Over the ocean near a distant land, a thousand years ago, someone rides on the back of a dragon—and it’s you. You dive and swoop, freefall and skitter over the surface of the water. On an IMAX 3-D screen, How to Train Your Dragon becomes one of those immersive cinematic experiences that makes the ridiculously steep “value-added” ticket prices seem worthwhile. Yes, you become the character riding that dragon—which is a good thing, because you’re probably more interesting than the character riding that dragon.
If we’ve learned anything from the phenomenal success of Avatar and Alice in Wonderland over recent months, it’s that audiences haven’t lost their enthusiasm for paying more for the chance to spend two hours in the middle of a fantastical world. And if we know nothing else about the people who green-light movies, they’re good at giving people what they want. It’s now simply assumed that family-oriented, computer-animated films will be released in 3-D, and the resources that go into making sure viewers keep wanting that 3-D experience are staggering. How to Train Your Dragon provides breathtaking chunks of visual filmmaking, even as it turns out yet another story and protagonist recycled from a dozen of its predecessors.
The basis for the story is Cressida Cowell’s book about a young Viking named Hiccup (voiced by She’s Out of My League’s Jay Baruchel), who lives in a seaside town regularly raided by dragons. The townsfolk, led by Hiccup’s burly father Stoick (Gerard Butler), are fierce fighters dedicated to eradicating every last dragon, and Hiccup wants to be one of them—despite his apparent wimpy incompetence at such manly tasks. But one of his inventions improbably downs one of the most feared and mysterious of all dragons, a legendary Night Fury—only Hiccup finds he doesn’t have the heart to slay the creature. Instead, he befriends the dragon he comes to call Toothless in secret, constructing a prosthesis to help Toothless fly again and taking him on those dizzying flights.
If you tilt your head just a bit, you can spot a little subversive sociopolitics immersed in How to Train Your Dragon. As Hiccup spends more and more time with Toothless, he begins to use his up-close-and-personal knowledge of dragons to subdue them in his dragon-fighting classes without having to use force. He also learns that the motivations for the dragons’ raids are more complicated than pure destructive malevolence. Could it be that one can solve the problem of an enemy better through study and engagement than through demonizing?
That would have been quite a daring angle, had directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch) really stuck with it. But How to Train Your Dragon instead opts for the most over-used premise in kid-flick-dom. I’ve lamented before about the omnipresence of the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” plot in contemporary feature animation, and here, once again, we get the adventures of a misfit whose unique gifts are destined to be important and valued by those who once mocked him. It’s a concept that certainly can still work, but it’s one that requires an extra dose of creative energy from the screenwriting and voice performances, as was the case in something like Kung Fu Panda. Here, many of the gags and characters just seem to fall a bit flat, including the blandly likeable Hiccup. It’s functional, kid-friendly, comedic storytelling, and nothing more.
Fortunately, the visual storytelling does prove to be much more than functional. There are some great moments involving the initial tentative connections between Hiccup and Toothless that play like something out of The Black Stallion, and a fun montage showing Hiccup employing his newfound knowledge of dragon weaknesses. And when the action really kicks into high gear—from the earliest flying sequences to the climactic raid on the dragons’ mountain stronghold—a viewer fortunate enough to be wearing 3-D glasses and staring at an IMAX screen is bound to be dazzled.
But, I have a dream that someday a movie will combine the best of the 3-D experience with a truly exceptional story. We’ll see something where as much creative energy went into the script as went into Winter Olympics tie-in commercials. We’ll see something where you feel like you’re flying not just while sitting in the IMAX theater with your 3-D glasses on, but when you remember it.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON
Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler