Director: Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler
Country: United States
One of my weak spots as a film viewer is that I have a tendency to dismiss animated films sight unseen as being “for kids” and, therefore, not of interest to me. This is despite the animation boom of the last decade or so which has produced animated films that are not only huge financial successes, but also critically acclaimed and possessed of technical and narrative ambitions which put them on par with the best live action films of any given year. Every once in a while an animated film (usually one from Pixar) will get such rapturous reviews that I’ll feel compelled to see it in theaters, but for the most part if I happen to see an animated movie, it’s well after the fact and when my home viewing options are sort of limited. That’s how it was when I first saw How to Train Your Dragon, coming to it about 2 years after its theatrical release and then kicking myself for having missed the opportunity to see it on the big screen. How to Train Your Dragon is the kind of film that can make a believer out of even the most stubborn and resistant of viewers.
Adapted from the book by Cressida Cowell, How to Train Your Dragon imagines a world where humans and dragons co-exist and where, in particular, dragons are a bane to the existence of the Vikings (who are Scottish, for some reason), burning down their village and stealing their livestock. At the center of the story is Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), son of the village Chieftan (Gerard Butler), who longs to follow in his father’s heroic footsteps, but whose strengths are more of the intellectual than physical variety, and whose capacity for empathy prevents him from being as ruthless as he would need to be to rule as his father does. For example, his intellect makes him capable to designing and constructing a contraption that he uses to shoot down a dragon, but when he secretly locates the wounded beast (whom he dubs “Toothless”) in the woods, he can’t bring himself to kill it and instead befriends it and builds it a prosthetic tail so that it will be able to fly again. In the process he also learns various ways that dragons can be tamed, which he puts to use in the dragon slaying training he attends with other adolescents from the village: Astrid (America Ferrera), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), and twins Tuffnut and Ruffnut (T.J. Miller and Kristen Wiig). However, once the village learns that Hiccup has secretly been domesticating a dragon, and once his father learns that Toothless can lead the Vikings to the dragons’ nest so that it can finally be destroyed, Hiccup becomes divided between his loyalty to his father and his loyalty to his dragon.
As a narrative, How to Train Your Dragon uses a fairly standard adventure/coming of age formula, where a protagonist who is more “regular guy” than “superstar in training” manages to leverage the assets he does have against the problem and show himself, and everyone around him, that there’s value in what he can bring to the table, and breathes new life into it by finding a good balance between the exciting action sequences and the quieter, character-building sequences which make Hiccup and Toothless such an eminently rootable duo. Although Toothless is a non-verbal character, the body language that the animators give him, in addition to the way that Hiccup plays off of him (and here much credit must be given to Baruchel as a voice-over artist), provides a wealth of characterization that imbues him with the personality, motivation, and the pathos necessary to make the film resonate on a deeper level. While, with the exception of Hiccup’s father – whose feelings towards his son are a complicated mix of disappointment that he’s not a direct reflection of himself, anger at his keeping Toothless a secret and potentially putting himself and the village in harm’s way, pride that he finds a way to do what no one else has ever done before, and love – the characters around Hiccup and Toothless aren’t given much depth, the relationship at the story’s core is the one between those two characters and how they transition from natural enemies to devoted friends, so the story still works even though everyone in the supporting ranks amounts to little more than window dressing.
On a technical level, How to Train Your Dragon is an extraordinary achievement that looks absolutely stunning. The great cinematographer Roger Deakins was brought on board as a visual consultant and every frame of the film speaks to its grand visual ambitions. While it was designed for 3D, it plays perfectly in the traditional format, the animation so exquisitely put together than nothing of the beauty and impact of these images in motion is lost. How to Train Your Dragon keeps things simple, perhaps even conventional, in a lot of ways, but it rises to the occasion where it really counts, creating a beautiful and moving picture that can appeal to viewers of all ages. I may be a bit slow to embrace animated films generally, but I know a masterpiece when I see one and How to Train Your Dragon is definitely one of those enduring, defining works.