A film review by Craig J. Koban April 13, 2010

Rank:  #20


2010, PG, 98 mins.


With the voices of:

Hiccup: Jay Baruchel / Stoick: Gerard Butler / Cobber: Craig Ferguson / Snotlout: Jonah Hill / Fishlegs: Christopher Mintz-Plasse / Astrid: America Ferrara / Ruffnut: Kristen Wiig / Tuffnut: T.J. Miller

Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois / Written by William Davies, Peter Tolan, Sanders and DeBlois / Based on the book by Cressida Cowell


Now this is much more like it! 

Over the last few weeks I have been lamenting the recent trend of 3Difying mainstream films, often with huge sacrifices to their overall visual coherence.  Although there have been some solid success stories (like AVATAR, a 3D film done the right way: filmed in 3D for 3D consumption) there have been far too many others (ALICE IN WONDERLAND and CLASH OF THE TITANS, to name a few) that received three dimensional upgrades so mediocre that they took away from the filmgoing experience rather than enhanced it.  CLASH OF THE TITANS was especially weak: The very hasty augmentation of the original 2D imagery left a lot to be desired.  I left that film feeling that all hope was lost for this technology: if all the studios want to do is shamefully release would-be 3D epics and advertise them as the heir-apparent to AVATAR and still charge a hefty viewing surcharge, then count me out. 

Dreamworks’ splendidly rousing and frequently exhilarating new animated feature, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, has reaffirmed my faith in the potential of 3D to enthrall filmgoers.  Gone here are the hazy and diluted colors of TITANS and WONDERLAND as well as the herky-jerky strobing that accompanied the action in those films: HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is one of those rare animated films that fully utilizes 3D to realize the spatial and depth possibilities of the frame that does not hamstring viewers to the point of annoyance.  

What’s truly fantastic here is that we're giving 3D spectacle that is on par with what AVATAR had to offer: there is remarkable delineation of foreground, middle ground, and background details that are crisp and clear and, most crucially, there is none of the headache-inducing blurriness that typifies its surprisingly vivid action set pieces.  Even more refined is that HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON respects both the art form of CG animation and 3D to the point where it does not use the latter for obtrusive, eye gorging overkill.  It uses the 3D sparingly and subtly to suggest scope within each image and scene and does not burden viewers with unnecessarily hooky, in-your-face "wow!" moments.  Because of this, the film becomes astonishingly involving; this is one of the finest of the recent crop of animated films at making you legitimately feel like you are within the visuals on display. 

Here’s something else the film does with a headstrong confidence: it has magic and a genuine heart in the story that is set against the backdrop of its lush and awe-inspiring imagery.  The central story arc of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is, of course, the unlikely friendship between a young man and a young dragon, sworn and misunderstood enemies in life that begin to forge a loving bond that overrides all mutual stigmas and prejudices.  The dramatic themes and how they are presented have more than discrete echoes to other family classics (like THE BLACK STALLION, E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, and THE IRON GIANT), but HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON still manages to become a great family film with solid family values: it teaches viewers young and old about the importance of family ties as well as the virtue of tolerance of others despite their overt differences, and it does so without shamefully preaching it down our throats.  Beyond that, the film also grounds its central friendship with a real charm, poignancy, and depth. 

The film is narrated by its main young character named Hiccup (voiced with enthusiasm and sly spontaneity by Jay Baruchel) that is the pint-sized and somewhat dweeby son of his Viking clan’s main chief, Stoick (Gerard Butler, whose bombastic and rugged intonations remind viewers of his macho turn as Leondis in 300).  Hiccup is a kind, intelligent, and noble-minded boy, but he is hardly cut from the same raw, war-mongering material as his Viking brothers and sisters: he is thin, gawky, and has serious issues with killing.  The rest of the Vikings seem to exist for one purpose: to defend their lands and to eradicate all dragons.  After an early dragon siege on their village, Stoick and a blacksmith named Cobbler (a riotously quirky Craig Ferguson) decide that enough is enough and declare an all-out war against the flying creatures. 

In preparation for the battle a lifetime, Gobbler decides to train the next generation of sword-slashing Norsemen (voiced by the likes of T,J Miller, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and America Ferrara respectively) against the fire-breathers from above.  Hiccup is among the new recruits, but he is a highly reluctant one at that: his true Viking heart, alas, is just not in the spirit of slaughter.  While training to be all that he can be to prove his worth to his father,  Hiccup makes an interesting discovery in the nearby woods: he has found a wounded and very rare dragon known as a Night Fury that has been ensnared via a bolas cannon during a previous battle.  Hiccup knows that the key to his father’s appreciation of him as a warrior would be to slay the beast, but just as he’s about to deal a death blow he changes his mind and instead frees the infamous monster.   

Even though  Hiccup leaves the creature, he finds himself curiously drawn back to it.  He returns to forest to check on it to find that it is unable to fly because a vital part of its tail has been destroyed as a result of its previous crash landing.  In a scene of remarkable inventiveness, Hiccup goes back home and devises an ingenious mechanical device that will allow the dragon to fly again, but only if he rides him in a makeshift saddle.  The journey towards Hiccup building up enough courage to place the device on the dragon is patiently observed, and when he finally does and is able to soar into the heavens with it, he begins to develop a newfound appreciation for these stigmatized creatures.  The more time he spends with “Toothless” (a name he gives it because of its peculiar smile) the more the lad and monster form an attachment to one another.  Of course, with the threat of war looming ever so close between their kind, it's only a matter of time before their friendship is challenged and changed forever. 

The story for the film – based on a 2003 book of the same title by British author Cressida Cowell – is surprising for how refreshing it is in approach: this is not another half-hearted animated musical, nor a pop culture riddled satire ala SHREK nor a too-cure-for-its-own-good kiddie flick.  HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is more sly and sophisticated than its advertising lets on.  Aside from its amazing visual wonders, the film taps into Hiccup and Toothless’ story with a touching insight.  Toothless, a dreaded Night Wing dragon, is the epitome of what is so misunderstood about its species: Toothless is a lethal force, to be sure, but the boy is able to overlook the beasts that humans have grown to fear and despise and come out understanding them in ways no one else has dared.  As a result, Hiccup becomes a leading voice of reason to his people and, as a result, grows wiser and more liberal minded than just about anyone else around him.  There is a dramatic and resonating authenticity to this story that you don’t find in too many other animated films.   

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is also a resoundingly assured technical spectacle on top of its quietly compelling storyline.  The directors, Chris Sanders and Dean Dubois, made a novel choice of hiring Coen Brothers cinematographer regular Roger Deakins to serve as a visual consultant to the film, and the results show.  HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is an amazing film simply to look at and digest as it creates a vividly constructed Viking universe that manages to make the stylized and cartoony visages of its characters (especially the Viking chiefs, with their fearsomely bushy beards and hairlines and their boulder-sized physiques) breathe with a restrained naturalism and fluidity.  The dragon designs themselves are intriguing varied as well (we get designs that manage to be colorfully exaggerated while feeling both inviting and intimidating at the same time).  The film concludes with a fierce, stirring and thrilling action climax – which pits the entire Viking army against a Queen Bee-esque mega dragon - that would revival just about any other recent live action Hollywood swashbuckler: it packs a real pulse-pounding vigor. 

But the really inspiring moments in the film are the quieter - but thoroughly transfixing and rip-roaringly powerful – scenes of Hiccup taming his new best friend and ascending to the skies, during which the makers show just how to use the silver screen and 3D to give viewers a breathtaking first-person prerogative of flight, all augmented by the majestic and exultantly joyous score of John Powell.  The limitless high energy and soaring pageantry of these moments help to elevate HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON well above the cheap moniker of a disposable cartoon.  The film is a sure-fire artistic triumph that harnesses its audacious, dazzling, and colorfully nuanced animation and design with sweeping, but not eye-strainingly obtrusive, 3D effects.  This film unequivocally proves that less is more when it comes to a fully immersive 3D effect that does not distract from story and characters.  The 3D here never feels like a cheap gimmick, but a tangible enhancement to the overall visceral effect of the film. This is certainly something that the makers of the last Dreamworks animated effort, MONSTERS VS ALIENS, failed to understand.

Most significantly, though, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON has a wonderfully unexpected sincerity, charm, and intelligence.  Despite its fantastical settings, the film has its heart more deeply entrenched in its sweet coming-of age-tale of two souls that go from being bitter enemies to close confidants that eventually become lightning rods of change for all those around them.  Few films manage to bridge the often-difficult gap between gee-whiz thrills and opulent eye candy with a story that contains an endearing emotional pulse and tenderness.    HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is a terrific family entertainment that moves the soul as much as it stirs the imagination and appetite for adventure.  It’s one of 2010’s most sublime surprises.  

And, heaven help me for saying this, you must seek this out in 3D.

  H O M E