In further proof that I am a slacker when it comes to seeing movies in the theater, I just this past weekend saw How to Train Your Dragon, despite being mildly-to-really interested in it when I first caught wind of it. That was early on because I regularly check Gerard Butler’s IMDb page. What? Anyway, How to Train Your Dragon was a surprise hit, and for good reason. It’s charmingly animated, has a strong (albeit predictable) story, a good voice cast, and is fun (and funny) without being insipid, which is sometimes quite the feat for an animated film.
Our hero, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), has troubles. He’s an extremely non-Viking-ish Viking. His village is overrun by dragons. The girl of his dreams, Astrid (America Ferrera) doesn’t know he’s alive, and finally, his dad, Stoick (Gerard Butler), is not only the chieftan of the village, but is pretty much the most Viking-like Viking to ever … well, you get the idea. In Hiccup’s mind, the answer to solving all of these problems is to somehow bag a dragon. Since he’s a 90 lb. weakling, he has invented a very large weapon (sort of a cross between a crossbow, a catapult, and bolos) in order to bring down one of the winged pests. In this, he actually succeeds, and suddenly finds a Night Fury, the most dangerous and mysterious of all dragons, on his hands. Problem is, he can’t bring himself to kill the creature, and instead befriends it. Meanwhile, he’s been put into Dragon Training with the other teens of his village, including Astrid. While they’re all learning how to kill dragons, Hiccup’s learning more important lessons about their behavior, and he’s realizing that maybe they’re not the pests they’re made out to be. Ultimately, he, along with Astrid and Toothless (the dragon), discovers that the dragons are actually victims themselves. This is of course impossible to explain to his father, who goes off to face a menace he doesn’t understand. In the end, it is the teens (and some new dragon friends) who save the day.
You’ve got all the standard coming-of-age/fish out of water plot points here. Hero wants to be like everyone else, but he isn’t. He’s misunderstood. He gains confidence in learning to accept his true nature, and in the end, everyone else learns to accept him as well. It’s pretty straightforward, but really, the best stories are usually a tried-and-true formula that are simply given a unique spin. This one is no exception. The Viking village and all the unique dragons are a really fun and unusual touch. The fact that the dragons (well, mainly Toothless) don’t speak is a refreshing change. There is also a welcome lack of the sly witticism and precociousness so often present in today’s animated features.
Toothless is actually one of the most charming animated “characters” I think I’ve ever seen. Often playful and childlike, I actually thought he was a baby for much of the film. The animators obviously modelled a large part of his actions and mannerisms on those of a cat, and I found it really impressive, the extent to which that showed and worked. Maybe it was just because I’m a cat person. The rest of the characters were also quite artistic, and the voice-acting was excellent. Particularly enjoyable were Gerard Butler in a serious turn as Stoick, and Craig Ferguson as the one adult who understands and believes in Hiccup.
One of the things I liked most about the movie would be sort of spoilery, so I’m trying to decide how to discuss it. Let’s just say that there is a moment of “realism” to the film, something that would not ordinarily happen in a kid’s movie, especially not a cartoon. I found that moment to be really wonderful, both in terms of symbolism and connection within the story itself, and in its message to viewers. Since I’m a parent now (yikes!) I will be glad to show my daughter this movie later on, and to discuss the difference and its importance.
Which means, yes, that I look forward to seeing this movie again, and would absolutely recommend it to anyone looking for something fun to watch. I have no doubt that it would have been really awesome to see on the big screen, or in 3D, although the flying scenes might have proven a bit too much for me in that forum. And hey! There’s talk of a sequel. Let’s hope they can retain the freshness and enjoyment of the first. Make sure you see it before the second one comes out!