Dreamworks Animation has always labored in the considerable shadow of Pixar. With the exception of the original Shrek, their output has had its merits but they have never matched the relentless consistency of Disney’s seemingly unstoppable CG animation house. I don’t know if they have turned that corner, but with How to Train Your Dragon, they have finally produced a film that belongs in the same league as The Incredibles and WALL-E.
This off-kilter and charming fantasy takes place in the besieged Viking village of Berk, located “twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death,” and beset with a rather large, toothy and annoyingly flammable varmint problem. That would be dragons, of course (If you read the title above, you probably saw that coming).
Our hero is a lad with the unfortunate name of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), and in the proud tradition of this sort of animated film, he’s the apparently useless son of the village chief, Stoic the Vast (voiced with “This-is-Sparta” gusto by Gerard Butler), a blustery bundle of muscle with the densest meat packed between his ears. Hiccup wants to join in the family business of killing dragons, but his father (along with the rest of village) doesn’t think he’s dragon-slaying material. Since the only job worth having in this village is killing the beasts with the flaming halitosis, that kind of leaves Hiccup in a pretty sorry position, status-wise and getting-a-date-with-anyone-wise.
In the latest dragon attack on the village, Hiccup is convinced he felled a dragon but no one believes him, so he sets out to prove it. He finds that he did indeed trap the mysterious dragon known as “Night Fury,” but when the boy tries to finish off the creature, he finds that that Night Fury isn’t that furious. It’s actually kinda cute. And friendly. And not at all something that a soft-hearted boy like Hiccup can kill, so he sets it free and nurses the dragon, which he names “Toothless,” back to health, forging a friendship in the process. Of course, when the family business is the extermination of dragons, having one as a friend can make for some awkward moments at the dinner table, so he keeps their relationship on the down-low for the time being.
Meanwhile Stoic sets off to find the dragons’ nest and finish them off once and for all. While he’s gone, he tries one last time to make a Viking out of Hiccup, leaving him to be trained in fine art of dragon slaughter by the village blacksmith Gobber the Belch (the Late Late Show’s Craig Ferguson). With his teaching methods, however, it’s amazing that any Viking lived long enough to reach puberty, let along kill anything that was winged and scaly.
The story follows a predictable path, meaning that at some point Hiccup and Toothless will inevitably be called on to save the village, but there’s something about the swagger and attitude of this tale, the full-bloodedness of its colorful, vivid animated characters, that charms the horned helmet right off your head. Toothless is a marvelously expressive and endearing creation despite only being permitted the growls and grunts you’d expect from a dragon. Seriously, dragons should not be allowed to speak unless it’s with Sean Connery’s voice.
Dreamworks Animation has surrounded these characters with a fantasy world that is seemingly vast, detailed and richly textured. There’s a sense of solidity and reality to everything despite all the dragons flying around (and all the supposed Scandinavians speaking with Scottish accents).
Any way you slice it, How to Train Your Dragon is a home run in the big leagues of animation. It remains to be seen whether it marks the arrival of a new power hitter or if it’s just a scrappy shortstop managing to get all of the ball for one at-bat. For the moment, Dreamworks has proved it truly belongs on the field with Pixar.