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"A visually stimulating, but slightly inconsequential "how to" tale."
 
"Majestically vibrant in color and breathtaking in atmosphere."
"With simplified storylines and conventional character traits, the film offers very few surprises."
How To Train Your Dragon  

Cast

Hiccup: Jay Baruchel
Stoick: Gerard Butler
Cobber: Craig Ferguson
Snotlout: Jonah Hill
Fishlegs: Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Astrid: America Ferrara
Ruffnut: Kristen Wiig
Tuffnut: T.J. Miller
Review March 2010

From dragon slayer to dragon whisperer. Such is the tale of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III in How To Train Your Dragon, a film based on the popular children's story by Cressida Cowell. As a clumsy and awkward Viking teenager, Hiccup always managed to disappoint his father and the rest of the Viking elders with his warrior ways. But after capturing his first dragon, all of that would change. Rather than kill the dragon, he befriends it, forever changing the once tumultuous relationship between Viking and dragon. A spectacle of technical and animated brilliance, How To Train Your Dragon colorfully soars to both new and familiar heights, capitalizing on the resurgence of theatrical 3D. However, while the animation is bold and full of depth, the characters remain flat and underdeveloped, leaving a visually stimulating, but slightly inconsequential "how to" tale.

On the remote island of Berk, a Viking community is terrorized by dragons, winged and fire breathing creatures that raid and pillage, stealing sheep and other sources of food. Led by fearless leader, Stoick the Vast, the Vikings retaliate and learn to fight back and hunt the dragons. But often, their methods are too rudimentary for the mythical beasts. In particular, the sleek and seemingly invincible Night Fury, which rips through the air like a stealth missile and annihilates everything in its path. However, on this particular night, Stoick's son Hiccup fires a net launcher into the sky and wounds one of the never before seen creatures. In the heat of battle, no one notices. Nor would they believe that a young, inexperienced, and clumsy blacksmith would be capable of such a thing.

So while Stoick and the other Viking warriors search for the dragons' lair, Hiccup sneaks away into the forest to find where the Night Fury may have fallen. Within a small canyon, he discovers the wounded dragon. But rather than kill it, he takes compassion on the indefensible creature, which has lost its ability to fly. Over the coming weeks, he brings it food, develops a makeshift tail fin, and befriends the dark beast he calls Toothless. As Stoick enrolls Hiccup in dragon fighting class and the Vikings continue their barbaric ways toward the dragons, Hiccup quickly realizes: "Everything we know about them is wrong." And somehow, he must take drastic measures to convince the rest of the village and put an end to the Viking/dragon war.

How To Train Your Dragon is based loosely on the children's book by Cressida Cowell, which follows the misadventures of an atypical young Viking and his attempts to befriend and learn from dragons. Included in the series are titles like How to Speak Dragonese, How To Twist a Dragon's Tale, and How to Break a Dragon's Heart. And characteristic to each book is a compilation of abbreviated chapters, slapstick humor, childlike drawings, and kid pleasing names like Snotface and Fishlegs. Much of this is purposely discarded, as directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois opt for an older demographic. Among the most significant alterations are the character ages from tween to teen, the Vikings' relationship with the dragons from training to hunting, and the size of Toothless, from a small green dragon in the book to a full-sized, fire breathing terror called the Night Fury. These changes give the film a more ominous and mature dynamic, without detracting too much from the author's intent.

Unlike many animated features before it, How To Train Your Dragon is majestically vibrant in color and breathtaking in atmosphere. The film is shown in both 3D and 2D formats, as well as a presentation in IMAX. These technologies add a much grander dimension to an already visceral experience, without falling into the gimmick trap. There's Hiccup's first ride on Toothless, Stoick's approach into the dragon's den, and a final confrontation with a dragon of all dragons. Much of the thanks go to Roger Deakins, award winning cinematographer from No Country for Old Men, Fargo, and The Man Who Wasn't There, who was hired on as a consultant to give the film more movement and action - a successful measure felt in almost every frame.

The only problem, however, is that if you cut away those lively Viking battle sequences and spirited dragon flights, there is very little left. The main arc is fairly mundane and unsophisticated. Essentially, it's a traditional tale in which a young protagonist outwits his elders and fellow classmates in their daily affairs and ultimately, teaches them all a valuable lesson, aka How To Train Your Viking. And as luck would have it, the dragons happen to be really nice and eager to exercise a change of heart toward the Vikings after years and years of bloodshed.

Overall, the character mechanics are not much better and about as awkward as Hiccup and Stoic having a father/son chat. Much of this is the result of one dimensionality - the improbable hero, the plucky comic relief, the stubborn father, the curious love interest. But there's also a lot of confusion created in mixing a heavy Scottish brogue with modern English, as if it's cinematically acceptable to have every burly warrior talk like Shrek? Especially when everyone knows that Vikings traditionally spoke Old Norse, an ancient Germanic language tied to Old English. If anything, these Vikings should have infused their dialogue with modern Scandinavian languages like those from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Or perhaps even, a touch of Dragonese?

No doubt, How To Train Your Dragon will appeal to younger audiences that are able to handle animated violence filled with fire breathing beasts and razor sharp teeth. With simplified storylines and conventional character traits, the film offers very few surprises. And the few surprises that do come about seem unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Still, the film achieves a technical excellence that withstands the mediocrity in story. And it incorporates a color palette with enough warmth and charm to tame a dragon's heart.



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