a critiQal film review How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

Plot: On the island of Berk, fighting dragons is a way of life. With Initiation comes one Viking teenager's chance to prove his worthiness to both his tribe and his father. But when he encounters, and ultimately befriends, an injured dragon, his world is turned upside down.

708 words (Est. Reading Time 3m 32s)

Trying to catch up on new DVD releases we may have missed, we always look forward to the weekend, to see what big hits NetFlix® has delivered to our door. This week, it’s the animated How to Train Your Dragon. Apparently, the film was popular enough during it’s theatrical run to (supposedly) already have the writers working on 2 sequels.

Having never read the series by Cressida Cowell, we weren’t sure what to expect from How to Train Your Dragon. Well, aside from what the previews showed us, and the odd name of the main character, Hiccup. We thought it might be a little too kid-friendly for us to enjoy. But, hearing positive things about it from friends, we decided to give it a try.

The easiest voice to recognize amongst the varied cast is that of Gerard Butler, who plays Hiccup’s father, an aptly named rough-and-tumble Viking warrior named Stoick, who is the leader of the town. It plays almost as a satire of his 300 (2006) character, King Leonidas. Butler sets the tone for the movie, with his gruff voice (and the viewer’s picture of Leonidas) making the character believable fighting off vicious beasts with ease, yet having such a hard time emoting to his son.

The film does a great job of highlighting only the voices (like Butler’s) that contribute to the characters, and down-playing voices that might not mix so well with the characters. America Ferrara, the geeky nerd from “Ugly Betty” (TV), for example, plays the rough-and-tumble warrior female (and love interest) of the picture. Since viewers won’t easily recognize the voice, that nerd image never gets in the way of the character. Jonah Hill, usually the outspoken, crude, fat guy, is also indistinguishable. He finally lets his character speak for him, rather than playing up his normal dose of crude humor and screen-hogging that has grown so thin.

The storyline includes some classic elements, but puts them in a situation that feels fresh. Playing up the old “boy and his dog” bit, the film uses that baseline to set the story – but substitutes a dragon instead of a dog. True, the dragon does occasionally mirror a dog, but the film uses the added danger of the dragon (ie…fire-breathing) to make the situation unique. Of course, since dragons – especially the night fury that Hiccup befriends – are looked on as enemies of the village, there is the added “discovery” danger tossed into the mix. The film combines these elements together with some touches of it’s own (while befriending the night fury – who he names Toothless – Hiccup discovers the key to taming dragons, and uses it to his advantage in his warrior training) , making for an engaging storyline that seems both familiar and fresh.

The animation in How to Train Your Dragon is top-notch, and the characters – while maintaining a cartoonish appeal – are engaging and real enough to get viewers involved in the storyline, rather than just the effects. Even when the effects get bigger, the storyline stays true to the characters, and the viewer never loses sight of the story. That’s despite some impressive visual scenes, especially later on in the film. No worries about the CGI downfall of not giving the characters gravity either – with the whole film done in computer animation, gravity seems to be much more easy to include than trying to perform the same stunts in CGI on a real backdrop.

With a cartoonish appeal to the animation, a solid storyline that feels both familiar and fresh, and engaging characters, How to Train Your Dragon is a fun adventure for the entire family. The adults will enjoy Butler’s tongue-in-cheek satire of his character from 300 (2006). The kids will get a kick out of the wide variety of dragons. Hiccup’s unassuming demeanor will capture the attention of viewers as much as the antics of his night fury, Toothless. The whole family will find something to like about How to Train Your Dragon – and will be looking forward to the planned sequels as much as we are.

Just keep in mind the film is rated PG, not G, and some scary situations might be a bit too much for the very young.

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