Dreamworks has been hit and miss for so long with their animated movies that I am always hesitant to be optimistic when I see them. Dragon was more than just watchable, it was great, a real winsome, fun, sweet movie. Jay Baruchel (Tropic Thunder) voices Hiccup, a puny runt in a village of strapping Vikings — a village plagued by dragons and centered entirely on reconstruction and dragon killing. Underdogs and misfits like Hiccup are always pretty easy to sympathize with, but what I liked best about him was his determination to use his gift for invention rather than trying to fit in with his burly neighbors. Knowledge is power in this film, and I always love a good pro-intellect story; even better, this is a pro-animal, pro-empathy story, as well.
Baruchel’s distinctive and vaguely too-modern voice keeps him front and center when we want more of the mute and irresistible dragon he meets, Toothless. The animation of Toothless made my brain leak out onto the floor from helpless affection, and my heart grew three sizes. The physicality of the dragon is more evocative than many of the still-strong vocals of his dialogue-wielding costars, even Gerard Butler’s warm and impassioned father, Stoick. I don’t mean to disparage the voice actors — they all have genial, warm brogues and good readings. But this film was meant to be silent. Toothless’ character design is also the only appealing one — all the other dragons (and some humans) have a sort of Ren & Stimpy/Spongebob quality that makes the sleek bat-cat of Hiccup’s new acquaintance even more appealing. To say I fell in love with Toothless is an understatement.
A number of fun, easy to navigate hijinks, secret meetings, mistaken situations, and some raising of stakes later, and we get to a huge climax, huger than you might have expected, with actual emotional content retained for your viewing pleasure. In a way, this goes without saying — movies wind toward a peak with a comfortably predictable pace, but How To Train Your Dragon takes us new places with every cogitating spin of Hiccup’s relationship with Toothless.
What really stood out for me was how real, how solid everything felt, despite being generally cartoonish and mythical. I lost track of how many times I gasped, “Look at the light/lighting/sky/fire!” Pixar has long been the go-to studio for amazing use of light and solids, but here Dreamworks’ How To Train Your Dragon feels live action sometimes, with its glistening and matte scales and translucent ears and soft glows and depth of field. Everything has such rich texture it brings a sense of reality to even those most ludicrous character designs. So we have a funny, sweet, smart story with winsome characters, and then we have visuals crafter under the consulting eye of The Roger Deakins. Well no wonder — Deakins can make any scene pluck at your inner strings (witness the inexplicable emotional successes of scenes from chilly movies he has shot), and despite being computer animated, his touch still shines through.
I had tearful moments, big nail-biting tension (even being intellectually sure it would all be OK, I was viscerally unsure), and I appreciated the conclusion that was surprisingly bittersweet. I really loved it, I hope you will too.
MPAA Rating PG
Release date 3/26/10
Time in minutes 98
Director Dean DuBois and Chris Sanders
Studio Dreamworks Animation