For the most part, I find Dreamworks animation quite underwhelming. Maybe the tendency to compare their films to Pixar’s far-superior efforts clouds my objectivity, but other than the first Shrek and, to a lesser extent, Kung Fu Panda, I can’t even say I enjoy their films. It’s hard to say whether How to Train Your Dragon is another exception to the rule or the film that’ll right the ship, but it’s an inspired family film—fun, imaginative, and full of heart.
Our main character is Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), the scrawniest Viking in history. While his father, friends, and secret crush, Astrid (voice of America Ferrera), are out fighting dragons and protecting the village, Hiccup is sidelined, left to assist the local blacksmith, Gobber (voice of Craig Ferguson). But that’s not enough for him—he wants to kill a dragon. By chance, he comes across a wounded Night Fury—the most dangerous breed of dragon—but in doing so, he learns he doesn’t have a killer’s instinct. He can’t do the deed, and the dragon—whom Hiccup calls Toothless—becomes something of a pet. As the two grow closer, Hiccup tries to mend his hind wing, but he’s also in the middle of training to become the next great warrior, and it seems inevitable that soon, he’ll have to actually kill a dragon.
How to Train Your Dragon amazingly captures the uneasy bond that can grow into something special between a man and an animal. The dragons are presented more as cuddly reptiles than as ferocious monsters, so it’s easy to understand the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, as fantastical as it might seem on the surface.
It’s also worth pointing out the film’s rather obvious real-world allegories. The dragons are simply misunderstood creatures trying to defend themselves, and it takes one boy with an “ask questions first, shoot later” attitude to discover this. It’s almost like that awful third Matrix film, where Neo has to forge a peace between man and machine.
The animation is actually beautiful—apparently Pixar doesn’t have a monopoly on high-quality animators. I would’ve loved to see the film in 3D. And the voice work is inspired. Actors like Jay Baruchel and Craig Ferguson are immediately recognizable, which I normally don’t like, but I could actually see these men inhabiting these roles in a live-action version of this film. America Ferrara, on the other hand, is physically the opposite of her character but has the perfect voice to bring the feisty Astrid to life.
While Toy Story 3 will likely (and deservedly) win the Best Animated Feature Oscar, I hope How to Train Your Dragon isn’t forgotten. It smartly avoids the typical Dreamworks strategy of riffing on stale pop culture references. In fact, it’s not even all that funny. It’s just sweet, engaging, and a lot of fun.