How to Train Your Dragon , 2010
Cast: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig,
A comedy adventure set in the mythical world of burly Vikings and wild dragons.
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The bonding relationship between a boy and his pet is one of animation's favorites plot drivers -- it hits friendship as the foundation relationship of life, it easily leads into a classic coming of age plot and it can be easily picked up for personal fantasy by young kids (not so much for the family pets they keep trying to ride around).
Because it is such a favorite, you'd be excused for expecting a film living inside it the way "How To Train Your Dragon" does to just go through the motions. DreamWorks has not traditionally been known for the kind of insight or originality you get from a Miyazaki or a Andrew Stanton. At their best, though, they often can come up with a great deal of charm and genuine fun. "How To Train Your Dragon" is Dreamworks Animation at its best.
Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is the smallest, clumsiest Viking on the island of Berk. That's a problem because the Berk Vikings don't have to worry too much about the normal Viking stuff -- raping, pillaging, etc. -- because they've got bigger problems. MUCH bigger problems, that fly, breathe fire and are roughly dragon shaped.
Very, very loosely based on Cressida Cowell's children's book, "Dragon" is a pitch perfect example of how to make a solid, unassuming, entertaining kids film. And if it doesn't really reach for the heights of Pixar, it's not a waste of your time either.
It almost doesn't seem like it should be as good as it is. There's a lot of playing by the kids film rule book here. Hiccup is small, not physically imposing, he doesn't get along with his father, the village chief (Gerard Butler), and he has a hopeless crush on the most awesome girl in the village (America Ferrera), all perfect fodder for audience self-identification.
Also, not surprising, despite everyone looking down on him he manages to use one his dragon catching inventions to actually capture a deadly Nightshade, the one dragon no one's ever seen. It could very easily be paint by numbers, but in co-director Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois' ("Lilo & Stitch") hands it finds a light touch that's focused on more than just gags.
Hiccup doesn't bond with the captured dragon, named Toothless (who is essentially a dragonamorphized cat) at first. It takes some time, some building of trust of and experimentation as he fixes Toothless' tale so that he can fly again, and quickly decides to learn how to ride him in flight. And of course it never occurs to him he is doing something no other Viking who ever lived would have the stones to attempt.
Mostly it works because of the pure humanity involved. It's not particularly deep, but what characteristics it does focus on it deals with a gentleness and a care that's often missing from mass entertainment. And it spreads the love, trying to keep treat its characters somewhat even-handedly. It is after all a story about not judging a book by its cover.
It's also often quite a sly. It's the norm today for animated films to attempt to work on multiple levels, with jokes for the kids and jokes for the adults. Most of them manage to botch both, but "Dragon" handles its adult humor with class and genuine wit. It's not quite as good on the kids side but the sterling adventure elements, especially in the big finale, will likely get over that.
It's not perfect by any means, and I'm still not sure why all the adult Vikings are Scottish, but it is awful good. If you are going to make a standard kids animated adventure film, "How To Train Your Dragon" should be the standard you aim for.