The post-millennial 3D craze continues apace with Dreamworks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon, a fable packed with action and spectacle. Though it hasn’t always been the case lately, here the 3D is justified, mostly by flying sequences that are certain to fuel the dreams of many a child.
Based on Cressida Cowell’s popular children’s book series, How to Train Your Dragon concerns a Viking community beset by “pests”: dragons of all shapes and sizes. Led by Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), the Vikings are all capable dragonslayers, with one exception: Stoick’s scrawny son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel of She’s Out of My League). Hiccup laments, “Killing a dragon is everything around here,” including the way to get a girlfriend, he reckons. Though he lacks brawn, Hiccup is mechanically adept, and during one fateful nighttime raid, he launches a dragon-sized bolo and brings down the prize beast, the most fearsome of the dragons: the elusive Night Fury. Given his chance at last, Hiccup is distraught to discover that he’s not a killer. Instead he frees his catch, only to discover its damaged tail renders it flightless. Before you can say, “E.T., phone home,” Hiccup is designing a prosthetic to get his new friend “Toothless” back in the air.
Yes, it’s another postmodern “boy and his dog” story, but the screenplay—credited to Will Davies and directors Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders—has more on its mind. Perhaps hedging bets, the story also includes plenty of intergenerational drama (Hiccup to Stoick: “For once in your life, would you please just listen to me?”) and a wartime allegory that promotes peace, love, and understanding. Hiccup goes from zero to hero not by learning to slay dragons, but by demonstrating how to make peace with them, the real enemy being ignorance.
Plus, stuff goes “boom” a lot. Seeing this one in IMAX 3D (as this critic did) is probably overkill. How to Train Your Dragon will be plenty eye-popping and plenty noisy in your local multiplex. The best scenes are the quieter ones—the dragon-whisperer ones, if you will—and the ones that embrace the majesty of flight rather than the whiz-bang of battle. It’s unfortunate that the big finish must undermine the film’s core message: ultimately, even Toothless seems to agree that at least one dragon must be slain. Since the film doesn’t clarify why this “big bad” of the story should be treated as bad, some kids may wisely call foul.
With its high-flying action, peppy voice cast (from Craig Ferguson and America Ferrera to Judd Apatow alums Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Kristen Wiig) and a heart that’s mostly in the right place, How to Train Your Dragon is sure to set the box office on fire.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]