"How To Train Your Dragon" may be the best non-"Shrek" animated film DreamWorks has produced. It is a funny, charming, well-animated film using 3-D to enhance everything about it.
A small Viking village constantly battles a number of dragons that repeatedly attack their small seaside hamlet. Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel, "She's Out of My League", "Knocked Up") is the thin, slight young man who wants to play a bigger part in his town's defenses. But every time he steps outside of the family cottage, he ends up causing trouble. His dad, Stoic (Gerard Butler), a big, commanding Viking who is in charge of the town, wants him to remain at the blacksmith shop, under the watchful eye of his friend, Bogger (Craig Ferguson). But the dragons continue to attack and they need to train new recruits, so Stoic sneaks into a new training class and meets Astrid (America Ferrera, TV's "Ugly Betty") and they form a rivalry. Bogger throws every species of dragon at them and Astrid handily beats them while Stoic has to pay attention to keep from tripping over his own feet. One night, during an attack, Stoic tests an invention and seems to strike one of the infamous black Night Flyer dragons, hard to see when they attack at night. The next day, he escapes to the forest and finds the felled beast. They form a friendship, naming his new friend Toothless, and Hiccup begins to learn how to handle the beasts that have plagued his village for so long.
Directed by Dean Debois and Chris Sanders (the team behind "Lilo & Stitch"), "Dragon" takes a welcome step back. Instead of trying to make everything super-realistic, the film is designed to look cartoonish. The male Vikings are big, but top heavy with broad chests and full beards. Hiccup is a tiny, gangly kid. Each of the types of dragons is different with a personality of their own.
When Hiccup meets the Night Flyer dragon he has injured, he first tries to kill the beast, but he is unable to. Dubbing his new friend Toothless, they start to form a friendship and Hiccup learns about the other dragons his friend knows too well, using this knowledge to impress Astrid, Bogger and ultimately his father, Stoic.
As their friendship grows, Hiccup learns the dragons are really just trying to protect themselves. In fact, they would rather just fly and play and cavort through the skies and forest. Just as this happens, his dad, Stoic, leads a group to infiltrate the hidden dragon lair, they have finally learned of the location. Hiccup tries to intervene, but his dad is determined to put a stop to the attacks.
As Hiccup and Toothless become more familiar with one another, they become friends, and eventually play with one another. These scenes are the most endearing to me because Toothless (and the other dragons for that matter) have the characteristics or kittens and puppies. Toothless' behaviors and mannerisms could have been modeled on my cat; he prances around and pretends to hide, playfully waiting to attack Hiccup, a sly grin on his face, ready to roll around and play. The animators have done a great job of capturing this look and feel and translating it to these creatures, making them appear more familiar to us.
Jay Baruchel does a great job providing the voice for Hiccup; he perfectly captures the pre-adolescent gravely voice reinforcing the fact he is barely a teenager, yet he lives in a society forcing these kids to become men before their time. Despite his scratchy voice, he is eager and willing to become a Viking, to fight the dragons, to use his inventions to help his father and their fellow villagers battle these beasts. Later, when he meets Toothless, he realizes he has something he never had before. A friend. Also, his friendship with Toothless provides him with an empowering freedom he has never enjoyed. As Hiccup rides his new friend, they fly through the skies. Initially, Hiccup is terrified, but he quickly learns to appreciate this newfound freedom. In fact, he seems to savor the new freedom.
Gerard Butler's gravelly voice is perfect for Stoic, the leader of the Viking village. At times, his voice is so 'Scottish', you might mistake it for Mike Meyers doing a riff on his "Shrek" voice. In fact, I initially thought it was Meyers, as I watched the trailer the first few times. Later, when I learned it was Butler, it seemed odd two animated films from the same studio would have such similar voices. But watching the film, I quickly forgot these initial thoughts and went along with Butler. Butler's voice is so thick he seems the perfect choice to play the leader of this Viking kingdom. His character is exaggerated in the right places (overly broad torso, tiny waist, big arms), giving him the most complete feel of a cartoon character I have seen in some time.
Craig Ferguson is also good as Bogger. Honestly, I didn't realize it was Craig Ferguson providing the voice for this character until I read the credits. Often, movie and television stars appear in animated films and simply retain their own speaking voice. When this happens, you have to ask, "what's the point?" If they aren't going to add anything to the character, couldn't anyone play the part? In Ferguson's case, he does a great job building a character and hiding himself behind the façade of this Viking's voice.
America Ferrera plays Astrid. Astrid is a fun character; a woman in a male-dominated society, she constantly wants to prove herself and make everyone realize how tough she is. As she has a reputation among her classmates, she is confident she will be able to excel at the dragon taming classes. She knows everything and is fearless enough. But Hiccup begins to use his newly acquired knowledge and quickly becomes the star pupil. Astrid becomes jealous and inquisitive and sets out to find his secret.
Jonah Hill, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse play the other two students in the class. They are OK, but don't really have enough time to create very memorable characters.
"Dragon" combines a lot of elements typical to animated films, even some things that could be considered stereotypical or overdone. The beauty of this effort is these same elements are handled with a great deal of skill, making them seem interesting, seamless and believable. At the heart of the film is a fairly standard story about a boy trying to prove to his dad he isn't a loser. We've seen this a million times, but in this film, it seems more endearing somehow. Perhaps because the characters are so un-realistic and "animated", the film reminds us we are watching an animated movie, we are basically watching a moving picture book. And because of this, I found myself remembering simpler, more magical times.