Thursday, March 25, 2010
Review: "How to Train Your Dragon"
Like "Kung Fu Panda," "How to Train Your Dragon" is a slickly-made computer-generated animated flick for kids that unexpectedly turns out to have a whole lot of soul.
Actually, I preferred "Dragon" over "Panda." Both movies are from the DreamWorks animation team, but this one borrowed a little old-school Disney magic.
The writing/directing duo of Dean DuBlois and Chris Sanders are veterans of hand-drawn animation who made the wonderful "Lilo & Stitch" for The Company That Walt Built back in 2002, then jumped ship to DreamWorks. "Dragon" milks similar themes about young outcasts learning to celebrate their differentness, with some slightly subversive humor mixed in.
In this case, Hiccup (voice by Jay Baruchel) is the wimpiest Viking who ever lived. While the rest of his clan are barrel-chested barbarians who live to fight the many dragons that plague the island of Berk, Hiccup is small and scrawny. He's better at tinkering with gadgets in the blacksmith shop than swinging an axe on the battlefield.
It doesn't help that his father is Stoick (a great Gerard Butler), the fearless leader who is mortified that his offspring is such an anti-Viking.
Gobber, the town blacksmith, clumsily tries to reassure the young man -- which leads to this hilarious twist on the trite old "be true to yourself" advice:
"It's not so much what you look like. It's what's inside that (Stoick) can't stand."
Determined to live up to the old man's standards, Hiccup enrolls in Dragon Training. Around the same time, he finds an injured dragon that he brought down using one of his gizmos. He tries to kill the ebony beast, but instead ends up befriending him and naming him Toothless.
So Hiccup spends his mornings learning to kill dragons, and his afternoons learning to fly on the back of one. It turns out the fire-breathing reptiles aren't the thoughtless killers the Vikings thought them to be.
Hiccup ends up learning all sorts of insider tricks about dragons that propel him to the top of his class -- much to the consternation of Astrid (America Ferrera), a fierce warrior and love-interest-turned-potential-enemy who resents being shown up on a daily basis.
I loved the look of "Dragon," where humans are depicted with exquisite realism, but with proportions just enough out of whack to give it a cartoony feel. The dragons, which come in dozens of varieties, are a delightful rainbow of horns, wings, snapping teeth and buggy eyes.
Actually, what the animation most reminded me of was that old "Dragon's Lair" video game. In 3D, it pops off the screen without any self-conscious look-at-me tricks.
The film is based on the book by Cressida Cowell, and screenwritten by Sanders and DuBlois (with an assist from Adam F. Golberg and Peter Tolan). It boasts plenty of pulse-racing action scenes, but the film's heart lies with characters and subtext.
For instance, I really admired the subtle way the theme of overcoming disabilities is woven into the story. Toothless has a malformed tail -- possibly injured when he was shot of the sky? -- and can't fly straight until Hiccup makes him a prosthetic aileron. And Gobber has a peg leg and an interchangeable hand that don't seem to slow him down a bit.
Fun and fresh, "How to Train Your Dragon" is one of the best films so far this young year, animated or otherwise.