Up, Up and Away
Before seeing How To Train Your Dragon, I was advised not to knock its scant originality. After all, it's often more about the way a story is told than the story itself. For example, Avatar cruised its way to a small fortune with a tale as old as time. Being a basic fantasy, Dragon seeks to make an impression on the world's youngsters with detailed animation, state of the art 3-D, and -- well, that's about it. I'm not faulting its looks, as there are several moments of almost Pixaresque beauty. But the higher one ascends the ladder of age, the more charm Dragon tends to shed, revealing a harmless adventure with a hollow interior.
It's bad enough when the neighbor's dog relieves itself on your lawn, but how would you feel if it were a dragon instead? Such is the life of young Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), a Viking lad whose island village comes under regular attack by the fire-breathing fiends. Hiccup longs to join the fight, but all it takes is meeting a dragon up close and personal to change his tune. After capturing a mysterious Night Fury, Hiccup discovers not all dragons are so bad and that they're as afraid of humans as we are of them. Our hero sets out to train and tame his newfound pal, resulting in a bond between man and beast never thought possible. But when Hiccup gets summoned for dragon-hunting duty, his friendship and loyalty to the village are both put to the test.
Wit, pluck, imagination -- these are the foundations of fantasy -- and to an extent, Dragon embodies all three. The degree to which viewers respond to these depends on whether or not they fingerpaint anymore, but the little ones would be hard-pressed to find something about this flick not to like. They'll definitely respond to the underdog premise, in which twerpy little Hiccup dreams of joining his burly Viking brethren in battle. It's also a treat to see this sort of story dealt with in an almost old-fashioned way; there are no puns or pop culture gags, just a kid and a heck of a responsibility to live up to. But to be sure, Dragon packs in plenty of action to sway its target audience. Here's where the animation receives a real workout, and it does a great job of keeping up; nary is the soul who won't be wowed during Hiccup's flights upon his airborne amigo.
But aside from "just enough," Dragon doesn't have much to offer. The film casts a pretty generic shadow despite the technology behind it, letting convention dictate the plot rather than invention. Today's youth won't be too concerned, but for those raised on the Disney formula (itself run into the ground dozens of times over), Dragon's ingredients make for a bland recipe. Besides, it's hard to root for a hero whose neck you spend most of your time wanting to wring. It's one thing to have Craig Ferguson and Gerard Butler yuk it up with their over-the-top Scottish brogues, but Baruchel's overdone nerd voice works against his character rather than for it. The likes of America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, and Kristen Wiig fill in supporting roles, though it's ironic that the most memorable character, the Night Fury, doesn't speak a word.
Lest I incur the wrath of irate parents, let me assure you that kids will have a blast with How To Train Your Dragon. As ancient as its morals are, they still have more nutritional value than anything with Squeakquel in the title. Is it simple? Yes, and almost to a fault at that, but if Dragon is good for anything, it's for some no-frills fun at the movies.
MY RATING: ** 1/2 (out of ****)
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated "PG" for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language.)