Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Rated: PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language
Running time: 98 minutes
Bottom line: Entertaining for older kids and parents
Don’t you hate it when dragons storm your village and steal your sheep?
That happens a lot in Burke, a viking village located on a steep cliff overlooking the ocean. It would be a nice place to live if not for the frequent, terrifying dragon raids. Life for these vikings revolves completely around the ongoing war with the dragons.
The men do little besides defend the village and try to find the dragon nesting ground. And the women, well, there doesn’t seem to be many women around at all. Both boys and girls begin training to battle dragons when they reach their teens, and they all dream of becoming great dragon slayers. Except, of course, for the misfit hero of the movie.
Every time Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) tries to help defend the village, he creates havoc and disaster. He is a sensitive, 95-pound weakling and an outcast. It doesn’t help that his father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), is the fiercest of all dragon fighters and leader of the village.
With Hiccup’s mother already passed, the local blacksmith Gobber (Craig Ferguson) fills the role of uncle, constantly trying to steer Hiccup and Stoick toward a better relationship.
Everything changes, though, when Hiccup befriends one of the dragons. He discovers that these dragons might not be the soulless, bloodthirsty killers the villagers have always believed them to be. And the villagers, especially Hiccup’s father and a girl named Astrid (America Ferrara), discover they might have been wrong about Hiccup, too.
“How to Train Your Dragon” is one of Dreamworks’ best movies. The animation is quite good, particulary the unique character designs and a handful of breathtaking flying sequences. A few scenes even feature surprisingly witty jokes, something for which Dreamworks — makers of “Shrek” — is not known.
The voice talent is also strong, with Baruchel, Butler, Ferguson and Ferrara supported by fellow Apatow regulars Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, as well as the always funny Kristen Wiig.
What keeps this movie from being truly great is Hiccup’s emotional dilemma. This is yet another family movie with a boy who can’t meet his father’s expectations. It’s one of the oldest stories in children’s literature and film. We’ve recently seen this theme handled more creatively in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” and “Ratatouille,” just to name a few.
That might be the only real weakness of the movie, but unfortunately it’s a big one. It’s hard to work up much emotion for a story device we’ve seen hundreds of times, no matter how deft the storytelling or how dazzling the visuals.
And even though this is one of Dreamworks’ best, they have yet to measure up to the best Pixar films (“The Incredibles” and the “Toy Story” franchise).
Dreamworks and Pixar have developed a competitive relationship reminiscent of Disney and Warner Brothers during the Hollywood Studio era. Disney made lush, sentimental, expertly crafted films, while Warner Brothers made anarchic, ironic, also expertly crafted movies. Disney aimed for the heart while WB aimed for the funny bone.
“Shrek” established Dreamworks as the sarcastic and cynical studio while “Toy Story” positioned Pixar as the company who tugged the heartstrings.
But Dreamworks took a turn of sorts with “Kung Fu Panda” in 2008, a movie with more sincere, inspirational moments than cynical jabs. While “How to Train Your Dragon” continues that trend for the studio, it doesn’t quite match the quality of “Kung Fu Panda,” although thankfully it doesn’t stoop to the nonstop nonsense of the Shrek movies.
Speaking of, Dreamworks is set to torture us with yet another entry in the tired Shrek series later this year, “Shrek Forever After.”
They would be wise to let the big ogre die (even if it’s too late to let him pass gracefully), and make more movies like “How to Train Your Dragon,” which finds a more palatable balance between modern-day cynicism and old fashioned believerism.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.