How to Train Your Dragon (***1/2)


How to Train Your Dragon.  98 mins.  PG.  Written and Directed by Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders.  Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrara, Jonah Hill, and Kristen Wiig.

Dreamworks' latest animated feature is further proof that by eschewing the self-conscious, pop culture referencing traps that so many of today's animated movies fall victim to, and instead focusing on character and story, with dynamite visuals to boot, the results can be magical.  Pixar has this formula down to a science and is clearly the leader of the pack, but between this and Kung Fu Panda, Dreamworks is slowly and steadily bridging the quality gap. 

Based on the series of kids' novels of the same name, How to Train Your Dragon tells the story of Hiccup (voiced by Knocked Up's Jay Baruchel), the proverbial runt of the litter, and near-constant disappointment to his uber-Viking father (Gerard Butler), who excels at hunting and killing dragons.  During an attack on the Viking village that begins the movie, Hiccup takes down a rare, unseen breed of dragon known as the Night Fury.  Hiccup can't bring himself to kill the dragon (whom he names "Toothless") though, and a bond develops between the two, with Hiccup helping Toothless fly again, and Toothless helping Hiccup master his dragon training class and find his way in the Viking world.  Together, they might just put an end to the long war between dragons and Vikings.

Though the story isn't anything new - it's your basic boy-and-his-dog story, or boy-and-his-alien, if you're as big a fan of E.T. as I am - the filmmakers tell it well, aided in no small part by the actors and the animators.  The voicework is stellar here.  Baruchel is having a breakout month this year, after his winning lead turn in She's Out of My League, and is perfectly cast as Hiccup.  He's got such a unique and interesting voice, and infuses his line readings with great humor and heart.  Just as good are the Scotsmen, Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson (as Gobber, Hiccup's mentor).  For once, the celebrity voices enhance the movie, rather than distract from the viewing experience. 

The movie is beautiful to look at as well.  Dreamworks' stable of animators have outdone themselves here, particularly in the dragon flying sequences, which are fresh and exciting, and a wonder to behold if you catch the movie in 3D.  The dragons look cool, and it's fun to see a variety of dragon species, each with its own quirks.  The kids are going to flip for this movie, and I'd say it's a good bet that their parents will too.  It may not be a new classic, but How to Train Your Dragon is solidly entertaining, and one lesson worth learning.

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