(by Dustin Putman
2001's "Shrek." 2004's "Shrek 2." 2004's "Shark Tale." 2005's "Madagascar." 2007's "Shrek the Third." 2007's "Bee Movie." Dreamworks Animation SKG has never met a flash-in-the-pan pop-culture reference or modern sarcastic aside it didn't like. Whereas Pixar has always focused on creating enduring, original and heartfelt animated features for timeless generations, Dreamworks has concentrated on making money by creating films that may please mainstream viewers of today, but will quickly become outdated and have little longevity. In a change of pace, the studio's latest effort, "How to Train Your Dragon," foregoes the snarkiness and replaces it was a literally high-flying adventure tale. The concentration isn't on comedy—and thank goodness there are no farting dragon jokes—but on the drama that comes with an underdog going against the grain and standing up for what he believes in. Article continues below
On the Island of Berk, located just outside the Meridian of Miseries, lives a community of Vikings who must share their land with a population of dragons. For three hundred years, their relationship with the deadly winged creatures has been antagonistic, to say the least, the slaying of one looked upon as a teenager's rite of passage. For Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), son of the imposing, horned-helmet-wearing Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), he yearns to fit in with his peers, including the adventurous, pretty Astrid (America Ferrera) and roughhousing twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (T.J. Miller). The only trouble? He has come face to face with a Night Fury, the sneakiest and most dangerous of the dragon breeds, and seen just how gentle they can be when people aren't shooting arrows at them. Forced to go into Dragon Training school and prepare for battle even as he has befriended the Night Fury and named him Toothless, Hiccup is torn between following the expectations of his people and breaking tradition for what he knows is right.
Based on the book by Cressida Cowell and adapted for the screen by writing-directing partners Dean DuBlois and Chris Sanders (2002's "Lilo & Stitch"), "How to Train Your Dragon" is first and foremost a computer-animated spectacle, a Norse-gothic wonderland of choppy seas, fog-drenched forests, and rocky cliffs and shorelines. Looking far better—and more visually pleasing—than the ugly, fakey recent live-action/CG amalgamation "Alice in Wonderland," the film proves that settings of this sort can be gloomy and foreboding without looking murky and unappetizing. Furthermore, the flying sequences, with the dragons sweeping across water and land at deliriously quick speeds, are thrilling to behold.
As for the story and its morals, things are on more conventional footing. In essence a "boy-and-his-dog" tale with a reptile in place of the canine, the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is low-key and cute, if not wholly emotionally involving. Because the dragons are unpredictable wild guns, one could imagine Hiccup making a wrong move and Toothless torching him with his fire breath. Still, with the dragons wisely never speaking and Hiccup sounding a bit whiny in his vocal inflections—Jay Baruchel (2010's "She's Out of My League") might not have been the ideal candidate for the role—it's nice to see a human-animal bond in an animated film that relies on action and behavior over dialogue to make its point. As for the movie's messages about bravery, acceptance, and the importance of not jumping to conclusions and fearing what we do not know, they are well-stated with overreaching.
"How to Train Your Dragon" will be a crowd-pleaser, but to what level they'll be pleased depends on their age, the amount of films they have seen with similar formulaic plotting, and how cinematically discriminating they are. The side characters, from Hiccup's classmates to Stoick and his fellow Viking men, are rather bland types, never working their way into the viewer's heart. The second act, with too many training and battle scenes, become repetitive. The main focus on hero Hiccup and unorthodox friend Toothless works, however, second in noteworthiness behind the sheer aesthetic beauty of it all. Additionally, and without giving anything away, a key development at the end dares to be different and surprises in its statement that, yes, even kids in animated movies are not one hundred percent invincible. "How to Train Your Dragon" isn't groundbreaking by any means, but it is an early sign that Dreamworks Animation SKG, like Pixar before them, are expanding their vision and finally, perhaps, growing up.