Search form

Review: 'How to Train Your Dragon' Comes Out Smoking

The Miscweant plays with fire watching How to Train Your Dragon – and decides the movie is hot stuff.

The trained Dragon may be ‘Toothless’ – but the movie isn’t!

After the emotional depth of Kung Fu Panda, the lazy humor of Monsters vs. Aliens was a major disappointment, and as a result I wasn’t holding out much hope for DreamWorks’ new How to Train Your Dragon. From its trailer it looked like another standard-issue ‘dreamer nobody believes in saves the day’ story (come to think of it, that’s Panda’s plot in a nutshell), complete with anachronistic contemporary slang (ditto Panda).

Well, they took me by surprise. Dragon comes damn close to matching Panda in creating believable characters within a fantasy setting. Yeah, the anachronisms are there, but they’re more or less in service to the story and characters. (And the “you are so busted” line in the trailer seems to have vanished.) Even though you can, to quote my Princess and the Frog review, see “how ‘realistic’ the water looked running off each exquisitely individually rendered alligator scale…” (or in this case, dragon scale) there’s more than 3D pixel-pushing going on here.

The plot in 35 words or less: On an isolated island a colony of burly Vikings defend themselves from marauding flying dragons by sheer brute strength – but Hiccup, the scrawny son of chief Viking Stoick the Vast has other ideas…

Right off the bat, the misunderstood Hiccup distinguishes himself from your run of the mill dreamer by a total lack of self-pity, shrugging off various insults and rejections with a bit of rueful humor. He’s also an adept apprentice blacksmith who has no trouble whipping up a catapult that captures the eponymous flying reptile. Then it’s 'a boy and his dog' time, except this dog has a set of wings and soon carries Hiccup on his back as man and beast bond.

Yep, Hiccup’s the intellectual outcast the other kids put down – but since they’re not exactly a bunch of winners themselves their insults carry little sting. I particularly liked the chubby one who knows all the dragon stats like a sports nut or a Dungeons & Dragons fanatic. (And then there’s the tough kid who can summon up huge reserves of cowardice when the situation demands it.)

In a film like this there’s got to be father and son issues, and of course the story arc travels from “I have no son” to “I’m proud to have you as my son” by film’s end. And without giving too much away (but if you’re spoiler-averse, skip the rest of this sentence just in case), even though things turn out fine in the end, Hiccup discovers there is a cost to heroism…

And then there’s the film’s “InTru” 3D. (Intrude? Intrusive? Maybe they could’ve picked a better name.) Jeffrey Katzenberg wasn’t kidding when he said 3D is the third revolution in filmmaking, after sound and color – and Dragon makes some of the best use of it yet. Not just in terms of depth (nicely put to use in the flying sequences), but of scale – when the humongous number-one dragon towers over a mob of tiny little Vikings, it’s a ‘wow’ moment.

Between fantasy, sword & sorcery and furry fans, there are quite a few dragon aficionados out there guaranteed to be repeat viewers. The filmmakers, led by directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (Lilo and Stitch) whipped up six different fire breathers, each with its own personality, appearance and powers. If they haven’t popped up on Toys ‘R Us shelves already, they will soon. My prediction: big bad alpha dragon Monstrous Nightmare will be an action figure best seller – but Hiccup’s loveable Night Fury ‘Toothless’ will be flying off the plush toy shelves.

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.