There's nothing new about the plot of How to Train Your Dragon; its tale of a young boy struggling to fit in with his peers and win his father's acceptance is practically ragged around the edges from centuries of use. As predictable as it is, though, DreamWorks Animation's gentle, big-hearted new spectacle offers more surprises than any film I've seen so far this year.
Its massive creative team injects so much heart, spirit, and unadulterated joy into the film that, somewhere along the way, you forget that you know exactly how it's all going to turn out. Dragon is good at everything it tries to be: It's a non-patronizing kids' movie, a clever comedy, a thrilling adventure flick, and even a grade-A monster movie. The biggest surprise of all, though, might be the film's jaw-droppingly gorgeous look. In its own, more subtle way, Dragon is as visually stunning as Avatar. There are a few minor flaws—the pacing is a little wonky, and why do the Vikings speak with thick Scottish brogues?—but they pale in comparison to the film's successes.
Oddball extraordinaire Jay Baruchel stars as Hiccup, a Viking boy coming of age in a coastal village beset by dragons. Hiccup is apprentice to Gobber the blacksmith (Craig Ferguson), but what he really wants to do is kill dragons—at least, until he gets an opportunity to actually do it. He manages to knock one of the fearsome beasts out of the sky, but he can't bring himself to kill it. Instead, he sets the animal free, only to learn that an injury to its tail keeps it grounded. Hiccup fits the dragon, whom he dubs Toothless, with a prosthetic tail fin, and the two become fast friends.
In the meantime, Hiccup has his hands full trying to live up to the impressive image of his father, village chief Stoick the Vast (voiced by Gerard Butler). Stoick has pulled some Viking strings and gotten Hiccup into a dragon-killing training program, where the outstanding trainee will have the honor of slaughtering a dragon in front of the entire village. Hiccup learns that dragons aren't the killing machines his fellow Vikings think they are, but can he do anything to stop the war that has raged between his people and the dragons for as long as anyone can remember?
Okay, so you know the answer already. But that doesn't detract from the pleasure of experiencing Dragon in obnoxiously overpriced 3D, which I highly recommend. The film displays some of the best uses of the digital 3D technology so far. Rather than breaking the fourth wall by repeatedly thrusting objects toward the viewer, Dragon's animators and FX team use the Z axis to draw the audience into the world of the film.
And what a world it is. Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders did something so cool it demands mention: They tapped ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, who shot O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men (along with many other Coen brothers films), to help with the look of their movie. The result is spectacular, and something that every film and photography nerd needs to see. The play of light and shadow in Dragon stands head-and-shoulders above any animated film I can think of, and many live-action ones. The flying scenes, especially when viewed in 3D, are visceral and exhilarating, but even the static scenes that take place on the ground make you wish for a pause button. There are at least two memorable, certifiably breathtaking images: one where dozens and dozens of dragons suddenly materialize out of the walls of thick, gray mist that surround a flying Toothless, and another that sees a fireball illuminate a cavern whose walls are covered, floor to ceiling, with the jewel-colored creatures. My own gasps weren't the only ones I heard.
All of that is wonderful, but it wouldn't be terribly effective if Dragon didn't back it up with likeable characters and a story that earns an emotional investment from viewers of all ages. It gets off to a slow start, but Hiccup and Toothless will win you over by the end of the first act. The relationship between them unfolds slowly and eloquently, and often without the use of dialogue, since these dragons are feral, speechless creatures, and more than a little dangerous.