While dragons are a recurring image of both wonder and terror, they rarely make for great movie making. Something about their staggering size, impossible physics and status in the deepest parts of our collective mythologies keep them from being effectively portrayed on the screen, no matter its size or stereoscopic capabilities. Films like “Dragonheart,” “Eragon” and “Dragonslayer” have all fallen short of the power dragons hold in people’s minds. “How To Train Your Dragon,” the new DreamWorks 3D animated film from directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, gets close, but still only allows a glimpse of what dragons could be.
Set on the island of Berk, young Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III is the whelp of the Viking village. Small, scrawny, imaginative and prone to snark, he’s an embarrassment to his father; the town’s leader, Stoick. During one of the rampant dragon attacks, Hiccup uses a snare he invented to down one of the more elusive breeds of dragons, a Night Fury.
Of course, he also manages to cause as much damage as the dragons in the attempt.
Hiccup is voiced by Jay Baruchel, who utilized his skills at sarcasm to its fullest as he narrates the backstory during the opening dragon siege. While Baruchel’s persona is likable enough in other movies, the heavy dose of snark in the opening sequence actually works against the character he is playing. Hiccup is not particularly sympathetic early on, and the destruction he causes is pretty standard. When other kids in the village tease Hiccup, it is hard to empathize with him.
Fed up with dragon attacks, Stoick leads all the able-bodied villagers to set sail for the hidden nest of the dragons. One of their number, Gobber, is left behind to teach the children dragon-slaying. Gobber convinces Stoick to allow Hiccup to join the class.
Gerard Butler lends his voice to Stoick, giving it a little bit of the Leonidas growl from “300,” something that is noticeable enough that it’s difficult not to make that comparison or to think this isn’t the intent. That persona has become short-hand for the tough-as-nails leader type in film, and the potential difficulty is in it becoming a cliche rather than an effective shorthand.
Hiccup, meanwhile, has found the Night Fury he downed, but also found that he doesn’t have it in himself to kill it.
Thus begins the conflict that dominates the eighty-nine minute film. As Hiccup begins to observe the Night Fury, now called “Toothless,” he begins to learn skills that allow him to survive his dragon-slaying courses without injuring the creatures. The other kids and the people left behind in the village marvel as Hiccup, seemingly from nowhere, has learned to tame the foul beasties.
This section typifies the film. All the moments between Hiccup and Toothless are essentially silent – bar the occasional snark – and realized in a genuinely charming way. They are standard scenes for this type of film, but even the most cynical, hardened heart cannot help but enjoy this material. It’s also at this point that Hiccup as a character becomes sympathetic, while the scenes at dragon-slaying school are standard “the other kids just don’t get our hero” sequences. Here we are introduced to Astrid (America Ferrara), the Viking equivalent of the aggressive over-achiever. We also meet a set of twins (played by Kristin Wiig and T.J. Miller), a typical machismo lad (Jonah Hill) and Fishlegs, the Viking equivalent of a role-playing game fanatic (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
For the most part, nothing makes these characters stand out. They are there because they must exist for the story, and this is the core of “Dragon’s” problem: a stock set-up with no insight. The “community outsider who teaches the group about a new perspective and brings prosperity to the whole” plot has been a staple of the form. It is the geek inversion of “The Hero’s Journey” arc, used to great effect in films like “The Iron Giant.” In “How to Train Your Dragon,” however, the story plays out like an itemized list. Does the over-achieving Astrid discover Hiccup’s secret and soften her attitude toward him? Check. Does Hiccup’s talent with dragons eventually see him shunned by the community? Check. Does Toothless hear Hiccup call for help only to be captured due to his loyalty? Oh yeah. Do the kids, being younger, open up to Hiccup’s outre view and help him rescue Toothless? You betcha!
That last checkpoint, however, does lead to the most satisfying portion of the film. Once Hiccup and the other village kids are united and astride dragons, they fly to the nest to save everyone from the terror that awaits. Stoick, having captured Toothless, has set sail and is using the Night Fury as a compass to the fog-shrouded den. As they arrive, the adults encounter a much larger, much fiercer master dragon. Once the kids get there, Hiccup frees Toothless and it’s all out dragon vs. dragon action. This section of the movie does offer a genuinely thrilling sequence that also serves to amp up the emotional conflict between Hiccup and Stoick. While the resolution is standard, it is realized in an effective way.
In fact, when the film is literally in flight, it overcomes its more grounded aspects. There are plenty of flight sequences and they are beautifully rendered. One or two of them may go on too long, particular Astrid’s first flight, a scene that recalls moments from “Superman” and “Aladdin.” The scenes that do work are playful and recall the skill and charm co-directors Sanders and DeBlois brought to “Lilo & Stitch.”
The filmmakers also give the dragons a quirky, intriguing life. Taking away the voices dragons usually have, the film treats them more like animals with particular traits. Toothless is cat-like; another breed recalls porpoises. While dragons are typically portrayed by Hollywood as a singular race of creature in film, “Dragon” introduces the concept of diversity within the species.
“How to Train Your Dragon” offers spectacular animation and some of the best animated flying sequences ever realized on film. While the story may seem rote to animation fans and adults in the audience, it will play fresh to younger viewers who may be seeing dragons for the first time. For them, the creatures will be funny, friendly, and terrifying all at once. At the very least, it will spark in some an interest in those creatures that lurk deep in our collective imaginations and just outside the maps of reality.