4/6/10

Review: How to Train Your Dragon (2010)


How to Train Your Dragon, based on the book by Cressida Cowell (which I have not read) is a bit hackneyed, but not enough to overcome or spoil its amazing depiction of a world of Viking warriors under siege by a fascinating assortment of dragons, nor of the dragons themselves. The t.v. ads are running quotable quotes from quotable critics which compare it to E.T. and say the dragon stuff is better than in Avatar. For a change, these quotes are right on the money.

Not only does the film bring these landmark films to mind for positive comparison, but aspects of other good ones like The Secret of Roan Inish, Kung Fu Panda, Pete's Dragon, Braveheart, Superman, The Empire Strikes Back, Free Willy, My Neighbor Totoro, Reign of Fire and the best of the very good Harry Potter films. From that list, one might assume it to be quite derivative. It is, but it feels fresh and original the way it's handled.

The film tells the story of Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), a teen Viking and the son of the island village's chieftain, Stoick the Vast (voiced by Gerard Butler). Hiccup works as a blacksmith's assistant while nursing dreams of one day becoming a dragon-killing warrior like his dad (and everyone else in town).

Hiccup's big chance comes during a major dragon siege, when he tries out a spear-throwing device on a dim, distant target, a "Night Fury," a mysterious and dangerous black dragon who spits white-hot fire and destroys whole towns with amazing speed and accuracy. He believes he hit his target; nobody else does.

But he's not easily disheartened, and sets out to find the place the dragon must have landed if he was brought down. And he finds something wonderful which changes his life and the life of the town. The dragon has survived, under circumstances favorable to Hiccup's befriending and training him.

The sequences between Hiccup and the dragon, who comes to be named "Toothless" for his retractable teeth, are the reason for the film. From their first, fraught encounter to Hiccup's learning about Toothless, and dragons in general, by spending time gaining his trust, feeding him and helping him recover from his injuries, all of this is magical, beautiful, mesmerizing, and absolutely convincing (for a fairy-tale story). Toothless seems like a real character of his own.

There is one complication during all this--finally won over by Hiccup's previously constant badgering to let him learn how to fight dragons, his father at last consents to enter him in dragon-fighting training, a village-wide effort to find and equip the next generation of fearsome Viking dragon-killers. By this time, Hiccup has determined never to kill any dragon, but his newfound confidence and skill with a real one allow him to fake his way successfully through most of the training.

That's it for the plot points I can discuss here. Of course there are confrontations and battles galore in the parts I can't talk about, and this is handled well. The music by John Powell deserves a special mention. It's mostly hardly noticeable, then soars when that's called for. Aside from Baruchel and Butler, who are fine, other nice voice work is done by t.v.'s Craig Ferguson as Gobber, Hiccup's blacksmith boss, America Ferrera as Hiccup's love interest, Astrid, and Jonah Hill, channeling Jack Black, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as fellow dragon-fighting trainees.

The human stuff is underdeveloped a bit, Jay Baruchel is fine, but the voice of Hiccup probably should have been done by someone younger. Still, the contrast between Hiccup's nerdiness and the town's enthusiasm for blood and glory are nicely played. The film doesn't get boring, obnoxious or clash too much with the wonderful main narrative. The effects are spectacular, and spectacular in 3-D, with usually more than two or three levels of action going on at once, in clever and not overly distracting ways, and different textures giving a great feeling of photoreality that's like really good stop-motion freed up with solid computer effects, à la Coraline. I've seen it twice by now, it's great....

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

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