‘How to Train Your Dragon’: Start with oven mitts

March 24, 2010

It’s the rare Pixar film that doesn’t live up to the standard of the brand. To my mind, only “Cars” qualifies as a so-so entry, not bad for a 15-plus-years run.


Dreamworks Animation, on the other hand, has a less stellar record. There’s “Shrek” and its sequels (which have suffered from the law of diminishing returns) – and then there’s mediocre work like “Kung Fu Panda” and downright duds like “Madagascar” and its sequel.


“How to Train Your Dragon” falls somewhere between the first “Shrek” and the third, in terms of quality (we’ll reserve judgment on the fourth one until we see it). Like the least of the Dreamworks films, “Dragon” suffers from a shortage of jokes. But it has a strong enough story and animation to keep kids fascinated and even adults occupied.


“Dragon” is set in some distant fairytale past where Vikings all spoke with a Scottish brogue (apparently before they emigrated to Scandinavia). Or rather, all of the adults do; the kids all talk like American teens from California. But hey- it’s a fairy tale (based on a series of kids’ books by Cressida Cowell).


The story is told by a scrawny young Viking offspring named Hiccup (yeah, they all have cute names like that), voiced by Jay Baruchel at his most adenoidal. His burden – aside from being too small to fight the dragons that regularly attack the village and steal the food – is that he’s the son of the village’s brawny leader, Stoik (Gerard Butler).


Hiccup is dying to kill a dragon to make his bones, as it were. But when he accidentally brings down a rare Night Fury (a seemingly invisible beast that can’t be seen because its black skin makes it invisible against the night sky) with his bolo-catapult and tracks the trussed-up creature to the woods, he finds he lacks the heart to slay the beast.


Instead, he befriends it and, figuring out why it can’t fly (a missing aileron on its tail), retrofits it with a mechanical tailpiece – then trains it to carry him as a rider. In the meantime, while the adults have gone off to hunt the dragons’ nest to wipe it out, the youngsters – Hiccup and his peers – are enrolled in dragon-slaying class, taught by the one-armed, one-legged blacksmith (and former dragonslayer) Gobber (Craig Ferguson).


To everyone’s surprise, Hiccup excels at handling all of the various varieties of dragon the class has to work with. His secret: He’s practicing on the Night Fury, which he’s named Toothless (actually, it has retractable choppers). He discovers that, in fact, the dragons aren’t naturally nasty toward humans, after all.


And then, while on a flight with Toothless that takes him to the dragons’ nesting place inside a volcano, he discovers the reason they steal from the human village. And, in a leap that seems a tad prodigious for a Viking youth, he figures out that, if he can solve the problem that forces the dragons to steal, he can end the cycle of attacks and dragon-slaying that seems so endless.


Dragon movies seem to fall into two camps: Either the dragon is a fierce and cruel creature that must be destroyed – or it’s a misunderstood beast more than willing to befriend and work with humans. The former – from Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” to Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” – are always played for scares and excitement.


The latter, however, offer valuable lessons about judging others based on appearances – i.e., huge and scary-looking equals evil. To its credit, “How to Train Your Dragon” doesn’t feature talking dragons, which always make it too easy for the audience to find the goodness in what would otherwise be a frightening creature.


The script, by Will Davies, Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, isn’t particularly funny, relying instead on the delivery of voice actors like Baruchel, Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller and Kristen Wiig. There are moments of inspired physical humor – but it’s the action, with its scary-exciting thrills, that truly captivates. In particular, this film is all about the flying sequences – which, of course, are even more enthralling in 3D.


In many ways, however, the story is reminiscent of Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch,” which was about a bizarre-little space alien who proved not to be as cuddly as it appeared. Which makes sense, since Disney alumni DeBlois and Sanders cocreated it.


Baruchel is a funny, inventive actor, and he brings more to this role than the script gave him. So does Ferguson, as the crusty old teacher. In smaller, more predictable roles, Hill, Wiig, Mintz-Plasse and Miller also shine.


“How to Train Your Dragon” is a solid comedy-adventure, though a few more laughs would have been helpful. It will delight kids and amuse their parents.


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