Screenwriters: Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders, Adam F. Goldberg, Peter Tolan, Cressida Cowell
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, America Ferrara, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig
Running time: 98 mins
> Video: Exclusive 'Dragon' featurette
Throwing aside the zany slapstick of Kung Fu Panda and Shrek's rapid-fire pop culture gags, DreamWorks takes a more measured and earnest approach in its latest animation, How To Train Your Dragon. Set on the Viking island of Berk, it follows Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a dorkish teen who resists his father Stoick's (Gerard Butler) wishes for him to become a dragon-slaying warrior after he befriends a wounded fire-breathing 'Night Fury' beast.
It's a rites of passage tale that has more in common with the fantasy-adventure fun of the Harry Potter series than any other CG toon from recent times. Of course, it's all presented in 3D to make the most of the epic scenery and the exotic creatures. The incredible design and visual spectacle of Dragon is its biggest asset; the soaring flight sequences in particular rival the Avatar banshee rides for airborne thrills.
Though it's great in terms of visual spectacle (thanks to a consulting role for legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, no doubt), the movie's narrative engine don't quite run as smoothly. Like James Cameron's blue blockbuster, the plot is a little bit 'seen it before', particularly in its central relationship between Hiccup and the dragon he eventually names Toothless (because of its retractable teeth). Their friendship is at first tentative - Hiccup even contemplates killing the beast to satisfy his father. Realising that Toothless and his kind aren't aggressive, Hiccup is soon feeding him fish and constructing an artificial tailfin so the injured animal can take to the skies again. There's certainly plenty of heart in this pairing.
As Hiccup is taming the beast, he must also deal with an increasingly strained relationship with his father and taunts from his young friends who don't understand his reluctance to commit to the tribal way. His group is made up of tough-as-nails emo girl (yes, a Viking emo!) Astrid (America Ferrera), two portly wise-crackers Snotlout (Jonah Hill) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and aggressive twins Tuffut (T.J. Miller) and Ruffnet (Kristen Wiig). Of course, Hiccup's hero's journey wouldn't be complete without passing an almighty final test. An island hiding a giant queen dragon provides an ominous threat and is the location for the spectacular finale that gives Hiccup his Luke Skywalker moment.
Co-directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch) put across the message that tolerance, togetherness and putting faith in the young generation can make for a bright future. That's laudable and expected for a film that's aimed at kids, but where it really works is in its visual elegance and exhilarating battles between humans and dragons. It's also perhaps the animated film that has so far made the best use of the 3D format, not self-consciously prodding things out of the screen (a trick that works best in horror anyway) but adding detail and depth to already rich environments.
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