Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) befriends Toothless, an injured Night Fury, the… (DreamWorks )
"How to Train Your Dragon" has taken the age-old story of a teenage boy sorting through his fundamental life issues -- fit in, figure out self, get the girl, don't disappoint Dad -- set it in ancient Viking times and still managed to give it a thoroughly modern spin. A millennium later and this kid would head an Internet start-up or have a reality show on cable. For now, he's just a misfit in Ugg boots. Ingenious.
Now, just why a Viking leader named Stoick the Vast ever agreed to name his son Hiccup remains a mystery. But even without the name, our hero (voiced by Jay Baruchel) was never going to be your typical teen. He's slight of build in a clan of hearty folk; an out-of-the-box thinker before boxes were invented; and he stumbles into the fine art of dragon whispering in a village where everyone shouts and no one has heard of Cesar Millan.
"Train Your Dragon" is also a study in how nuance can actually complement the spectacle we've come to demand of 3-D animation. It's a surprisingly nice fit in an opposites attract sort of way with much of the credit going to the directing team of Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, who shaped "Lilo & Stitch" and "Mulan" so nicely.
The film does this particularly well with its distinctive visual style that allows for lots of space and shadows. But it is an especially nice touch in the dragon tale itself, which is both heartwarming and heartfelt, a significant departure from the pop culture saturated sarcasm that had become something of a DreamWorks Animation staple à la "Shrek."
The story got its footing in Cressida Cowell's popular children's fantasy novel that gives the film its name. But instead of a world of mostly peaceful coexistence between man and beast that Cowell imagined, "Dragon" takes off in a slightly earlier time when the Viking clan of the Island of Berk is still locked in a battle to the death with the flying terrors.
The dragons, not surprisingly, are the main visual attraction and come in various shapes and sizes with clever names like the two-headed Hideous Zippleback, or the Monstrous Nightmare (which I heard turned up recently at Fannie Mae, but that could be just a rumor). The most fearsome and illusive of all is the Night Fury -- basically, a fire-breathing stealth bomber in black scales.
Though this is a time of all-out war, the real tone is set by the boy and is very Baruchel in style. The Canadian comic, who also starred in the recent "She's Out of My League," is staking a serious claim to the self-deprecating, smart, sensitive boy-next-door type that, for a time, "Juno's" Michael Cera owned outright.
That quality serves the film well. By making Hiccup sincere as well as clever rather than the overused and vastly overrated irritatingly precocious, it's easier to care about his journey as he struggles to meet the high expectations of Stoick (Gerard Butler), learns how to slay a dragon from Gobber (Craig Ferguson) and tries to catch the eye of that arm-punching tomboy Astrid (America Ferrera).
As tough as growing up will prove, the dragons are tougher. In their opening salvo, and one of the film's spectacular moments, they swoop down throwing flames and attitude on the Viking village, with all the spine-tingling derring-do of a vintage WWII bombing raid. Dive-bombing dragons will ultimately be the thing to launch those famous Viking ships (who knew?), and serve as the key device keeping the animation spinning, the adrenaline pumping and the kids squealing (though not so scary that you can't take most little ones).
Although Hiccup has yet to prove that he's armed and dangerous, as "Survivor" has taught us, life is all about making good alliances and in this Hiccup's a natural. If there were a hidden immunity idol on the Island of Berk, he would find it. Instead, he finds a wounded dragon, which really works just as well in power struggles with peers, that is if you use your head, which he always does.
Through Hiccup, the film becomes a celebration of brain over brawn, where thinking things through is always what saves the day. There are messages and role models slipped in everywhere, with a lot of very healthy male bonding going on too. Gobber is that mentor who takes the time to listen to the lad and encourage his special qualities even if he doesn't understand them. And while Stoick doesn't understand his son, he loves him through the frustration. It's pretty much a well-cast cast, though Baruchel, Ferguson, Butler and Ferrera are the standouts.
But since it is an animated film, everything comes round to that. In another clever move, the filmmakers brought in eclectic live action cinematography veteran Roger Deakins ("Doubt" and "No Country for Old Men"), to take a look. That influence is easy to feel. Although there is a tendency in animation to fill up the frame with images, "Dragon" lets in a lot of blue sky, which goes a long way to giving the film a loose and effortless feel. This is a more organic brand of 3-D, not always in your face though there might be a spear or two to duck.
Like Hiccup's growing pains, "How to Train Your Dragon" has its rough spots too. There are times the action lags, and when the dialogue falls back on pop cultural references it feels contrived and forced but, mostly, like the mythical creatures at the heart of this tale, the movie soars.