Thursday, April 15, 2010


By: The Mad Hatter

I didn't run to see Dreamworks' latest animated feature right away like I usually do for new releases I want to see because I’d heard a lot about it here and there—how a lot of people really loved it—and the unfortunate side effect of such ravings is that my expectation bar gets set way up in the clouds. Funny thing though, when I finally did see HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON two days ago, it didn't just meet that lofty bar; it soared far above it.

The film begins in the Viking town of Berk which routinely gets raided for sheep and other food by various species of dragon. The people pride themselves on being dragon slayers and defending their home turf, especially their leader, Stoick (Gerard Butler). However, every chain must have a weak link, and in Berk it's Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). Hiccup is Stoick's son and desperately wants to join the fray but is just far too small and clumsy in most people's eyes. He's reduced to working in the blacksmith's shop with Gobber (Craig Ferguson).

During one raid, Hiccup steals away and sets up a bola-firing contraption. He actually manages to snare a Night Fury, the most feared dragon of them all, but when he tracks it down, he can't bring himself to kill it. He frees it and watches it fly away into a canyon. When Hiccup gets back, Stoick reluctantly enrolls him in dragon training where Hiccup's crush on a real slayer-in-waiting, Astrid (America Ferrera), goes into overdrive while watching her prowess. It's here that he is told that dragons will go for the kill in battle, every time. This leads Hiccup to wonder why the Night Fury let him walk.

Hiccup returns to the canyon and discovers that the Night Fury's tail has been injured, thus handicapping its ability to fly. He also discovers that with patience and respect, a human can befriend a Dragon. Thus he earns the friendship of the Night Fury, a dragon he eventually names Toothless. Once the two have bonded, Hiccup engineers an artificial fin for the dragon’s tail, enabling it to fly again. And it lets Hiccup fly with him.

In Toothless and Hiccup, Dreamworks have added characters to their stable that are instantly relatable and loveable, no small feat as they've been trying to do that since Shrek first stepped from his outhouse. For this I give full credit to directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. These gents were the creators of LILO & STITCH, one of Disney's last great 2-D animated films, a fact which obviously can't be mentioned in the marketing.

Amusingly, this film made me take a step back on my crusade against 3-D. By now my stance is well-known: 3-D is a gimmick, a cash-grab that I really don't want to encourage. However . . . HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON has been specifically rendered in 3-D from the get-go, and thus it feels intentional and actually rather thrilling, especially during the flying sequences. During such moments, there are daring, sweeping camera moves and exciting POV shots that took me up out of my seat and momentarily gave me the rush of what it could be like to ride a dragon. It almost pains me to say this, but indeed, if you don't see this in 3-D, you aren't getting the full experience.

Along with the thrilling action and the two scoops of laughs, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON got me because of an overall sweetness that isn't manipulative. Every dragon is given a lot of character, especially Toothless (who incidentally, reminded me a lot of my own black cat in many of his mannerisms). Hiccup's relationship with his father is something we've seen before, but for some reason it feels truly genuine here. Likewise the budding bond between Hiccup and Astrid is sweet to watch, since they have a delicate chemistry with each other.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON reminds me of being young and finding the guts to go on the highest fastest roller coaster with your hands held up in the air. It's brave, it's exciting, and it's the sort of experience movies so seldom deliver. I can't recommend it highly enough and do myself hope to see it at least one more time in a theatre . . . maybe twice.


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