The ongoing battle between 3D animation studios has two main contenders: Pixar and Dreamworks. Both can astound with cutting edge graphics and triumph at the box office, but so far, Pixar is ahead, emotionally and artistically.
You can rely on Pixar to turn ideas that are generous on whimsy and thin on plot into entertaining treatises on the human condition. Dreamworks tends to go the plot- and joke-heavy route, adding up to raucous laughs, without matching the former’s timeless magic or insight.
But with How to Train Your Dragon, loosely based on Cressida Cowell’s children’s series, Dreamworks has stepped up its game and delivered a winning family fantasy that, despite its many clichés, has that certain something. That something that elevates it above disposable entertainment and means you’ll be able to watch it again and again.
The gloomy island of Berk, located on the “meridien of misery”, has a pest problem. Dragons frequently swoop down on the village, causing havoc and destruction and carrying off food supplies.
Fortunately, the island is populated with “tough and tasteless” Vikings who are willing to go all out to take the beasts down. That is, apart from chieftain Stoick the Vast’s (Gerard Butler) puny but clever son, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel), who only seems capable of causing trouble. This changes when one of his madcap inventions actually works and he captures a Night Fury, the rarest dragon of them all.
There is much that is typical about How to Train Your Dragon. Hiccup is a geeky outsider, with an unappreciated wit, striving for his gruff father’s approval and a date with an aloof babe. With smarts and a very special friend, the lovable outcast is able to find where he belongs.
So far, so your average nerd fantasy, with shades of the recent Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, as well as The Karate Kid, Pete’s Dragon, Eragon and Dragonheart. But the film adds up to more than the sum of its parts, transporting you into well-trodden territory in a fresh and captivating fashion.
Most of that is due to the terrific chemistry between Hiccup and Toothless, the Night Fury he befriends. Their relationship builds realistically, in tentative steps and in ways that deepen their characterization. The dragon and boy are as curious to each other as to the viewer, and it is rewarding all round to get to know them better.
Toothless is especially enchanting, with a unique, feline design that straddles cuteness and fearsomeness. Toothless’ soaring flights provide thrills and ample opportunity to enjoy the Lord of the Rings-like landscape, and on the ground, you’ll long to do as Hiccup does and tickle the dragon’s chin. I foresee a profitable racket in Toothless plushies and Beanie Babies.
Rising star Baruchel voices Hiccup well, imbuing his dialogue with a mixture of wryness and vulnerability, and never overpowering the fictional character, as Jack Black did in Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda. Baruchel takes it down a notch, which allows Hiccup to seem more real.
The supporting characters largely serve as chorus and scenery, continuing the trend of low-key vocals, although there is a strange delineation between Scottish accents for grown-ups and American ones for teens. Butler’s Stoick is at first flat, a variation on 300’s King Leonidas, but he grows into the fatherly role, and plays off well with the similarly brusque Gobber (Craig Ferguson), who trains Viking teens in the art of dragon-combat.
America Ferrara is almost vocally unrecognisable as Gobber’s daughter Astrid, but pulls it off as a suitable love interest for Hiccup. Baruchel’s fellow Frat Packers Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill and T. J. Miller, and Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig, round off the teens-in-training, all adding a distinctive touch, and broad comedy.
Besides Toothless, the array of dragons are well-rendered and imaginatively designed, their bright colours and textures contrasting effectively with the most stunning set of backdrops Dreamworks has so far created.
A worthy, if not revelatory, message comes through the narrative, the notion that conflict is built on misunderstanding and thoughtless warfare is an unproductive way to handle it. Hiccup becomes heroic through peaceful means, by being himself and taking the time to learn about the supposed enemy.
Thankfully this message is conveyed creatively, without preaching. Another aspect to be grateful for is the absence of scatological humor, which I anticipated after clocking the Judd Apatow alumni on the cast list. The jokes are fairly wholesome and good-hearted, and are unlikely to date.
Arguably, the increasingly stretched Shrek franchise is the jewel in Dreamworks’ crown, standing head and shoulders above other offerings. With the final Shrek out soon, How to Train Your Dragon is a worthy successor, with sequel potential, and represents a promising direction for Dreamworks, one that could see it finally giving Steve Jobs’ studio a run for its money.
Pixar, you may have won many battles, but the animation war ain’t over yet.
Verdict: Exhilarating, touching, packed with lovable characters and refreshingly low on the poop jokes, How to Train Your Dragon is the kind of movie you’ll be able to watch years from now and still enjoy.
How to Train Your Dragon
(Dreamworks Animation, 98 minutes)
Directed by Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois
Produced by Bonnie Arnold, Doug Davison, Roy Lee, Michael Connolly, Tim Johnson
Written by Adam F. Goldberg, Peter Tolan, Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders, Cressida Cowell (novel)
Starring Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Gerard Butler, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Craig Ferguson