Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders

Cast: The voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig

MPAA Rating: PG (for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language)

Running Time: 1:38

Release Date: 3/26/10

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 25, 2010

There's a level of purity to the storytelling of How to Train Your Dragon that's rather refreshing. Nothing extraneous is here. The film is about a kid meeting, getting to know, and, of course, training a dragon. That the dragons are seen as his village's greatest adversary is the story's heart.

They are animals, these dragons. They don't talk. They roar and breathe fire. When they attack the town and steal its livestock, they are acting on survival instincts and not on the motive of murderous rampage that the Vikings of the small island of Berk project upon them. "They've killed hundreds of us," the tribe's leader tells his son; "We've killed thousands of them," the son retorts. Maybe there is something underneath that part of the story, learning to understand the reason for a supposed enemy's actions and realizing one party in the conflict is not only to blame.

Not a lot of time is spent on the thematic ramifications of the tale of How to Train Your Dragon, and that's fine. After all, there's a fun little world to be explored here, with strong, heroic Vikings and sleekly designed, diverse dragons. There's nothing wrong with sticking to the basics and leaving whatever political or social baggage could come along with it at the door.

The Vikings have names like Astrid, Snotlout, Fishlegs, Tuffnut and Ruffnut, and Gobber, and they are voiced by America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller and Kristen Wiig, and Craig Ferguson respectively. These are great fantasy Viking names, and those along with the actors playing them should give one an idea of the film's tone. To clarify a little further, the clan's leader is voiced by Gerard Butler, with a thick Scottish brogue. His character is named Stoick the Vast, which is probably the only name that could be bestowed upon this massive, bearded, imposing, and, well, vast mountain of a Viking.

His son's name is Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), and no, he does not have a title to follow it. The townsfolk would probably be content with "the Puny," "the Useless in Battle," or "the Kid Who'll Probably Never Live Up to His Father's Expectations." Any of them work just fine.

Hiccup wants to prove everyone wrong and kill a dragon, until he meets one after knocking it out of the air with a bola cannon of his own invention during a heated battle.

The dragon is a Night Fury, a fast creature with fireballs that never miss. It's the Vikings' most terrifying scourge, a dragon whose entry in their dragon handbook is vague and sinister. Gobber, Hiccup's dragon-slaying teacher, says a dragon will always go for the kill, but when Hiccup frees this one, it doesn't take the opportunity. Hiccup discovers that everything they thought about these creatures is wrong.

The dragons themselves are neat creations. There's the pig-like Gronckle, the two-headed Hideous Zippleback (one releases gas, the other ignites it), the Monstrous Nightmare that engulfs itself in flames, and the tiny Terrible Terror. The last one likes to be scratched behind the horns.

The story unfolds the way one would expect it to. Hiccup forms a bond with his dragon, repairing its broken tail and learning non-lethal tricks to subduing the Vikings' foes, which makes him the talk of the town and the head of his class. Astrid, on whom he has a crush, is jealous and starts to wonder how this formerly twerpy kid has become a dragon master.

Stoick is critical of his son (When forced to specify what about Hiccup is wrong, he gestures to the kid's entirety) and comes home from a failed excursion to the beasts' lair to find himself proud of the lad. Now they have something to talk about, dad tells Hiccup, and then there's an awkward silence. Young heroes in tales such as these seem to need a father they cannot please and, when they do, learn they aren't too pleased with themselves. It comes with the territory of being a loser-turned-hero.

Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders elect an animation style that edges closer to cartoon than realism, although the backgrounds of Berk and its outlying areas look great. A journey into the heart of the dragons' lair inside a volcano reveals the existence of an even more deadly foe for both sides of the conflict, and that's where the massive final battle takes place, on the ground, in the air, and on this new adversary. In between, the training sequences are amusing, and Hiccup's first flight on the back of his new pet, weaving in and out of towering rock formations while still trying to get the hang of flying, is visually impressive stuff.

It's also an invigorating moment, even though it's been done so many times before. How to Train Your Dragon accomplishes this by keeping the scene, and the ones around it, completely in the context of its story, told with steadfast simplicity.

Copyright 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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