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Review: How to Train Your Dragon

Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Friday, March 26, 2010

For all of their careful planning and expense the animated movies released by major studios often still rely on the safe road to tell their stories. How to Train Your Dragon won't be remembered for stepping off that path and venturing too deep into the dark woods that line the storytelling road but it does manage to take a few steps closer to the edge. What you are getting is an entertaining retelling of the outsider hero character facing adversity and overcoming the obstacles placed in front of him -- but with great animation, good character voices and some emotional moments that will entertain younger and older audience members.

Jay Baruchel lends his voice to our hero, a young Viking named Hiccup. As the son of Stoick (the Scottish brogue of Gerard Butler is in full action here) who is the leader of their Viking village, Hiccup has big shoes to fill. Unfortunately for his pained father and the citizens of Burke, Hiccup is anything but  a fearless fighting machine against the dragons that regularly attack Burke and carry off their livestock. However, due to one moment of bravery Hiccup succeeds where no other Viking has done before: he brings down a feared Nightfury, a dragon that no Viking has ever lived to describe. When Hiccup goes to find where the Nightfury landed he discovers the injured creature. Slowly the human and the dragon begin to interact and a friendship emerges. Hiccup discovers that when push comes to shove he can't kill the beast, and it's not really the feared monster that the Vikings made the Nightfury out to be.

How to Train Your Dragon is directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, the two filmmakers that made Disney's Lilo and Stitch, and it shows in the story arc of Hiccup and Toothless, the Nightfury dragon. In fact, Toothless looks quite a bit like Stitch in his facial features and the way his body is shaped, minus the extra set of arms. While not an outright homage and neither a direct case of copying from one's earlier work, the similarities between Toothless and Stitch only help to endear the dragon with the viewer.

On several levels animation in the film is really amazing. The detail in Stoick's matted red hair, the way that a landslide of rocks flow down a mountainside, are all realized brilliantly. Character animation is good but both the humans and the dragons suffer a wee bit from looking too cartoony. As for the 3D qualities of the film, while it's not as breathtaking as Jake Sully riding on a Banshee in Avatar, when Hiccup is riding atop Toothless and soaring over the water or in the clouds, it's still pretty fun to watch. That said, it was the smaller technical accomplishments that really drew my attention to the 3D effect, such as the sparks that fly out from a blacksmith's forge or the ash drifting in the air.

As I mentioned earlier, while the story in How to Train Your Dragon won't win any awards for being different there is a touching, softer resolution to Hiccup's adventure, one that you don't see coming and thus hits you a little harder than you would expect from a movie aimed at families. Don't get me wrong, it's good and it shows younger viewers that there can be consequences from putting yourself in dangerous situations too as well as big wins.

How to Train Your Dragon is a good animated film that serves as a nice companion piece to DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda or the first Shrek. Sprinkled with a few laughs, a couple of amazing moments and a good core relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, it's a film that will leave you with a good warm feeling and interest in seeing another adventure with Hiccup and Toothless a few years down the road.

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