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Animated movies come in all shapes and sizes, with different goals, ideas, and aims. Pixar’s movies, for instance, are usually focused on making an emotional connection with the characters. You cried during the first ten minutes of Up, go ahead and admit it. Other animated films are played primarily for laughs, others pitch some moral lesson. How to Train Your Dragon takes a simple approach: It’s selling adventure. Wild, high-flying, wind in your hair adventure. A lot happens along the way and sure there’s a message but DreamWorks movies at their best, and this is one of them, are all about escapism. How to Train Your Dragon takes its audience on a fire-breathing, dipping, diving ride and never looks back.
It starts in Viking village, one which looks a lot like the hillside halls of Rohan in Lord of the Rings. In the village lives a horde of sturdy, ass-kicking Vikings and a kind of nerdy, gangly kid named Hiccup. They’re at war, pretty much all the time. Their enemy is a horde of fire breathing dragons who raid their homes, almost nightly, snatching livestock and burning everything in sight. Anyone else would have moved long ago, but they’re Vikings, and stubbornness comes with the territory. Hiccup though, is far less Viking than the norm and he’s not much good at fighting or staring danger in the eye and lopping off its head. Still he wants to fit in and so, desperate to prove himself, he concocts a catapult and uses it knock one of their aerial attackers out of the sky. When no one believes he’s done it, Hiccup strikes off on his own to find his downed foe, and discovers something unexpected.
Hiccup finds his dragon trapped and injured. Unable to kill a helpless animal, he frees it, helps it, and eventually actually learns to ride it. The movie launches into a series of utterly breathtaking flying sequences, soaring through clouds and skimming along an endless ocean as Hiccup and the creature he names “Toothless” figure things out together. For a time things seem to be going well, Hiccup keeps his secret and uses the dragon know-how he learns while working with Toothless to impress his fellow villagers. But of course, it’s a state which can’t go on forever, and eventually things come to a head.
It’s the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless which really carries the film. Toothless, in particular, is a brilliant piece of animation. He’s drawn in the mold of DreamWorks Animation’s intentionally cartoony style but they use movement to give him a life beyond a few silly pixels. It’s easy to imagine Toothless as your own loyal hound (I couldn’t help but see my English Spaniel in the way he begs for food) while at the same time getting the sense of danger and destruction he’s capable of. It’s masterful visual characterization, and Toothless is just one of the brightest spots in a bright and beautiful film.
How to Train Your Dragon is filled with great characters and Jay Baruchel’s voice work as Hiccup is an ideal fit for the film’s dweeby, awkward lead character. Gerard Butler is gruff and funny and frightening all at once as Hiccup’s Viking father Stoick and TV talk show host Craig Ferguson, in a surprising turn, steals scenes as Hiccup’s demented mentor Gobber. Ok, maybe Vikings don’t strictly speaking have Scottish accents, but this is pure fantasy and a good one.
If there’s a problem with Dragon it’s that I wanted more of it. They’ve kept the story almost excessively simple, stripped it down, and allowed a lot of key moments to happen off camera. This could have easily been a two and a half hour epic but DreamWorks, perhaps sometimes a little too focused on catering to kids, stops at a surface level, glossing over more complex elements of the story to focus in on adventure. But who doesn’t like adventure? How to Train You Dragon soars to epic heights. It’s DreamWorks’ best movie since Kung Fu Panda and maybe even, second only to Panda, their best work so far. Those two movies represent a new level of work at DreamWorks, the kind of filmmaking capable at last of going head to head with the established greatness of Pixar and, in some respects, bettering them. More of this DreamWorks. More of this.