There's no denying that the king of computer animation is Pixar. That juggernaut has released 10 movies and all have been good. Their track record truly is amazing. DreamWorks, on the other hand, hasn't fared so well. After two solid films in Antz and Shrek, they went downhill quickly, releasing junk like Shark Tale, Over the Hedge, Bee Movie and the two Madagascar pictures. They redeemed themselves a tad with Kung Fu Panda and Monsters Vs. Aliens, but their newest film, How to Train Your Dragon, may very well be their best. They still have a long way to go before they start nipping at the heels of the folks at Pixar, but this is a step in the right direction.
The film takes place in a village where Vikings rule. For hundreds of years, these Vikings have been at war with the local dragons who come to their land, burn down their houses and steal their livestock. To these people, dragon hunting is the most admirable thing you can do and those who do it earn the most respect. The leader of the warriors goes by the name of Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler), a man who finds shame in his puny son Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) because he has never amounted to anything. Hiccup desperately wants to be accepted and wants to kill a dragon to prove himself, but his weak stature doesn't allow him to. One day, however, he lands a hit on the most dangerous dragon of them all, a Night Fury, but can't bring himself to kill it. Instead, he lets it loose, but its tail is severely damaged and it loses the ability of flight. Hiccup bonds with the dragon, whom he names Toothless, and creates an artificial tail to help aid him. He quickly learns that dragons aren't dangerous creatures at all and, with the help of Toothless, tries to convince his village the same.
Story-wise, How to Train Your Dragon is DreamWorks most complete film to date. It hits a range of emotions they previously could have only hoped for. Like a Pixar film, this movie creates a distinct relationship between its two characters, in this case Hiccup and the dragon, and you come to appreciate their bonding. Toothless is like a stray dog who wants to be loved, but is wary of anybody offering it because he simply isn't used to it. He looks at Hiccup as he approaches him, all tied up in the projectile net, desperate and afraid. After Hiccup releases him, he attacks him based on the assumption that Hiccup means harm. It isn't until he spends time with him that he starts to let his guard down. It's truly amazing how much emotion seeps through this creature just by the way he looks at Hiccup. His character development rivals everybody else in the movie and you see him grow throughout.
The bond they create is the crutch of the film. You'll love them as soon as they start to love each other. Despite its colorful nature and appeal to children, its the drama that comes through the best. You'll care about the characters, sympathize with them and fear for their plight. It's the humor that doesn't necessarily work.
Much like most animated features, How to Train Your Dragon tries real hard to produce laughs, but it feels more strained here than in others. I wouldn't say this is a dark film, but it's not exactly happy-go-lucky either and deals with rejection, loneliness and crippling injury, both to humans and animals. However, it doesn't go all the way. Nobody dies in this movie. When the dragons shoot their fire, the humans jump out of the way and it passes right by. Due to what I assume is fear of excluding children, the film is toned down in every area, which includes its forced humor to lighten the tension. None of it works. Had it gone a more adult route and had the chutzpah to show the violence and drama unfold more naturally, this would be a modern day adult animated masterpiece.
It doesn't quite reach that height, but it's a solid tale nevertheless. The animation is beautiful, the close-to-being-overdone 3D works magic and the voice acting is wonderful. Despite a few too many recognizable voices from the likes of Jonah Hill, Butler and Baruchel, who just recently starred in She's Out of My League, they fit their characters well and by the time you reach the high flying, pulse pounding climax, you will have forgotten that there were actual people voicing these characters, though it does take a bit of time to get to that point.
I've always been a person fascinated with flight. Ask me who my favorite superhero is, I'll tell you Superman and I'm astonished when someone in a window seat on an airplane puts the cover down so they can't see out the window. Being up that high and being able to soar through the clouds holds a sense of wonder for me. It's a sight so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes. Perhaps this is why I loved How to Train Your Dragon, because it tells a story not always through dialogue, but through flight showing how their friendship develops while they are in mid-air swooping up and down and around. The beauty of these scenes is reason enough to buy a ticket. It may not be the next Wall-E or Finding Nemo, but it's a pleasurable diversion that promises a more promising future from DreamWorks.
How to Train Your Dragon receives 4/5