Review: How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

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Not long now until DreamWorks’ much-anticipated animated sequel HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is released. The filmmakers have hinted that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was an influence in how they approached expanding the story in the second instalment, which is an exciting prospect. I can hardly wait to dive back into this world, but as an apetiser, let’s have a look back at Hiccup and Toothless’ first encounter.

Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) isn’t particularly good at being a Viking. He’s timid, thoughtful, and completely lacks a thirst for conflict that drives his fellows. He’s also the son of the formidable clan leader Stoick (Gerard Butler) who is at a loss at how he has raised such an offspring. Reluctantly, Hiccup enters dragon training, designed to teach young wannabe warriors how to fight the formidable reptiles that share their islands.  When all hope of proving himself seems lost, Hiccup miraculously manages to cripple a fearsome and elusive night fury, and the two adrift creatures form an unlikely, and world-changing bond.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON puts shame to lesser animated films. It’s so lovingly crafted and well executed, from the beautiful animation to the honest and human script from co-directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders with William Davies to the flawless performances of the vocal talent, to John Powell’s rich, Celtic-inspired score. Everything just works.

Of particular note in the enviable cast is Jay Baruchel, who makes our unlikely hero Hiccup relatable, as well as exuding a formidable intellect (but never smugly so). Hiccup has never fit in, and is fully aware of that fact, but he doesn’t blame the society he lives in for not understanding him (as perhaps he should). He more-or-less accepts he’s a little weird, or as other characters keep emploring him to be, less “this” (“you just gestured to all of me”).  America Ferrera packs so much attitude into teen battle-maiden Astrid’s every line that you can almost hear her daring you to underestimate her prowess on the battlefield on the grounds of her gender, and Craig Furguson is just plain fun as the grizzled, wise-cracking old trainer Gobber. It’s also nice to hear Gerard Butler knowingly parodying the he-man roles he usually plays, and seeing him slowly but surely re-build Stoick’s relationship with Hiccup is touching, but never schmaltzy.

Despite the talent of the actors, the real star of the film isn’t a person at all, but an animated dragon. Toothless is a real triumph of animation – not since Wall-E has a mostly-silent computer-animated character been so easy to read, his every movement and slightest change in expression communicating to the audience exactly what he is feeling and thinking. If you’ve ever owned a cat you’ll be able to recognise a lot of this remarkable reptile’s behaviour – he’s a wonderful amalgamation of cat, bat and newt, and his movements puts one in mind of a big, scaly, territorial feline. The dragons in general are extremely well executed, and the designers and animators have managed to pull off a range of creatures that are familiar, but at the same time original, cartoony, yet still believable, a work of fantasy, but somehow grounded in some semblance of reality.

There’s a lot of passion, time and energy put into making Dragon’s world believable. The filmmakers allow for the appropriate amount of time for an audience to learn about and to understand a new culture. There are references to everything from other fantasy films and literature to RPG video games, making for a hugely appealing mix.

Even with all of these stunning elements, How to Train Your Dragon could have still fallen short, as in the end, it comes down to one thing, the story. Luckily, it succeeds on this front too. It’s just a good old-fashioned fable with a timeless moral – don’t judge a book by it’s cover. It’s also a coming-of-age story, a comment on father-son relationships and a warning against humanity’s tendency to destroy that which it does not understand. It’s always foremost a story about a boy and his endearing but dangerous pet, and how their relationship develops over time, which has an undeniable universal appeal.

How to Train Your Dragon is so much more than an animated family feature film. It’s engaging, original and expertly crafted in every aspect. It manages to comment on serious issues on quite a profound level without ever becoming preachy. It’s hugely critical of mankind’s destructive tendencies and of society’s pressure to hide your real self. And of course, it’s a feast for the eyes, ears and heart. With features like KUNG FU PANDA, MONSTERS VS. ALIENS and How to Train Your Dragon, DreamWorks Animation are fast becoming very serious contenders for Pixar’s crown, especially if this hit-rate continues, and Pixar continues to slip. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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