How To Train Your Dragon tells the story of a village of Vikings who have to battle with constantly being raided and pillaged themselves by swarms of dragons who steal their herds and destroy their homes. Our protagonist is a scrawny Viking-to-be called Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel; animated by many), who also happens to be the son of the village chief, Stoic (voiced by Gerard Butler; animated by many). Relegated to being an apprentice blacksmith, Hiccup uses his technical know-how to construct a cannon. One night during a dragon raid Hiccup manages to take down his first dragon using the cannon – but on finding the downed beast Hiccup finds himself unable to kill the wounded dragon and sets him free.
How To Train Your Dragon is the most recent 3D animated feature from Dream Works Animation, the same studio behind the Shrek series, Kung Fu Panda and Monsters Versus Aliens – and this may very well be their best film by a wide margin.
What the film is really about is bonding with an animal, trying to please a father and dealing with the expectations of the tribe. At the same time that Hiccup finds the dragon, Hiccup gets put into dragon-killing training to become a Viking warrior – and he finds that he’s both unable to kill dragons and inexplicably drawn learning more about dragons. The dragon, later named Toothless, stands out as amazing character design. Initially a dangerous figure, Toothless is slowly revealed to have the capacity for being a likable animal who can be as cute and playful as he can be powerful and dangerous. A great understanding of animal behaviour in both the writing and the animation makes the relationship Toothless forms with Hiccup believable and wonderful. It’s augmented by the beautiful sound work in Toothless’ meaningful and resonate growls created by sound designers Al Nelson, Randy Thorn and amazing people at Skywalker Sound.
Given the trailer and the title of the film, it’s not spoiler to say that Hiccup and Toothless learn to work together and form a strong friendship – but it’s the gradual process that it takes to form that bond that make the film special. Going back and forth between the forest where Hiccup lays injured and then to the village for another lesson on killing dragons, Hiccup is conflicted by the mixed messages. The process of gaining the trust of Toothless happens in slow steps, starting with using food and keeping a safe distance. Over time Hiccup is able to advance, step by step. There are no montages -just beautiful animated scenes as Hiccup attempts to approach the dragon day after day, with Toothless growing increasingly less wary and hostile. The obvious comparisons are Peter Jackson’s King Kong and The Iron Giant; this film has more heart than that former but is just short of the pure awesomeness of the latter. Additionally How To Train Your Dragon is directed and co-written by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (who both wrote and directed the 2D Disney animated feature Lilo And Stitch) and their work is felt throughout the production as they bring that same strong sense of character relationships to this film. Actually, in many ways How To Train Your Dragon and Lilo And Stich are very similar films, but the characters are so believable that both films stand on their own merits.
This film could be reasonably criticised for its use of storying telling tropes, such as the likable outcast, that the society is wrong and only the hero is right and that eventually the big secret will become known and bad consequences will result. But I would counter that How To Train Your Dragon is a great example of using recognisable tropes and a three-act structure in league with a fascinating story and characters you care about to create a great film. (See also: Aladdin.) The last act plays out beautifully with high stakes and a satisfying, exciting and meaningful conclusion that deserves more discussion than a spoiler free review will permit. It should also be mentioned that this film is suitable for a wide range of audiences thanks to a clever handling of the violence. There is no blood or on-screen deaths, but there is a definite feeling of danger and acknowledgement that characters can be hurt or die.
This film is available in to watch in 3D, and it’s recommended that you do – especially for the flying scenes. The 3D is used to great effect and it’s much more than just a gimmick, given that just as the audience enjoys the humour and danger of Hiccup and Toothless’ growing bond, it’s only fair that we get to experience the thrill of flight. Indeed, the whole design of the film is well crafted – although some of the dragon designs are a bit bulbous.
While there are definitely film more awesome than this, How To Train Your Dragon is strong on all fronts: art direction, sound design and (most importantly) story and characters. The work of talented storytellers and craftspeople has resulted in a film that is touching, exciting and very likely the best Dream Works animated feature by a wide margin. Discard all your preconceived notions of DreamWorks films; Eddie Murphies name isn’t on the poster in huge letters and there is just one solitary and appropriate pop culture reference in the entire film. Just put on some goofy glasses and be amazed.
(Also for interesting stories and discussions from a number of animators and other creatives at DreamWorks, you may want to listen to Speaking Of Animation.)