Dragons transcend cultural bounds. The Greeks had hydras, depending on your Bible the Israelite prophet Daniel slew a dragon in Babylon, the Chinese zodiac features a dragon and Europe has its own tales including the Catholic story of Saint George.
In addition, dragons are a formidable, if not the ultimate, opponent. They are intelligent creatures that can sometimes talk–see “The Hobbit”–and have armor for skin and a flame-thrower for a mouth. No one wants to fight a dragon unless they are incredibly brave or stupid, or both.
Enter Dreamworks‘ Vikings of Berk who star in what is sure to be an instant classic, “How to Train Your Dragon.” This film has a fighting spirit, a huge heart and comedy that transcends age and gender.
Inspired by British author Cressida Cowell‘s book by the same title, but really more like a prequel, “How to Train Your Dragon” chronicles the life of young Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel), a Viking boy with a lot of brains, but lacking brawn, who is determined to slay a dragon and gain the respect of his father, Viking chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler). But his ambitions change when an encounter with a dragon leads to a relationship that defies everything the Vikings know about dragons, and, through the course of an adventure packed with fast flight, epic battles and a little bit of love, changes village life forever.
It is everything that a 3D high-flying adventure should be, and it beats the crap out of “Avatar.”
First off, the film’s script is basically perfect (congrats to writer-director duo Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders), virtually devoid of needless dialogue or stupid bathroom jokes that tend to pilfer cartoons these days. It is an intelligent, fun film, filled with unique characters set in a captivating situation.
The vocal cast is excellent, from Hiccup’s slight sarcasm and ease, Butler’s perfect Viking voice and a hilarious Craig Ferguson as blacksmith and trainer Gobber, to the star-studded cast of supporting characters. While the supporting cast voiced cliché characters, they made them unique in surprising and rewarding ways–especially Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Fishlegs, a chubby youth with a high voice who has given each dragon type–and there are a lot–a ranking based on speed, size and ability. He’s the Viking version of a World of Warcraft gamer.
Astrid (America Ferrera), Hiccup’s love interest, is a feisty, adorable addition to Cowell’s cast of Viking characters. Complete with a Hot Topic interpretation of a plaid skirt, this young Viking is the animated, Viking version of Hermione from the Potter series. She’s the Viking student-athlete, with a hidden feminine side that makes her real. On her first dragon ride, Astrid experiences fear, anger and awe on a high-flying ride that blows Aladdin’s magic carpet out of the air. The scene is a tribute to the film’s creators on every level, who all shine through its simple, touching beauty.
At its core, the film is an action-adventure, and warring Vikings and dragons are the focus. As such, fight scenes feature wheeling acrobatics and lots of physical humor, and the final battle between joint Viking and dragon forces against a truly terrible beast is a visual stunner.
Animated films have heart, and “How to Train Your Dragon” has a big one. Hiccup’s binding friendship with his dragon was beautifully illustrated, reminiscent of all those sappy dog movies from childhood, but much more fun since this pet has personality and wings. In addition, the changing relationship between Hiccup and Stoick, and the blossoming one between Hiccup and Astrid, cement the film’s lessons in applicable reality.
As does its final battle. While dragons are by the end portrayed essentially as big, misunderstood puppies, there is a villain that must be defeated. In a culture of moral relativity, where no one is good or bad, kids need to see that battles between good and evil exist, and it’s up to each and every one of us to fight them. On that Dreamworks delivers.
One interesting choice that somehow worked for the film is that the adult characters had Scottish accents while the kids all had American accents.
To sum it up, see this movie this year. It’s the best that’s come out so far, and it’s a refreshing, exciting alternative to “Avatar” and “Green Zone” that everyone will enjoy.