DreamWorks Studio’s How to Train Your Dragon is not a movie that reinvents the wheel. However, I absolutely loved this film. It is, in my mind, one of the greatest examples I’ve ever seen of a film that manages to succeed on many levels without fundamentally changing a familiar story arc.
How to Train Your Dragon tells the tale of a young boy, Hiccup, that belongs to a tribe of dragon-slaying vikings. Hiccup, however, has never been able to live up to the expectations of his tribe, nor his father Stoic, the tribe’s leader. This all changes when Hiccup manages to injure, a Night Fury, the most elusive and unknown of all dragon species. Hiccup, being of a different kind than the other vikings, cannot bring himself to kill the downed dragon and they instead form an unlikely friendship. This eventually becomes a life and death struggle when the betrayed viking nation finds out about the dragon in their midst. The primary story is a tale of an outsider who learns to become truly exceptional only when he accepts himself for who he is. Throw in an enemy race that turns out to be more than meets the eye, and we’ve got some pretty standard fare going.
Where How to Train Your Dragon truly succeeds is in the details. Mixed within the standard character arc is a tale of a boy and his dog. Hiccup’s dragon, Toothless, is animated brilliantly, combining familiar mannerisms of dogs, cats, and lizards, resulting in a character any animal owner can fall in love with. Their relationship is given ample time to grow and deepen which serves to give the film’s climactic ending real jeopardy. The bond is cemented early on in the film through a series of flight sequences in which the injured Toothless learns to fly again with the help of Hiccup and his mechanical inventions. In 3-D these scenes are breathtaking, combining a visceral sense of speed, scale and height in a way I’ve never seen so successfully realized through 3-D. Somehow this movie manages to out-Avatar Avatar! When Hiccup rides Toothless we feel the sense of danger, exhilaration, and triumph that Jake Sully and his Banshee just can’t live up to.
All of these details are stitched together through the solid voice acting of the cast, Jay Baruchel (Hiccup), Stoic (Gerard Butler), Astrid (America Ferrera), and Gobber (Craig Ferguson) and the wondrous score by English composer John Powell. The movie ends in a giant dragon battle that is again taken to the next level through the expert use of 3-D and authentic emotional investment in the characters. One of my favorite tweaks on what is a fairly predictable ending is an unexpected sacrifice our hero makes as a result of saving his friends and his village. It’s these little touches, felt throughout the movie, that take this film from a generic animated movie to something I believe has the chance to become a new classic. How to Train Your Dragon is a film that is keenly aware of it’s predecessors, but it’s only because this that it is able to combine the most vital and successful elements of these stories into an incredibly satisfying product. See it, and by all means, see it in 3-D.