If Secretariat isn’t doing it for you, here’s another riding-the-noble-creature, underdog-hero film that doesn’t so much pluck at your heartstrings as drag you by them up into the stratosphere.
Life isn’t easy in the coastal Viking town of Berk, located just a little south of the Arctic Circle, where it snows nine months out of the year and hails the other three. Being one of the only sources of food for miles, Berk is attacked on a regular basis by swarms of dragons. As if that wasn’t enough pressure, being skinny, weak, and brainy like young Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) doesn’t go over too well with any of his Viking classmates. Or the adult Vikings. Or the awe-inspiring village headman, Stoick the Vast (v. Gerard Butler), who also happens to be Hiccup’s father. As Stoick’s best friend, Gobber (v. Craig Ferguson) the village blacksmith, explains to the boy, “It’s not so much what you look like, it’s what’s inside that he can’t stand.”
When Hiccup manages to take down a dragon with one of his gear-and-spring-powered weapons, he thinks it’s going to be the moment that changes his whole life and finally impresses his father. Not just any dragon, either, but the near-mythical Night Fury. Hiccup can’t bring himself to kill the downed beast when he finds it in the forest, though, and realizes that his invention has crippled the graceful and intelligent creature He befriends the dragon, names him Toothless, and begins to use his inventive skills to repair the damage he's done. Little by little, the boy who doesn’t fit in and the damaged dragon learn how to fly together with a mechanical tail and a saddle to control it. Of course, it can’t be that easy or it wouldn’t be much of a movie. Back in Berk, Gobber has convinced Stoick the best thing for Hiccup is to start training to fight dragons, a basic Viking skill. Which doesn’t please any of the other students, especially his Viking valedictorian classmate, Astrid (v. America Ferrera). In fact, she’s even less pleased when Hiccup starts to show an uncanny ability to deal with dragons, one that makes him king of the ring and earns him the ultimate prize -- getting to kill a dragon in front of the whole village.
The first thing that always gets me about this film is the title. Why does all the DreamWorks publicity keep calling it Dragons? It’s not the name of the film, or even a decent abbreviation of the name. It’s not even the name of the source material. Apparently someone there is convinced that long titles drive people away from movies. Y’know, in the same way so many people are getting turned off by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One.
Minor rant aside (major rant still to come), there's a lot of great, anachronistic fun in this film from the guys who brought us the often-maligned Lilo & Stitch. Yeah, deal with it. Lilo & Stitch is a great film that too many people keep looking at through the Disney lens. At first glance How to Train Your Dragon is a fantasy version of the classic "boy and his dog" story, but it’s really just as much about a boy and his father. Hiccup spends the first act of the film desperate to win Stoick’s approval, and the entire second act trying to hide the fact that the one thing he turns out to be good at is something his father would never approve of. That’s part of the reason this film soars, because there aren’t any low-brow, goofy motivations that were just made up to fuel the story. Hiccup isn’t any different than hundreds of thousands of real-life kids who want their parents to be proud of them, and that’s the kind of honest character beat both adults and kids can instantly relate to.
Plus, you'd have to be made of stone not to be moved by the phenomenal flying scenes. Once Hiccup and Toothless figure out how they can fly together, this film hits heights that recent duds like Alpha & Omega can’t even see from where they’re standing. Even with the 3-D effects stripped away (and you are going to regret it if you didn’t see this on the big screen in 3-D), they are still some of the most glorious moments of the film, whether Hiccup is trying to learn the ropes, impress Astrid, or leading a new generation of dragon-riders into battle.
It’s probably also worth mentioning that writer/directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders are good enough at this that they’re actually telling a story, not just running a string of sight gags together. There are a few points when this film goes for several minutes (an eternity in screen time) with no dialogue, and it only enhances the movie as a whole. It’s a single, coherent story, and it doesn’t feel like anything was wedged in to please an executive from marketing or development.
Alas, How to Train Your Dragon still doesn't quite hit the level of sophistication and maturity to make it a solid four-quadrant film like you’d expect from, say, Pixar. Some of the lesser characters never make it past caricatures, and while the gags never aim for the lowest common denominator, many of them aren't aiming at the highest, either. While DeBlois and Sanders have pushed their story up into the "great" category, it's also close enough to be plain it doesn't quite hit perfect.
In another rant against DreamWorks marketing, the fact that this is a two-disc set is just shameless. Oh, there’s some good material on the second disc. The featurettes are nice, and they talk about all the work that went into developing lighting techniques, fire mechanics, and flight dynamics for this film. The bonus short, Legend of the BoneKnapper Dragon, is fun and will give you a new appreciation for the various hammerhead creatures of the world. It’s also nice to see that they got the entire original cast back for it, not just sound-alikes
Thing is, it’s almost impossible to believe this couldn’t have all just fit on one disc. The movie itself is only 98 minutes, and there’s maybe an hour’s worth of material on the second disc. Even if you figure some of the bonus CD-ROM stuff took up a lot of extra space, is it really so much that they needed an entire separate disc?
Heck, suppose it did spill over onto an extra disc and they decided to even things out between the two. There’s still no excuse at all for putting the second disc in its own case. When some studios are going out of their way to make space-conscious, environmentally friendly packaging, this set from DreamWorks is a perfect example of pointless excess.
There are plenty of good reasons to see this movie, and it’s very re-watchable if you own it. But hold off on the double-DVD pack, because that’ll just annoy you more than anything else.