Image source. Copyright Paramount Pictures, 2010.
At some point in How to Train Your Dragon, you wonder why this movie isn’t a video game instead. (Oh wait…) Like an uppity kid with a brand-new toy, Dragon often can’t resist the temptation to indulge in panoramic, visually stunning shots of flying dragons and high-speed chases. It comes at the expense of a richer plotline. But Dragon entertains enough to outpace most of the mediocre stuff DreamWorks usually makes.
How to Train Your Dragon takes two things we constantly mythologize – dragons and Vikings – and places them right against each other. Dragons constantly attack a northern Viking village located, as the young, slim, utterly weak protagonist Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) whines mournfully, “on the meridian of misery.” Hiccup’s father, the overly muscular, buff Stoick (Gerard Butler), leads the village in battle against the many different vicious species of plundering dragons. Stoick wants Hiccup to follow in his footsteps as a strong-armed dragon killer, but he knows that Hiccup, the laughingstock of the entire village for his ungainliness, stands no chance. Yet he places Hiccup in dragon training anyway – just as Hiccup, to his shock and delight, discovers that one of his clumsy machine contraptions has trapped a Night Fury dragon, the great white shark of the dragon world. Instant death, right?
Not exactly. This Night Fury dragon, whom Hiccup names Toothless, turns out to be just as trainable as a cute (albeit overgrown) puppy. The rest of the movie spends time showing the growing bond between Toothless and Hiccup and Hiccup’s realization that, against everything he and we have been told, dragons are actually good creatures to live with. It’s an interesting twist on our conventional portrayal of dragons as vicious, ruthless beasts. Indeed, part of what makes Dragon so appealing is its willingness to take on these exotic creatures. There aren’t many other animated movies where a dragon is a main character, let alone a good one. It makes for a funny and surprisingly touching story.
Make no mistake, however: this may be one of DreamWorks’ more intriguing releases in the last few years, but Dragon hardly breaks any new ground. The message it imparts is right out of A Bug’s Life and every other movie made about the village eccentric finding his place in the community. After our initial realization that Toothless is actually not a vicious, predatory monster, the rest of the movie goes down a comparatively predictable path. Few of the characters play much beyond their preset, one-dimensional “roles,” least of all Stoick, whose relationship to Hiccup supposedly is one of the central tensions in the story. And like I said earlier, the fairly lengthy segments of the film spent on training, fighting, and flying dragons feel straight out of a video game. They even have a nerdy character who recites every dragon’s strengths and weaknesses like trading card stats. Part of me wonders whether DreamWorks green-lighted this movie knowing how much merchandise profits it’d bring.
Even so, Dragon *is* a good watch. Pixar is more edifying and thought-provoking, but with Dragon, you can have 1.5 hours of undiluted amusement. Hiccup’s narration keeps you engaged, and watching the level of detail the animators put into these various dragons is a treat. Without a more thoughtful storyline, alas, Dragon is like Toothless without his tail fin, so much power in a vessel unable to take off. But then again, who goes into an animated film expecting Citizen Kane? Leave that to the non-animated stuff. For animated adventure, you can’t go wrong with Dragon. Now if only they actually showed you *how* to train a dragon…oh wait…
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera
Running Time: 98 minutes
Produced by: Bonnie Arnold
Directed by: Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois
Written by: Will Davies, Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois
Based on Cressida Cowell’s 12-book series of the same name.