How to Train Your Dragon
What It Is
Back in the very olden days, all the Vikings were broad-shouldered and courageous, loud and stout. All except for Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel). His Viking tribe, he narrates at the start of How to Train Your Dragon, spends most of its time on the island of Berk fighting off threats, sometimes from trolls or boars, but most often from dragons. These, he reports, come in all shapes and sizes, some fire-breathing and some flying, some large and some smallish. All of them, he says, are fair game, as Vikings are trained from birth to be dragon killers. Being slight of build and quieter than his peers, Hiccup feels special pressure to kill his first dragon—because his father, the aptly named Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), is the tribe’s very proud, very powerful chief, who expects his son to follow suit.
Imagine how surprised Hiccup is when he encounters his first dragon—specifically, a Night Fury, the type reputed to be the meanest, most dangerous dragon of all—and he turns out to be nice. With a broken tail fin that leaves him unable to fly properly, this young dragon, whom Hiccup names Toothless, soon becomes a kind of pet. He’s also something of a teacher, for as Hiccup sneaks away from Dragon Training (i.e., lessons in how to kill them), he discovers not only that Toothless likes to play and purr, but also that his own “tribe,” the other dragons who live nearby, only fight Vikings because the Vikings fight them.
Still, even as Hiccup recognizes the potential for friendship and cooperation between the species, he has to convince not only his dad, but also his trainer, Gobber (Craig Ferguson)—who’s missing a leg and an arm following his encounters with dragons—and his ambitious classmates. In particular, he wants to enlist the help of Astrid (America Ferrera), the smart and athletic girl he’s had a crush on for years.
Why It’s Fun
While the most obvious fun comes in the flying acrobatics, the movie also delivers very funny verbal exchanges between Hiccup, his friends, and especially Gobber (Baruchel is terrific, and Ferguson is perfectly blustery). Based on Cressida Cowell’s children’s book, How to Train Your Dragon streamlines that plot a bit and adds lots of rambunctious action. (Some flying scenes may remind viewers of similar scenes in Avatar, though none of the battles here is so graphic or prolonged). It also features some delightful playtimes between boy and dragon, as they gauge one another’s mettle. When Hiccup finds that Toothless likes fish, he comes with baskets full, and when he finds Toothless is afraid of eels, he puts that lesson to use during Dragon Training, impressing Gobber and the other students with his seemingly intuitive knowledge of the beasts.
Writer-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois made the absolutely wonderful Lilo & Stitch. The new movie also has a misfit child learning lessons from an unusual creature (Stitch was a dog-like alien from outer space, completely adorable but with a fierce streak too), but here the story structure is more conventional. As Hiccup comes of age with help from Toothless, he gains a girlfriend and his father’s approval too. Pleasantly, he also raises the awareness of his fellow Berkers, so that everyone—humans and dragons—can learn to get along.
It’s true that the 3D animation is sometimes so-so: the backgrounds especially look rather washed out, and the human characters have a limited palette of expressions). But the detail in Toothless’ facial expressions and body gestures helps to make up for these lapses. He’s like a dog and a cat combined, intermittently wily and eager, with the added appeal of being able to fly, understand English, and spit perfectly aimed fireballs when they’re called for.
Who’s Going To Love It
As Hiccup becomes a kind of Dragon Whisperer, he’s a terrific role model—eager to learn, thoughtful, and open to new ideas. It’s true that, as he comes to find out just how backwards and fearful the Vikings’ traditions have been, he doesn’t exactly tell his father the truth all the time. But you might forgive his hesitance to fess up, knowing how out of sorts Stoick will be when he learns his son won’t be killing dragons and so, won’t be carrying on the family legacy.
An added bonus is the book that Hiccup reads, listing all the types of dragons. As he studies, young viewers might also feel encouraged to find out more about dragon myths—Norse most obviously, but also Greek, European, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian, among others.
What To Be Aware Of
A couple of combat scenes—especially at the very beginning and the very end, where Vikings whomp and blast away at dragons and are assaulted, slammed, and sent airborne in turn—might be a little raucous for younger viewers. And some of the verbal repartee is plainly designed for parents rather than kids (it’s not obnoxious or ugly, just fast). But for the most part, the movie provides charming family entertainment.
A conversation between Hiccup and Stoick makes good fun of the awkwardness of fathers’ efforts to bond with their sons: neither can say what he means, and neither wants to hear what the other has to say. The scene might provide a good point of departure for a real life, real parent-child conversation about how hard it can be sometimes to talk openly when so many expectations are hanging in the air, on both sides.
Astrid first appears as a slow-motion vision, from Hiccup’s mitten perspective: She strides forward through a battlefield full of smoke, her blond bangs blowing in the wind, her midriff marked by a belt made of tiny skulls. But the film makes clear this is a parody of such stereotyping—even if she ends up being the ideal sidekick, who also provides Hiccup’s fist kiss, bestowed on him in front of an approving crowd of Berkers (and newly adopted dragons).
Hiccup’s classmates in Dragon Training are less able to separate from their stereotypes: Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is a nerd, Snotlout (Jonah Hill) bigmouth, and the twins Ruffnut (Kristin Wiig) and Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) fight more with each other than with their supposed rivals.
8 out of 10
How to Train Your Dragon
Director: Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois
Cast: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, T. J. Miller
US Premiere: March 26, 2010
UK Premiere: March 31, 2010