“How to Train Your Dragon,” the story of a kind hearted Viking boy who becomes a Dragon Whisperer, is one of the best animated films yet from Dreamworks, home of “Shrek” and “Madagascar”. It will likely engage audiences of young kids (But no tots please! It’s too intense) and their willing parents, but as good as it is it still doesn’t come close to the lyrical beauty of a Pixar film.
Based on the kid’s books by Cressida Cowell, Jay Baruchel stars as Hiccup, a skinny outcast in his remote Viking village, located, as he says, “in the meridian of misery.” Killing a dragon is “everything” around there but he is too young, too inexperienced and too clumsy to be of much use as a dragon hunter. To make up for his lack of prowess he develops a sling shot that should be able to fell the dreaded Night Fury, a winged beast described as the “unholy off spring of lightening and death itself.” Low and behold, it works, but when he captures one of the creatures he discovers two things. One, he can’t bring himself to kill the dragon, and two, the dragons aren’t the fearful creatures everyone thinks they are.
“How to Train Your Dragon” differs from “Shrek” and other Dreamworks offerings in that it is an action adventure first and a comedy second. Gone are the pop culture references that populate (and instantly date) the scripts of “Shrek” and “A Shark’s Tale.” They’ve been replaced by well executed action scenes and an underdog story that uses humor to accentuate the story, not dominate it.
Scenes of Hiccup riding Toothless, his domesticated dragon, are a step toward Pixar territory for Dreamworks. They are marvelously rendered in thrilling 3D and wouldn’t look too out of place in “Avatar.” The three dimensional work in those scenes is lovely, but doesn’t add much to the earth bound sequences. The village scenes have depth but no eye popping effects.
As usual for this kind of animated feature celebrity voices dominate the voice work. Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson play the elder Vikings with vigorous Scottish accents, and Jonah Hill brings some fun to Snotlout even though his character is a dead ringer for a young Jack Black, but Baruchel brings the heart and soul to the film. His nasally twang is easy on the ear and perfectly suits the nebbishy character who thinks that if he kills a dragon he’ll get a girlfriend.
“How to Train Your Dragon” has some good messages for kids about not judging a book by its cover and several rousing action sequences. It’s not Pixar good but it is a leap in the right direction for Dreamworks.