11 April 2010

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon



B+

How to Train Your Dragon
2010, 98mins, PG
Director (s): Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois
Writer (s): Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois, Cressida Cowell (novel)
Cast includes: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse
UK release Date: 31st March 2010

“How to Train Your Dragon” is an endearing surprise. Early marketing and an uninspired trailer had me write off the project from an early date, its use of the 3-D gimmick furthering my pre-emptive disdain. However as it turns out the picture is a consistently entertaining and heartfelt animated venture, peppered with solid visuals and a well judged cast of voice actors. It’s quite possibly the best film the DreamWorks animation wing have made to date, and gives viewers hope that other studios are starting to burn serious mileage in an attempt to catch-up with Pixar.

In the Viking town of Berk, local misfit Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is struggling to make good on his Nordic heritage. The town is pestered constantly by waves of ferocious dragons, the beasts having developed into the Viking’s arch enemies after years of warfare. The warriors are led by Stoick (Gerard Butler), Burk’s most famed dragon slayer and Hiccup’s disappointed father. After downing a dragon by accident in the heat of battle, Hiccup locates the trapped monster but hasn’t the heart to kill it. In repayment for sparing the animal it begins to form a bond with Hiccup, leading to a strong friendship and even letting the young boy ride upon its back. Hiccup nicknames the monster Toothless, and begins to understand that the dragons are misunderstood reptiles. However when Toothless shows Hiccup the dragon’s secretive lair, Stoick finds out, and leads a bunch of marauding Vikings to eradicate the animals forever. It falls to Hiccup to save both his friend and father; and try to devise a way for the two species to live in harmony.

“How to Train Your Dragon” is a charming feature, and boasts an impressively original screenplay. DreamWorks are possibly the most repetitive studio working at the minute (both in terms of morals and pop culture heavy gags), but “How to Train Your Dragon” dodges most of the usual bullets. The plotline isn’t as straightforward as the marketing makes it seem; whilst the dialogue and jokes are genuinely entertaining. The film is emotionally engaging; the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless presented with depth and genuine feeling. However even the supporting characters are made memorable thanks to some strong voice work and writing, “How to Train Your Dragon” focusing more on well rounded relationships than silly sideline jesting.

Jay Baruchel is excellent as Hiccup, the actor’s playful vocals coupling nicely with the scripts sincerity. As a performer Baruchel has thus far mostly been relegated to quirky supporting parts, but here he steps up to the plate and delivers a measured performance of both conviction and skill. “How to Train Your Dragon” really makes you care for its underdog hero, and Baruchel should be credited with a fair slice of that success. The supporting Viking players are comprised of a vibrant and good natured crew, Jonah Hill, Craig Ferguson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Kristen Wiig chief amongst them. America Ferrera (of “Ugly Betty” fame) is strong willed as Hiccup’s potential love interest; whilst Gerard Butler is unusually tolerable as Stoick. It’s without a doubt the Scotsman’s best performance in years, and probably his finest movie to date. The character of Toothless may not have a vocal outlet, but the filmmakers do tremendous work in turning the monster into a fully functional and sympathetic character; only Hiccup is more personable.

The film looks pretty, and the characters have been rendered with a respectable degree of detail and CGI flair. The 3-D still feels unnecessary (although it’s better used here than say, “Alice in Wonderland”) but overall the picture is lush to look at. Some of the night based sequences (of which there is a handful) seem a tad on the dark side; but overall “How to Train Your Dragon” definitely deserves a passing grade for its technical merits. Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders apply a solid quota of action, including a finish that is both massively exciting and emotionally poignant. However “How to Train Your Dragon” is mostly interested in telling a moving story and creating some fun characters, two things that it manages to do in a terrifically naturalistic fashion. At no point does “How to Train Your Dragon” feel forced or strained, it flows brilliantly in both a narrative and comedic sense.

DreamWorks have turned out a great movie with “How to Train Your Dragon”. The studio has never had a problem setting the box-office alight, but true critical respect has always somewhat eluded them. This picture replaces “Shrek” as their best animated endeavour to date, and marks out some of the sharpest competition Pixar has endured for a long time.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2010

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