the fact the story is lacking. It doesn’t make for a necessarily bad film as much as it doesn’t make for much of a lasting film. But the filmmakers behind How to Train Your Dragon have gone to the “story and character first” well and come out shining. This is a film that feels all its own with fantastic animation, characters you believe in and a finale that really, really works.
Perhaps the marketing is the film’s largest fault, selling it as “from the studio that brought you Shrek, Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda.” Of those three Kung Fu Panda is the best comparison in terms of tone and the film’s ability to let comedy come naturally rather than forcing it through outrageous characters, and those previously mentioned pop culture references and/or fart jokes. Come to think of it, I don’t think there is a fart joke in this entire film, which is a miracle if you ask me.
How to Train Your Dragon is based on the book by Cressida Cowell telling the story of a young Viking by the name of Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel). He’s not rough and tough like his father (voiced by Gerard Butler) and he certainly lacks the natural Viking ability to be a quality dragon killer. However, that doesn’t stop him from trying.
During the most recent dragon attack, Hiccup tests out a latest weapon he’s designed and by chance nabs the most elusive breed of all dragons, the Night Fury. But, instead of killing the downed beast Hiccup finds a kinship with the dragon (he names him Toothless) that results in him finding a deeper appreciation for the presumed terrors the dragons are believed to be. From here the film follows a natural progression, but it does so without feeling overly cliche and ends up unique enough to feel new.
The voice casting choices are truly a high point. Outside of Gerard Butler voicing Hiccup’s brutish father, the rest of the names are decidedly inspired. Baruchel, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and T.J. Miller are all names we’ve heard before but they aren’t A-listers cashing a paycheck as much as they are voices that bring a recognizable tone, while fulfilling the elements needed to bring personality to the characters rather than the popular actor taking over the character.
Also, the choice to present the dragons with canine-like qualities was extremely appealing. When the dragons aren’t doing their “dragon thing” they are sitting on their hindquarters begging for a bit of fish, staring with puppy-dog eyes. It makes them instantly approachable and as much as it’s easy to read canine emotions, the same goes for the dragons in How to Train Your Dragon. It’s a small detail that makes a big difference.
The only thing that started to bother me was the interaction between Hiccup and his father, and the nature of their dysfunctional relationship. Then I reminded myself these are Vikings fighting dragons, which pretty much cleared up any present-day comparisons my overworked mind was making.
The characters work, the voices work, the animation is great and there are some great action sequences. In all, How to Train Your Dragon is a good time at the movies and a film I have no problem recommending. Perhaps a couple of the dragon sequences would be a little too scary for the youngest of audience members, but beyond that this film is suitable for all audiences and I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying themselves.
NOTE: I did not watch this film in 3D, but it was well worth the watch in 2D.