Format: Streaming video from Amazon on rockin’ flatscreen.
Movies made for kids have a few basic formulas. The most common of this is a kid or small group of kids (or alternatively something kid-like) who are misfits from their society who then discover something important and through a variety of trials end up changing their society. Done well, you get Ratatouille. Done less well, you get A Bug’s Life. Really, the formula itself is set; the quality of the movie comes almost exclusively from how well the elements are created and meshed together. Tack on a good story and smart performances, and you might have something great. This is the formula for How to Train Your Dragon, meaning that the question that needs to be answered isn’t specifically how the story will turn out, but how good is the journey to that ending.
I’m going to start with my complaints because I really want to spend the bulk of this talking about just how much this film gets right. In the complaint department, I have only one real thing to talk about: the characters’ accents. How to Train Your Dragon takes place in a Viking village. Who decided that Vikings should sound like they’re from Scotland? If we’re looking for some cultural touchstone, they should sound closer to the Swedish Chef. I suppose that no one would take them seriously if they were running around saying, “Hingy dingy horsky dorp dorp dorp,” but that’s not an excuse to have them sound like a gang of Glaswegians. And beyond that, it’s the adults who sound like they should be wearing kilts; the kids all sound like they’re from Iowa.
Anyway, the curtain rises on the island of Berk, a Viking village plagued by an infestation of dragons. The dragons show up frequently to poach livestock and cause mayhem, which means that the bulk of the village adults are trained in fighting off the various species of dragons. Dragons, in this world, come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and abilities. All of them are considered pests and many of them are incredibly dangerous. Into this world is born our hero, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). Hiccup is the opposite of the rest of the villagers in that he is small, weak, and quite a bit smarter and more introspective than the average. Not blessed with the size or bravery of a typical Viking, Hiccup is apprenticed to Gobber the Blacksmith (Craig Ferguson). Hiccup is also the son of the town’s leader, Stoick (Gerard Butler), who is also everything Hiccup is not.
One evening, during a raid on the village, Hiccup causes a great deal of mayhem, but also uses one of the devices he’s fashioned as a blacksmith’s apprentice to take down a dragon called a Night Fury, a dragon so fast and elusive that no one has ever seen one. He locates the dragon in the forest the next day and, unable to kill a wounded animal, instead tends to it and befriends it. He names the dragon Toothless (he has retractable teeth) and discovers that Toothless is trapped in a valley because he is missing part of his tail. Over time, Hiccup figures out a way to repair the tail with prosthetics, and also learns to ride Toothless. This is simultaneous with Hiccup’s training to kill dragons.
His new knowledge of dragons causes him to become adept at dealing with them in training, which causes friction between him and his crush Astrid (America Ferrara). And, of course, befriending and riding a dragon makes him anathema to the Viking way. Of course, this causes problems and things get very, very bad toward the end. And things happen that cause Hiccup to become victorious over terrible odds, prove his bravery, and change the way of life on the island of Berk. We expect that. What we don’t necessarily expect is how smart it is getting there and the decisions made to further unite Hiccup and Toothless in a very real way.
So the story itself is unique in a lot of ways, but it also follows the basic formula for this sort of kids’ movie. What it does, though, is follow that formula so well that it’s difficult to find a place where it could be improved (beyond the aforementioned accents). It gives us this story as well as this story is ever presented, and that’s a major plus.
So let’s get into specifics. First, How to Train Your Dragon gives us a great amount of real, legitimate action. This isn’t rinky-dink stuff—the characters’ lives are really on the line in a number of places here. It also helps that the animation is truly gorgeous and beautiful to look at. Admittedly pretty pictures don’t make a great movie (see Avatar), but it’s certainly one of the great selling points.
Another benefit is how good and real the characters are. While the movie does conform to the Disney-inspired ideal of single father and absent mother (despite this being Dreamworks), the father himself is one of the better characters of this type in this sort of film. Typically, the father character will either be an ineffectual dipstick, a tyrant, or a goof. Stoick definitely has some traits of the tyrant, but as the film progresses, it becomes evident that this isn’t specifically his nature. He’s not mean; he’s frustrated by his son because he doesn’t understand him. He’s conflicted. One of the great moments of the film is after Hiccup’s trial by combat when Stoick essentially disowns him. It would be easy to leave the scene there. Instead, we get a shot of Stoick walking away and wiping away tears. He’s not a jerk. He just doesn’t have any other way to react. That’s a sort of character depth that is both realistic in terms of any character and almost unheard of when it comes to an animated film for children.
Finally, and let’s not downplay this, it’s cute. Sure, we can predict a lot of the relationships that will happen. We know Hiccup is crushing on Astrid and that Astrid doesn’t like or respect him. We can guess how that will turn out. But it works. And it works that Toothless, for all his ferocity, is also cute as hell. There’s a reason they’ve made him very dog-like. It’s because it fits.
You want the ultimate endorsement for this? When the movie hit the credits, my 15-year-old daughter looked over at me and said, “New favorite movie.”
Why to watch How to Train Your Dragon: A traditional kids’-movie story done just about perfectly.
Why not to watch: What’s with the accents?