The surprising amount of tenderness at the heart of Dreamworks Animation’s latest 3-D film, How to Train Your Dragon (Night Fury), is enough to overlook the fact that, like most of the studio’s other films, it tries far too hard to be hip and cool. Yes, absolutely, At the beginning and end, there are mandatory loud, action-packed scenes to remind you why you paid extra for 3-D (if you did—the studio insisted that theater chains sell both 3-D and 2-D screenings). The character designs often include thinly veiled pop-culture references. However, the emotional impact of the story and the admittedly excellent animation overshadow all of the typical flaws of a Dreamworks animated film.
This adventurous and heartwarming story, based on Cressida Cowell’s novel, takes place in Viking times on the isle of Berk. Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is a young Viking who struggles to fit in. If it’s because he doesn’t have the same Scottish accent as the village’s adults. Then again, neither do any of the other young characters. Perhaps the filmmakers are telling the children in the audience to whom they can apply. Hiccup, on the other hand, likes to research and invent, while the brash residents of his village are only concerned with one thing: killing dragons. The winged creatures arrive in the dead of night, burning down Viking homes and devouring livestock. Hiccup’s father, the town’s leader (Gerard Butler), is dissatisfied with his son’s cowardly, gawky demeanor and lack of physical prowess. Hiccup, on the other hand, is desperate to fit in, but he prefers to avoid the whole aggression issue.
Hiccup uses one of his creations to capture the mysterious Night Fury, a jet-black dragon that has never been seen by his people, during a dragon raid. The Night Fury crashes far away, and Hiccup can’t bring himself to destroy the beast when he sees it. After releasing it, he discovers that it is unable to fly due to an injured tail. Hiccup calls the dragon “Toothless” because it has to retract teeth. It easily transforms into an expressive, puppy-like animal that is both lovable and fierce. Hiccup gives his new pet a brace to help it heal its tail, and they’re off. These bonding scenes are some of the best in the film, particularly when Hiccup and Toothless inevitably take to the skies. The result is a Black Stallion-style scenario in which the boy and the wild animal form a bond and become best friends. Of course, they assist in teaching the Vikings tolerance for the misunderstood dragon race, demonstrating that even Vikings have souls.
The animation is among Dreamworks’ finest, despite the studio’s hit-or-miss (more frequently miss) track record. The animators have done an amazing job of turning a speechless dragon into a physical character, so much of Hiccup and Toothless’s relationship is conveyed without words. The human characters are too stylized, and the Viking beards resemble yarn, but the scenery is stunning. Roger Deakins, who shot Revolutionary Road and nearly all of the Coen Brothers’ films, served as a visual consultant to directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (who both worked together on Disney’s Lilo & Stitch). Without the needless 3-D gimmick, the result is an incredible sense of atmosphere on landscapes and awe-inspiring tangibility throughout.
However, since this is a Dreamworks animated film, audiences should expect less than they would from Pixar or even Disney. The tale and lessons on How to Train Your Dragon are predictable and familiar (and suspiciously similar to Avatar), with Hiccup siding with the dragon population rather than his war-mongering citizens.With their modern slang and too-cool-for-school lingo, Hiccup’s dreadful gang of classmates (voiced by America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, among others) all sound taken from a more recent tale and transported here to appeal to younger audiences. Hiccup also reminds me of Baruchel’s oddball character in She’s Out of My League. When it’s all said and done, the film’s strengths—impressive graphics, neat dragon designs, and the core boy-and-his-dog relationship—are what remain and make it worthwhile to watch.