Since releasing its first full-length animated feature in 1999 (Antz), DreamWorks Animation has produced some of the most popular CGI films of the past decade (Shrek, Madagascar, Over the Hedge) and represents Pixar’s only major competitor at the box office. 2010 was especially exemplary of that competition, with DreamWorks’s surprise hit How to Train You Dragon threatening to unsettle Pixarâ’s Toy Story 3 as the year’s best animated feature. This highly original narrative, adapted from Cresida Cowell’s continuing series based around a Viking community and their life alongside dragons, is beautifully realized and full of warmth and humour. Whether or not it’s better than Pixar’s Best Picture hopeful, it will surely provide us with a near-perfect, family-friendly franchise in the waning Toy Story series’ absence.
Jay Baruchel (Tropic Thunder) voices the protagonist Hiccup, a young Viking who, since he was “littler,” never quite fit in with his Viking compatriots. Compared to other Vikings — who look to be about eight feet tall and four feet wide — Hiccup is a scrawny screw-up, but well-meaning. When he tries to help fight against the frequent dragon raids on the village’s livestock, Hiccup only manages to make things worse for his people than before and further infuriate his father, the chieftain Stoick (Gerard Butler). A humourous introduction to the village dynamic reveals that dragons plague the people like pests, and come in enough different shapes, sizes, and abilities to warrant an encyclopedia — half the fun of the movie, and a venerable well-spring for the series going forward.
While attempting to make up for his faults by successfully taking down a Night Fury, an elusive dragon never before seen in plain sight, Hiccup finds that, once again, he cannot live up to his Viking heritage. How to Train Your Dragon has all the right elements of a coming of age story, and tells a traditional tale of breaking down stereotypes and acceptance in a, literally, fantastic way. Instead of having the instinct to kill the downed dragon, he experiences compassion for the creature and spares its life. Through his relationship with the Night Fury, who he christens “Toothless,” Hiccup learns that dragons are not the evil beings history would have him think, and sets about changing the minds of his fellow Vikings towards them, in the process, becoming a dragon whisperer of sorts.
I watched this film in 2D, and for once, regret not having seen the 3D version. Even without 3D, however, How to Train Your Dragon is full of mesmerizing detail of the kind that enables you to count the individual hairs in Stoick’s massive, plaited beard, or the fibres of Hiccup’s rough-spun tunic. The texture of Toothless’s leathery skin, and the moss-strewn rocks of the environment are further examples of the amount of work that went into the film. Among others, the film was produced by Disney and Pixar veteran Bonnie Arnold and directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, whose Lilo & Stitch seems to predict the rounded, cutesy features used to realize some of the movie’s dragons, especially the cat-like Toothless.
The voice acting in the film is excellent, with Butler turning in his best performance, sadly, in years. Butler has more than his share of humourous dialogue (“Odin, it was rough!”) but is outdone by Craig Ferguson, who voices Gobber, Stoick’s best friend and the man in charge of training young Vikings. The supporting characters — particularly Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Kick-Ass) as Fishlegs and American Ferrera (Ugly Betty) as Astrid — were all delightful in their own right. Baruchel’s uneasy charm is one I may not have warmed up to if I hadn’t seen it work so well in a little Canadian film, called The Trotsky. His awkward delivery is even more well-suited for the character Hiccup, who begins the film as a friendless outcast but ends it as a celebrated hero. From the artfully rendered environment and complexity of the dragons, to the simplicity of the Viking names — which are, by the way, linguistically true in their rudimentary style — How to Train Your Dragon features a wonderful world that I cannot wait to return to when its sequel arrives in 2013.
Overall Score: 90 – Supreme. (We’re lucky if even one film a year scores between 9.00 and 9.50, and these instant classics will go down as some of the best movies we’ve ever seen in our lives.)
How to Train Your Dragon is one of the best films of 2010 and will appeal to adults and kids alike. With it’s vibrant visuals and unique narrative, you won’t be disappointed by this first film in what is hopefully a long series of hits.
Sean Walsh: 83 — At the end of the day, How to Train Your Dragon was a delight. Fun characters, cool dragons, and great flight scenes kept me enthralled, and at no point did I feel like I was watching a kid’s movie.
Geoff Henao: 72 — Despite its run of the mill plot, How to Train Your Dragon lays the groundwork for potential greatness, so long as the franchise is handled properly. It could be DreamWorks Animation’s best franchise, and rightfully so.