How To Train Your Dragon is the best film to come from the DreamWorks Animation studio. That’s not exactly saying much about the stable that houses such mediocre properties as Monsters vs. Aliens, Madagascar and the never-ending Shrek saga. But I promise you – this is not intended as a back handed compliment. Chris Sanders and Dean Deblois‘ How To Train Your Dragon features such thrilling and maturely constructed sequences you would swear that it had been put together by the team at Pixar.
The film takes place on the Viking island of Berk. The food is scarce, the women are in short supply and the state of dentistry leaves a lot to be desired. Life is tough enough, and that’s before you consider the fact that the locals are regularly attacked by a fleet of sheep-stealing dragons. Young Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), the son of brave hunter Stoic the Vast (Gerard Butler), dreams of one day becoming a fierce dragon-killer himself. But when he finally captures a fabled Night Fury, he discovers that dragons aren’t all that scary. He nicknames the wide-eyed beast Toothless, and begins to, well, see film title for more details.
The father/son struggle is handled particularly well, thanks to Baruchel and Butler’s performances (just because they’re animated doesn’t mean they don’t have to act). DreamWorks haven’t shed all of their bad habits however. There is still the reliance on casting recognisable actors for the roles, instead of hiring more appropriate (and perhaps less famous) performers. At a certain point, the vocal presence of Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and America Ferrera (among others) seems to distract more than contribute. That being said, How To Train Your Dragon is worth celebrating. There are no inappropriate pop culture references shoehorned where they don’t belong, and this might even be the studio’s first animated feature without a fart joke (something that their previous best effort, Kung Fu Panda, couldn’t even resist).
The heart of this film (and it’s a big one) hinges on the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. Midway through the picture, Hiccup slowly earns the trust of the threatening dragon with a fresh fish. As thanks, Toothless offers him half of his dinner. It’s a tough sequence to pull off (children in the cinema wavered between weeping in fear and laughing with joy), but it’s eloquently and sensitively executed. I daresay it’s one of the best sequences in animated cinema history. It’s perhaps only trumped by the invigorating flight sequences, in which Hiccup is finally able to ride his reptilian pet as it soars into the sky. It is a moment of pure, shiver-inducing elation.
It can be frustrating for a reviewer to write about a kid’s film. After all, how interested can a child be in hearing these films discussed in relation to character development and narrative arc and other boring, arrogant, adult nonsense? As for the parents, I assume most are only concerned with learning about whether or not the film can act as a suitable distraction for an hour and a half. In response to that last question, How To Train Your Dragon is probably as adequate a time-waster as Up or Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (two children’s films that sit at opposite poles of the quality spectrum). Beyond this, what else is there to discuss?
Well, a lot actually. In fact, there might not be any type of film worth discussing more than a children’s film. As a reviewer, I can only contribute to the conversation from my (intensely narrow) perspective. I think back to when I first fell in love with film – as a kid. I devoured pictures left, right and center, but only after crushing hard on the films of Disney, from Fantasia to The Lion King. I still treasure the pictures I loved as a child, such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, Toy Story (the list goes on and on). The very course of my life has been altered significantly thanks to these movies – perhaps in a more obvious way than most. But I am certainly not alone. We cannot underestimate the effect films have on our children; we can barely comprehend the effect they have on ourselves. Each time I go to the movies, I’m dying to feel once again like my seven-year-old self; overcome with exhilaration. For a few brief, shining moments, How To Train Your Dragon was able to do that. And really, what more can we ask?