Thursday, March 25, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon: Loads of Fire-Breathing Fun

How to Train Your Dragon (2010) • View trailer for How to Train Your Dragon
Five stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for dramatic intensity and mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.25.10
Buy DVD: How to Train Your Dragon • Buy Blu-Ray: How to Train Your Dragon (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Dragon Double Pack) [Blu-ray]

Animated features have become a lot more popular in recent years, but quantity certainly shouldn't be confused with quality.

Granted, top-notch examples aren't quite as rare as hens' teeth; Beauty and the Beast and Coraline come to mind, and of course Pixar has an impressive gift for delivering instant classics.

But despite some box-office hits -— most notably the Shrek series  the DreamWorks animation division hasn't arranged all the necessary elements in quite the right way.
After plenty of love, patience and fresh fish snacks, Hiccup finally persuades
his huge new friend to take him for a ride ... assisted by a rather complicated
saddle and rudder-control gadget that the boy whipped up late at night, when
nobody was watching. After all, Viking teens are supposed to kill dragon.

Until now, that is.

How to Train Your Dragon is a dazzling, cleverly scripted and wildly entertaining delight: a top-notch treat that prompts use of the word "perfect."

Yup. Well and truly.

Can't think of a single thing that could be better.

Everything works, and works superbly: from the voice talent to the eye-popping visuals; from the ingenious adaptation of Cressida Cowell's popular book to the just-snarky-enough dialogue; from the eco-friendly message  delivered so gently that only a troll would find it bothersome  to an underdog storyline that is never less than charming.

And the 3-D effects?


We've certainly seen other animated efforts employ 3-D, but How to Train Your Dragon is this medium's Avatar: the first animated feature to use 3-D technology logically, in service of the narrative, while also finding ample opportunities for superbly choreographed action scenes that'll have you leaning, tilting and ducking, as if you're in the picture.

Augment all this with John Powell's rich orchestral soundtrack, and the result is by turns comical, suspenseful, poignant, breathtaking and  as we progress to the third act  exciting.

Wholly, totally magnificent.

The story:

Our unsung hero is a nerdy ancient Viking teenager dubbed Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), who introduces us to the island of Berk, where folks live in quaint homes that hug rocky outcroppings, and villagers have learned that urban renewal is a way of life. Their dwellings rarely survive more than a single year, thanks to a rather unique pest problem: an assortment of colorfully named, bad-tempered, fire-breathing dragons, snakes and assorted winged creatures that torch homes while snatching nervous sheep.

Vikings endure this because they must  and because, well, that's what Vikings do  and Hiccup is no different: He can't wait to be allowed into the thick of battle, following in the footsteps of the tribe's chief, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) ... who also happens to be our geeky teen's father. Alas, Hiccup is less than useless in a melee; he inevitably makes things worse, much to the long-suffering annoyance of Gobber (Craig Ferguson), the village blacksmith and dragon-training instructor.

Worse yet, Hiccup is a joke among his peers: Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (T.J. Miller), and most particularly the divine teen goddess Astrid (America Ferrera).

Nobody acknowledges Hiccup's talent for designing and building useful gadgets, not even when his massive slingshot net-thingie downs one of the fastest and most dangerous dragons: the legendary Night Fury. At least, Hiccup claims to have hit one; absent a huge body, he gets nothing beyond the usual jeers and tolerant winks.

Determined to silence such naysayers, Hiccup explores the rocky island ... and becomes the first of his tribe ever to actually see a Night Fury, when he finds the ebon-dark dragon helplessly bound in netting. Given this opportunity to prove his manhood by killing a dragon  the coming-of-age rite for every Viking teen  Hiccup is surprised to discover that he can't do it.

Staring into the trapped Night Fury's eyes, Hiccup sees a noble creature that deserves to live ... and so he frees it.

The dragon, in turn, does not eat him.

But it also doesn't get far, despite effort, and becomes trapped within a shallow rocky "bowl" that houses a lake. Puzzled by the beast's failure to escape, Hiccup eventually realizes that a portion of the dragon's tail was sheared off by his weapon; absent this equivalent of a stabilizer, the Night Fury can't fly properly.

The subsequent, slowly developing bond between boy and dragon pays huge dividends: Through careful observation, Hiccup learns things about dragons that make him a formidable presence during Gobber's dragon-training sessions ... although the boy takes pains to conceal the fact that he 'intimidates' these beasts not with nimble gymnastics and slicing blades, but by scratching them under the chin, or flashing brief glimpses of an eel concealed within his clothing. (Dragons hate eels. You did know that, right?)

And it doesn't matter what Hiccup faces: Whether the two-headed Hideous Zippleback, the sneaky Deadly Nadder or the comically corpulent Gronckle, all dragons apparently are sensitive to a little sensitivity. After all, they're just trying to survive.

Actually, they're also doing something else, but bamboo shoots under the fingernails wouldn't get me to spoil that surprise.

"Everything we know about dragons," the boy eventually says aloud, "is wrong!"

Alas, while Hiccup has been learning that dragons will respond to a little lovin', Stoick the Vast has decided to end the "dragon problem" once and for all, by tracking the beasts to their fabled nest, somewhere in the ocean's foggy reaches. Rarely have any father and son been separated by such a philosophically divergent generation gap.

The human characters are a hoot: particularly Gobber, who has lost a hand and a leg during previous dragon skirmishes, and occasionally misplaces the badly fitting small rock that serves (more or less) as a replacement tooth.

Fans of Ferguson's late-night TV show will immediately recognize the stand-up comic's various mannerisms, and his character's dominant presence turns the entire village into Scottish-accented Vikings.

Baruchel delivers just the right blend of petulant defiance and whiny geekiness as Hiccup, and he has a great signature line  "You're pointing to all of me," he protests, when somebody tries to explain, via gesture, what's missing from the boy's make-up  that builds to a clever payoff in the third act.

Mostly, though, you'll be amazed by the complex characterization emanating from the Night Fury, which Hiccup inappropriately dubs "Toothless." Dragons don't talk, and their faces aren't designed for familiar visual cues ... and yet Toothless nonetheless conveys a wide range of reactions and emotions: all staged with such precision  a tilt of the head, a squinch of the mouth or a querying intonation to an otherwise guttural snarl  that it may as well be speaking complete sentences.

We've seen this done before; Pixar achieved equally impressive results with the robot protagonist in Wall-E. But getting such emotional depth from a mute character remains unusual enough to reflect well on directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois  both of whom also scripted this film, along with Will Davies  not to mention the scores of animators who made it all happen.

Too many of today's movies are difficult to endure the first time; How to Train Your Dragon is the first film I've seen, in a long while, that made me want to stay in my seat and watch it all over again. Right away.

If not sooner.

On top of which, I have got to find a pet dragon somewhere...

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