If another studio plans on taking home the 2010 Oscar for Best Animated Picture, well, their film had better be packing some serious muscle: Dreamworks has really and truly found a winner with How to Train Your Dragon, a film that starts small and ends up thinking big as it builds and expands on the excellent ideas established in the early going. This truly is the little 3D children’s movie that could– aside from having some impressive legs at the box office, it’s one of the few (and in fact, possibly the only) movie released thus far in 2010 to utilize 3D to any positive effect.
That last part is huge; in a year that so far seems bent on undoing the positive impact Avatar had on the rise of 3D in filmmaking, How To Train Your Dragon very well could be the sole 2010 release that understands how 3D can enhance the effect and the impact of a film rather than just raise ticket sales. Most of all, it’s a technically impressive and emotionally satisfying picture for both adults and kids alike, fun and engaging while being thoughtful and heartfelt all at the same time.
Dragon follows the story of Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel, a guy getting a lot of much-deserved leading roles of late), a youth born into viking culture and is painfully out of place amongst his beefy, loutish, battle-happy brethren. If the vikings are the jocks, Hiccup is the poor schlemiel they’d be all too happy to stuff inside of a sweaty, dank locker– that is, were it not for the fact that he’s the son of his village’s chief, Stoick the Vast (Gerrard Butler). Stoick, of course, is ten times the viking most vikings are, making any hope of a bond between masculine father and awkward son impossible. Unfit for battle, much less dragon training, Hiccup spends his days toiling in the blacksmith’s shop,under the apprenticeship of Gobber the Belch (Craig Ferguson), a seasoned warrior missing both a foot and a hand.
We learn, almost right off the bat, that Hiccup’s village neighbors a hidden dragon’s nest, which of course means conflict with the voracious brood of airborne lizards; the opening sequence captures a thrilling fight between the residents of the village and the ferocious (and wonderfully varied) dragons. Maybe I lied when I said the film starts off thinking small; the first ten minutes or so are so wholly gripping that they could very well have come after an hour of character development, narration, and world-building. But the film approaches the action and the drama intelligently. The stakes are established quickly and precisely, and the fracas is joined with vigor by the hardened viking populace. There’s an immediate sense of just how long this village has been fighting off dragon raids– the warriors know all too well how to respond to such threats, and even the village itself has been built to ward off the ferocious airborne (and highly varied) lizards. The amount of thought that went into designing the village of Berk completely shows–and that’s just the beginning of the movie.
During the battle, Hiccup proves that he’s not too unlike his viking kin, and that what he lacks in brawn, he makes up for in brains; he shoots down the most elusive of dragons, the Night Fury, with a bolas gun of his own make. He does so, ostensibly, out of fealty to his people, but also for personal glory and, he hopes, the chance of scoring a girlfriend. (So he’s more like a teenage boy than a viking.) When he tries to retrieve the fallen beasts’s head as a trophy, he balks and lets the dragon go– but due to a tail injury, the dragon cannot fly away, and ends up being stranded in a deep canyon. Hiccup, ever curious, acclimates the Night Fury to his presence, and soon the film becomes a sweet tale about a boy and his fire-breathing, plasma-breathing, flying, exceptionally lethal pet.
Hats off to whoever brought Toothless, the previously mentioned beast of folklore and legend, to life. Toothless could have wound up being much too cloying and adorable, something harmlessly cute designed to move ancillary product. (In which case the name would have been much too on-the-nose.) But Dragon allows him to be, well, a dragon. Sure, he’s still pretty cute– if I had a child I’d happily buy a Toothless stuffed toy for them– but before he’s cute, we see just how dangerous a situation Hiccup puts himself in by trying to tame the monster. Later on, when we see Toothless in action trying to defend his new friend from other dragons and viking guards, that initial proximity that Hiccup has when fostering a bond between himself and the creature becomes even more frightening in retrospect. Toothless is a lean, muscular, agile monster capable of incredible violence, and Dragon never lets us forget that. He’s also incredibly expressive and emotive, with mannerisms that recall the household pets that we keep in the real world. I get the impression that his animators studied, long and hard, the behaviors of the average cat and dog and cherry-picked the most visually impacting of them to give Toothless the attributes that eventually identify him, and other dragons, as simply being misunderstood.
Seeing him and the rest of the dragons in action never fails to thrill. It goes without saying that I am not a huge fan of the “3D revolution”, but I’m man enough to applaud good 3D when I see it, and Dragon makes the most of the technology even when the film remains grounded. The final battle between tag-team Hiccup and Toothless and one massive tyrant of a dragon– so awesomely large that it calls immediately to mind the likes of iconic movie monsters such as Godzilla– is emblematic of all qualities the rest of the film’s action embodies. It’s breathtaking and intense and stunningly gorgeous all at once.
Helping to hold up the movie is the outstanding cast of voice actors, particularly Baruchel. He imbues Hiccup with just the right amount of teenage awkwardness; too much, and the character might have been impossible to like. Too little, and he wouldn’t have been palatable enough. Baruchel strikes that balance and makes the character amiable and relatable as the film’s straight man and social outsider. Not that Baruchel hasn’t had his share of success in his career, but it’s nice to see the actor get some really choice leading roles, even if Dragon keeps him firmly situated in a sound recording booth. Meanwhile, America Ferrera plays against type as Astrid, a viking youth going through dragon training and Hiccup’s eventual love interest. She is agile, strong of will, and fiercely competitive. Ferrera funnels an electrifying kind of energy into this character, and clearly is having a blast giving Astrid a voice and a personality from start to finish. And while Gerrard Butler’s experience on 300 almost makes him a gimme for the role of ferocious and fearless viking leader Stoick, the obvious nature of the pairing makes him no less effective. Rounding out the cast: Jonah Hill as an atypically jockish viking youth, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as a large, lumbering, and cowardly viking-in-training who rattles off the unique attributes of the different dragon species as though he had the Dungeon Master’s Guide right in front of him.
How to Train Your Dragon puts out the call to other animated films and sets the benchmark of quality in animation, but most of all it marks the first great movie of 2010, a superior and energetic piece of entertainment that flat-out must be seen in a theater. Forget comparisons to other animated films, this could easily end up being one of the top 10 best movies of the year.