Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

How to Train Your Dragon


Review by Patrick Hodges

Bravo, DreamWorks. 

For years, there was a noticeable gap in quality between the annual or semi-annual outings that were brought to theaters courtesy of DreamWorks and Pixar, without a doubt the two biggest sources of high-quality animated feature films.  Pixar seemed to effortlessly hit it out of the park, every single time, producing titles that became instant classics, to be enjoyed by moviegoers of all ages for generations to come.  Meanwhile, DreamWorks, after enjoying incredible success with the first two Shrek films and Madagascar, seemed to languish in its own success, producing a string of largely forgettable films (most notably Shark Tale, Bee Movie and Shrek the Third).

However, DreamWorks’ last two films, Kung Fu Panda and Monsters vs. Aliens, have represented a return to form.  Instead of saturating its characters with delusions fake coolness, they have taken a page from Pixar’s manual and resolved to tell actual, interesting stories rather than peppering us with pop-culture references.  How to Train Your Dragon, I am happy to say, not only continues the trend, it surpasses it.

We meet a boy named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), a rather scrawny teenager living on an island, in a village inhabited by Vikings.  The primary source of activity:  fighting dragons, numerous varieties of the fire-breathing beasts who regularly raid the village for its food and livestock.  The village’s warrior stock is led by Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), an old-school sort who doesn’t hold out much hope for Hiccup, given his lack of brawn.

Fortunately, what Hiccup lacks in physical strength, he more than makes up in engineering skills.  He invents a weapon that takes a dragon down right out of the sky… and not just any dragon, a Night Fury – a type that is so fast, so dangerous, that one had never been seen before.  Hiccup tracks the wounded beast down, but finds himself unable to slay it.  Instead, he frees it, dubs it “Toothless”, nurses it back to health, and finally, saddles it up and flies it through the skies.

Of course, all this is going on behind the back of his father as well as the other would-be teenage warriors, including Astrid (America Ferrera), a girl-power-in-action type every bit as tough as her male counterparts.  Initially, she wants nothing to do with Hiccup, but when his sudden knowledge of dragons shows itself during “dragon training”, she becomes suspicious.  And together, they discover that all of their preconceived notions about the motives of dragon society are completely wrong.

I saw this movie in 3D, but it took some truly outstanding scenes of dragon flight for me to realize that I was actually watching this film through specialized glasses.  That’s not a knock on the quality of the animation, but just the opposite; I was so engrossed in the feel of this film, the setting, the characters, the friendships (especially between Hiccup and  Toothless, which develops at exactly the right pace), that I scarcely noticed anything else.  That, for me, is what makes How to Train Your Dragon an absolutely stellar film.

It takes a lot more than technical wizardry to impress me these days – it’s the reason Avatar didn’t score higher than it did in my book (4/5 stars).  The reason that I would recommend How to Train Your Dragon to anyone, from third graders on up, is that it tells an amazing story that doesn’t rely wholly on its presentation.

That’s three in a row, DreamWorks.  Let’s hope that Shrek Forever After will live up to its promise.

5 / 5 stars

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