How to Train Your Dragon is family-friendly, funny, touching, entertaining, and may be the best animated film Dreamworks has made to date.
I really had no expectations going in to see Dreamworks Animation's latest CGI animated film, How to Train Your Dragon. Frankly, based on the trailers I'd seen I thought it was going to be fairly hokey and formulaic. Imagine my surprise when I found it to be a funny, heartfelt and action-packed movie for kids. Just so you know, this review is based on a viewing of the 2D version of the film as I didn't get a chance to catch a 3D screening prior to the film's opening.
How to Train Your Dragon tells the story of "Hiccup" (voiced by young Jay Baruchel, but who I would have sworn was Christian Slater), a skinny, quirky pre-teen growing up in a Viking village. He's clumsy, intellectual and prone to inventing things using the crude technology available at the time. The village is a harsh place to live and the Vikings are portrayed as big, beefy, hearty men and women who have to fight not only the elements but invasions of attacking dragons, which they've fought for generations.
The Vikings in the village define their lives through their battles against the dragons, and Hiccup's father (Stoick, voice by Gerard Butler) is the biggest and bravest of them all - and the leader of the village. He thinks Hiccup is not cut out for dragon-battle despite Hiccup's desire for just that very thing (motivated in great part because he believes it'll get him a girlfriend). Hiccup is mesmerized by Astrid (America Ferrera), a blonde warrior in training who can hold her own against the boys her own age with whom she is training.
There are many, many types and varieties of dragons here, but the most elusive one - that not only has anyone ever seen, much less killed, is the mysterious and super-fast Night Fury. Hiccup uses one of his gadgets to bring down the Night Fury far from the village. Of course no one believes him, and he goes out in search of the deadly dragon. I won't say much more than of course Hiccup finds it (he names it "Toothless" for reasons that are apparent) and the film is basically about how they come to be friends.
From Toothless Hiccup learns how to train dragons and appears to subdue them in dragon battle training. Astrid is none too happy about it because she wants to be the #1 pupil - eventually of course she decides to find out how exactly Hiccup is learning all these things and stumbles across his secret.
I was concerned that the audience would be bludgeoned with some sort of "message" in this film, but instead I found the story to be uplifting and the message more subtle than that of Avatar - a film that this reminded me of with the scenes involving dragon flight and a battle towards the end. Yes, for the most part you'll know where this story is headed, but they actually managed to turn the story in a direction I didn't expect at all - something I can't say about the aforementioned other film.
I found the CGI animation to be very detailed, although a little more expressiveness in the characters' faces might have been nice. I particularly enjoyed Gerard Butler's performance - loved hearing him speak any time his character was on screen. Although you'll know where things are headed between Hiccup and Toothless and between him and Astrid, I felt the movie took its time getting there and didn't make it too easy for the inevitable transitions to take place. Toothless was a joy to watch - they made him a cross between the best aspects of a dog and a cat as far as personality and he was completely lovable.
Overall I found How to Train Your Dragon to be great fun with a big heart - it drew me (and my daughter) in and we enjoyed it from beginning to end. Feel free to bring kids of all ages to this one, nothing in it is inappropriate or so scary that it would give the little ones nightmares. Personally, I'm looking forward to seeing it again, but in 3D next time.