Few movies are flawless – even the best of them have their faults – but one still feels a sense of frustration when an otherwise brilliant picture is dogged by problems. Overcoming these feelings can be easy, provided the remainder of the film is a delight, which is exactly what DreamWorks’ viking-inspired tale is.
Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is a teenager and son of a fearless Viking warrior named Stoick (Gerard Butler), who happens to be chief of their cliffside village, Berk. For generations, their people have been terrorised by a colony of dragons that attack in the dead of night, leaving destruction and devastation in their wake. It’s during these times that Stoick will courageously, fearlessly lead his fellow villagers to battle, repelling the dragons with all their might.
Being somewhat meek and clumsy, Hiccup tends to stay away from the carnage, instead helping Berk’s armorer Gobber (Craig Ferguson) ready weapons for battle as his apprentice. Hiccup has used his spare time in Gobber’s forge to construct a weapon capable of capturing the elusive Night Fury – considered the deadliest breed of dragon – and opts to test the weapon during one of Berk’s frequent raids, apparently to no avail.
A walk through the nearby woods the following morn reveals that Hiccup did indeed capture a Night Fury, injuring it in the process. Rather than present it to the village, Hiccup releases his catch and spares its life, with the Night Fury offering him clemency in return. Hiccup and the dragon continue to encounter each other in the proceeding days and weeks, with the former discovering that this supposedly vicious creature is actually rather tame and gentle.
How to Train Your Dragon takes inspiration, and its title, from a series of children’s books by Cressida Cowell that read more like a study guide than they do a cohesive narrative. The film is written in a more conventional manner, incorporating a three-act structure, climax, love interest and conflict into its screenplay. In fact, Dragon is a tad too conventional, for it contains many of the tropes that are, quite often, negatively associated with the medium of animation.
These banalities are most prevalent in two characters Hiccup interacts with: his father, and Astrid (America Ferrera). The latter’s a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails tomboy who is initially adversarial toward Hiccup and his wimpy ways, but eventually warms to him and becomes a close ally. Time and again, animated films have applied these traits to their female protagonists, believing they have established a strong, complex character, when all they are doing is patronising them.
Things don’t fare much better for Gerard Butler’s Stoick, who must assume the role a prejudiced paternal figure. He treats Hiccup’s pacifism as a burden, refuses to identify with him and unreasonably admonishes him for his actions, all of which make him a cold and unbecoming character. There is merit in creating a subplot about the differences between family members, but the manner in which Dragon explores this conflict is hackneyed, at best.
Such grievances are annoying, but they don’t make the film unbearable, and that’s due to the other merits of How to Train Your Dragon. One of those strengths is the designs of the various dragon breeds, with the animators cleverly having crafted creatures that look menacing, but aren’t wholly terrifying. For instance, Hiccup’s slender, black Night Fury – which he names Toothless, owing to its retractable teeth – transforms from sinister to adorable simply by dilating its pupils.
The animators also deserve commendation for their extraordinary renderings of the sky and scenery, which not only look realistic, but complement the beautiful flying sequences that Hiccup and Toothless partake in. Said scenes are especially magnificent in 3D – while viewers are encouraged to watch Dragon in three-dimensions, these scenes don’t look any less spectacular on a flat screen. The only fault of the animation is the character designs, which lack the detail and sleekness of the franchise’s future instalments.
Making the aforementioned flying sequences even more mesmeric is composer John Powell, whose soundtrack matches the magnificence of the visuals. There’s a clear Celtic influence to Powell’s music, with drums, fiddles and Irish pipes able to be heard on some tracks, while the more dramatic moments will make use of a traditional orchestra; other tracks still will begin quietly, then proceed to crescendo with a prominent string and brass section. Like the works of John Williams, it’s a score that can be enjoyed in its own right.
Although a significant portion of this review is critical of How to Train Your Dragon, particularly the characterisation of the supporting protagonists, one cannot help but find themselves loving the movie and its heroes. Stoick and Astrid have numerous virtues to counteract their failings, with some justification for their positions provided; Hiccup, meanwhile, is to be admired for his peaceful ways and willingness to defy his father, with Jay Baruchel’s voice perfectly suited to him.
How to Train Your Dragon is by no means a faultless film – the cliched characters make sure of that – yet it does possess qualities that leave the viewer spellbound, and wanting to watch it repeatedly. Splendid animation, fantastic music and a gentle, likeable hero are what make the picture special, and should continue to do so in the years ahead.