Review: How To Train Your Dragon (2010)

Adorable and full of good things.

I didn’t go into this one expecting to enjoy it much – and I emerged a convert. I found this film adorable and full of good things. ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ is probably the best Dreamworks feature yet, likely because it avoids jokes that date it in a heart-sagging kind of way (like “Shrek” doing “The Matrix”, orĀ “Antz” actually saying “You da ant!”) and instead focuses on some real emotional truth (and some breathtaking imagery – apparently the Cohen Brothers cinematographer consulted on the film). It seems to get the balance just right: cute without being cutesy; funny without being farcical; a genuinely exciting and thrilling adventure, but always driven by characters who are defined clearly but with an ease and grace not often afforded most adventure movies, animated or otherwise. I’m tempted to think the Dreamworks guys took notes on the Pixar approach to creating timeless storytelling before going into this one – and thank goodness they did: “How to Train Your Dragon”, while not quite “Toy Story”, is on similar thematic and tonal ground, and is definitely up there.

Hiccup is a likeable kid, just geeky and wierd enough without tipping over into lazy caricature. The success of the characterisations of Hiccup’s father Stoick and viking battle-trainer Gobber is due in no small part to the wonderful, charming vocal talents of Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson (who is worthy of an essay all his own… and what’s this? There is one).

But this movie ultimately succeeds or fails on the back of the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, the mysterious and reputedly deadly Night Fury dragon. Toothless’ mannerisms is a Greatest Hits of Pets: a mash-up of your favourite parts of your pet cat, dog, horse, etc (if yr into any of those sorts of things – I’ve never had a pet, but I get the bits that people who own them might find appealing). Yes, it’s supposed to be cutesy, and Toothless’ character design really is too soft and round for us to ever believe he really poses a threat, but that comes to make sense in the larger story. The other dragon character designs are all humrous and comical, which would be apparent to the vikings if they were ever to take the time to view these creatures as anything other than predators – and that, as the title suggests, is where the story is heading. It reflects the strained father-son dynamic between Stoick and Hiccup which, like the real threat to vikings and dragons alike, can only be resolved once people learn to stop, listen and reflect – only then can they really communicate. Only once we look past ourselves, and try to understand our supposed adversaries, can we truly live.

It’s a beautiful message wrapped up in a really enjoyable movie that just happens to be made for kids. Meanwhile, adult-Hollywood continues to shit out propaganda like “American Sniper” and, yes, “Zero Dark Thirty” (yeah, I said it).