There will not be a better film this year, animated or other, than HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. It’s a rip-snorting story flawlessly animated on every level that seamlessly blends humor, both subtle and broad but never gross, with heart. Lots of heart. Translated from Cressida Cowells novel of the same name, the filmmakers show a keen understanding that this is a tale of high adventure and magical wonder.
Set in the Viking village of Berk, a village with bad weather and a plague of dragons, the story deals with Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the geeky offspring of village leader Stoick the Vast (voiced with full Scottish brio and testosterone by Gerard Butler), a mighty dragon hunter since he was old enough to toddle. Hiccup, on the other hand, with the physique of a linguini and the coordination of one after overboiling, is the object of everyones pity and/or scorn, Still, he has his own sort of courage, leaving the house in the morning for one, using his natural mechanical ability to come up with his own way of fighting dragons for another, though the latter usually results in disaster, and not for the reptiles. It’s a state of affairs that has made father and son both uncomfortably aware that neither is meeting the other’s needs or expectations. Instead of traditional dragon fighting training, Hiccup has been apprenticed to Gobber (Craig Ferguson), the local blacksmith with only two extremities and a way of trying to lift Hiccup’s spirits that are emotionally traumatic for the boy.
Determined to prove himself, and maybe impress the girl of his dreams, Astrid (voiced with the cool assurance of a warrior by America Ferrara), Hiccup, defies the adults who want to keep him indoors during the latest dragon attack and sneaks out to use his latest invention. It works, bringing down the most feared kind of dragon, the dark and mysterious Night Fury. Unfortunately, no one actually sees him do it, and the dragon falls from the sky far from the village. That his efforts also result in the town burning down again does nothing to help the others believe his story.
As a result of the latest attack, three things happen. His father takes the men of the village in search of the dragon’s nest to rid them of the scourge once and for all. Gobber, feeling sorry for the boy after his latest debacle, talks Stoick into allowing Hiccup to start official training in the art of dragon fighting. Most importantly for all concerned, Hiccup tracks down the Night Fury and, instead of killing the beast still tangled in the net that brought him down, he sets it free. The dragon sets upon Hiccup, but doesn’t kill him. This is contrary to the common wisdom about dragons, and, as Hiccup discovers as he makes friends with the dragon he names Toothless, all of that common wisdom is of the contrary kind.
Starting with an excellent story, the filmmakers were smart enough to know that it’s characters that make it come to life, and they were also smart enough to know how to pull that off. Toothless has the body of a sleek dragon, the face of a newt, and both the temperament and the body language of a precocious cat. His luminous green eyes have an astonishing range and complexity of emotion, while his personality, conveyed without a word but a rich vocabulary of expressions and sounds, has an irresistibly mercurial quality. Baruchels work is superb, with a voice that seems half-strangled by Hiccups struggle between low self-esteem and cockeyed optimism. In scenes between Hiccup and his father, there is a genuinely touching inability to make a connection, even when Hiccup, using what hes learned about dragons from Toothless, zooms to the top of his dragon-fighting class and makes Stoick proud. Even the comic relief of Hiccups peers tormenting him underscores the boys inability to fit in, while somehow making the idea of fitting in with that crowd less than attractive.
For all the flash and dazzle of the animation, which works equally well in either its 2- or 3-D incarnations, it is those small touches that electrify the emotional life of the story. There are breathtaking swoops through the air as Hiccup learns to fly on Toothless, the truly thrilling scope of a battle between dragons and Viking, or even the details of fur, fire, and water rendered with precision and artistry, but it’s all secondary and the mere staging. When Hiccup puts out his hand, hoping Toothless will nudge it thereby accepting his friendship, it’s heart-stopping and as breathtaking as any swoop. When a character, soaring on a dragon’s back, reaches up to touch a cloud that is within reach, there is a magic an emotional resonance that is captivating.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is a charming, smart film that recounts the classic hero’s journey without a hint of stuffiness. Instead, it grasps the essence of why that journey has persisted in the collective consciousness since time immemorial with a story that captures the imagination while also firing it.