How to Train Your Dragon reviewed

Loosely based on the children’s book by Cressida Cowell, How to Train Your Dragon is the new animated film from DreamWorks Animation, the only studio that has continually given Disney-Pixar a run for their money in terms of producing popular, critically acclaimed CGI-entertainment for the whole family.

DreamWorks films however, tend to be known more for their frenetic energy, pop culture references and overstuffed voice casts as opposed to prioritising appealing, identifiable characters, and crafting a memorable, strong story. These are areas where Pixar excels. I’m pleased to report though that How to Train Your Dragon, like DreamWorks’ 2008 release, Kung Fu Panda, is an animated film more in line with the Pixar tradition.

Wackiness is almost completely absent in How to Train Your Dragon, which is a sincere, surprisingly serious tale about a wimpy young loner called Hiccup (voiced by Tropic Thunder and Fanboys’ Jay Baruchel) who is tired of being shunned by his village of dragon-slaying Vikings and, worst of all, tired of being considered an embarrassment by his gung-ho chieftain father, Stoick the Vast (300’s Gerard Butler). Hiccup decides to redeem himself in the eyes of his community by catching and killing a Night Fury, the most mysterious of known dragon breeds – essentially the stealth bomber of the species. Hiccup half succeeds, capturing a Night Fury he names Toothless. However, the more time Hiccup spends with this inquisitive, dog-like creature, the more he comes to realise that dragons aren’t the monsters that he, and the other students in his dragon fighting class, have been led to believe.

How to Train Your Dragon doesn’t have the gut-wrenching emotional impact of Pixar’s Up, but it certainly has heart. And it certainly isn’t one of those animated films where the characters breeze through, impervious to injury and death. Refreshingly, actions have consequences in this world.

Speaking of How to Train Your Dragon’s world, the Scandinavian setting has been very well realised. World of WarCraft players will no doubt be happily reminded of the Howling Fjord and Icecrown regions of Northrend. I certainly was.

Along with its setting, the film’s other major selling points include several engaging action and aerial sequences. This, of course, raises the big movie question of the moment, “Is this worth seeing in 3D?” With How to Train Your Dragon, I can’t respond with an emphatic “yes.” My problem with the 3D format is that if I find myself aware of the multiple dimensions onscreen, it means that I’m not engrossed in the film – which I consider to be a failure on the part of the filmmakers. So far, I have only seen 2 films that really capitalised on 3D, using it to enhance the movie experience instead of distracting from it. These films were Coraline and Avatar. How to Train Your Dragon did not impress me as a memorable 3D experience, but that only means I was only more interested in the film’s plot and characters.

Attention to characterisation, in fact, is arguably the most appealing thing about How to Train Your Dragon. Starting with the dragons, they have been very cleverly conceived in terms of their different looks and abilities. Toothless, importantly, achieves the perfect balance between cute and cool to win the heart of everyone in the audience. He’s the dragon every child – and probably every adult – in the cinema wishes they had as a pet.

As for the human characters, the voice actors are perfectly matched to their animated equivalents, instead of overpowering them with their celebrity personalities, as so often happens. I’d even go so far as to say that Gerard Butler turns in one of his most impressive ever performances as Stoick. The CGI-cartoon medium really suits the intense, emotionally expressive Scot.

This said, my personal favourite characters in How to Train Your Dragon were the band of trainee dragon fighters. From the dozy metalhead twins, to the chubby geek with a role-player’s memory for dragon statistics, to the overly competitive female warrior, as a unit they provide most of the film’s laughs without ever becoming a joke themselves. The various training arena sequences are standout moments in the film.

In the end, although How to Train Your Dragon doesn’t pack as much of an emotional wallop as Up, and it doesn’t really tread any new thematic ground, the film is still highly recommended as a family adventure with wit and charm – not dissimilar in tone to Disney’s Lilo & Stitch. If you are a fantasy fan in particular, you owe yourself a viewing of this film because you will enjoy it immensely.


Riaan said…
Excellent review! Agreed with everything you said, except...
well I thought Toothless was more cat-like than dog-like (but maybe
I've just been brain-washed from watching too many kitteh videos on youtube...) :p
Terrance said…
Nice review! I caught it in 3D last week and had a great time. Its definitely a film that doesn't pander to kids and manages to throw in a lot of laughs without resorting to slapstick humour.
Pfangirl said…
Thanks for the comments, guys!

Riaan, I couldn't quite decide if they were more cat-like or dog-like. Perhaps you're right the more I think about it.

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