Despite its slightly pornographic title, with How To Train Your Dragon Dreamworks has begun to inch the tiniest bit closer to the ridiculously high watermark Pixar has set for modern-day computer animated movies.
In a nutshell, it's a movie about not judging a book by its cover - a good lesson for everyone. Sure, you know how it ends and the pitfalls and peril in the movie are nothing that holds any surprises. But that's alright as long as the trip to realization is worth it. All in all, this movie makes it worth it.
That's not to say it's perfect in its methods. The design of the human characters leaves a tiny bit to be desired. That is to say, the design of the kid characters in the movie. The adults are nicely done. There's a good dose of cartoony wackiness without losing a way to relate to them. They have a larger-than-life hugeness about them that lines the kid characters up in their proper spots well.
The kids or "stars" of the movie though leave a lot to be desired. There are moments where you look at a couple of the Dragon warriors in training and like what you see. However, the two principals in the movie, Hiccup (a forced cutesy name that is completely pointless and actually gets kind of grating halfway through the movie. I mean, hey, it's a movie about Vikings, throw in an Erik somewhere) voiced by Jay Baruschel (more on that later) and Astrid, voiced by America Ferrera, just lack the charm that most Pixar designers find in their character design.
It's not an easy thing to do, evoke feeling from a piece of animation, but it can be done. It's also not that Dreamworks completely misfired with them either. As was said, they're inching closer to the pull you feel with most Pixar characters. It could very well be more that my expectations have been raised to a point now that I expect all animated movies to have strong leads as well as the amusing wacky neighbor types.
Looking at Astrid, I could do nothing but flash back to Stewie of Family Guy. Her design is so similar to him that it takes away from anything they try to accomplish with her. Looking at Hiccup, it's just incredibly bland. It surely doesn't need to be some in-your-face kooky design, but a little zazz here or there would've filled out his character nicely.
But like I said, the adults are designed really well. Gerard Butler's Stoick (a bit too on the nose for my tastes, but the name works) is a burly version of Santa Claus in his younger years. That is if Santa Claus had he been a hulking Viking clan leader that has a serious disdain for the Dragon sort. Hiccup's employer and mentor for the most part, Gobber, voiced by Craig Ferguson is the most endearing and charming character of the lot. He's hobbled, maimed and crippled a bit by his Dragon-fighting days, but he's the one character in the movie you find yourself wanting to see more of.
About the voices - most do a fine job. I'm always happy to see Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Jonah Hill get more gigs. Even if it is weird to think that they're so in the mainstream now that they can get animated movie jobs through name recognition. The only voice that takes you out of it a bit is Jay Baruschel's.
He chose, or maybe the director did, to go the way of making his voice try to sound like a cartoon. If he had just gone with his regular voice (as the other actors had), it wouldn't have come across as off-putting as it did. There are times when it borders on Baruschel sounding like he was trying to do a Muppet impression instead of finding his own niche in the V.O. world.
I mean aside from the movie nerd viewpoint, the voices are fine. They're where they should be mostly. Gerard Butler is the true star of the show in that department though.
Where the movie completely succeeds is in the dragon department. Looking at the movie, that is pretty much the most important thing too. Every single breed of dragon (and there are plenty of them, but every one manages to put a smile on your face at some point) that flies or crawls across the screen makes you want to see its real-life counterpart in a zoo somewhere. They're designed with as healthy combo of originality and traditional dragonosity.
The star of the dragons is pleasantly enough the one that should've been the star. His breed is Night Fury, but his given name is Toothless (due to his ability to hide his teeth when he has to). He was animated in such a way that he never loses strength amidst all of his incredibly endearing puppy-like behavior. A good shot of ferocity chased by a sugary sweet swipe of house pet fun.
The other breeds of dragons each get introduced in their own way and upon every introduction, the animators did a great job in keeping all of them separate without making them feel apart. Does that make any sense?
The action scenes are fun to get into and the 3-D definitely played a part in getting you further wrapped up into the fight. Speaking of that, the 3-D was really well done. Of course I'm a bit of a 3-D enthusiast, especially the new fangled "no more piercing headache" polarized glasses version of today. (It was that red/blue anaglyph Jaws 3-D-era that did such a thorough job in killing the public's bizarre want for 3-D films) But this movie is served well by the 3-D, adding another layer of realism to the great textures that the artists gave the dragons.
The scene that will make you realize how far Dreamworks has come in the character area is when Hiccup and Toothless begin to form a friendship. There wasn't a person in the house not giggling or sitting there with a silly grin on their face, wanting both Hiccup and Toothless to become fast friends.
At that's the most important spot in the movie, because it's there that you begin to forget you're watching an animated movie. At animation's best it pulls you in through character and swiftly takes you to an unbelievably believable world while slowly washing away the fact that you're watching animation and not real people. Though not quite on the level of an Up, Dreamworks has managed to catch a little spark here. So much so, that I'm fairly excited if they find a way to fan the spark into an even stronger film.
Lastly, the story is not only strong, concise and moves along at a really good pace, it does a good job of getting to the point without rushing. There are no wasted scenes, no time when you wonder why that was shown when it never had a payoff. We meet the village through a bit of narration, get a back story quickly, get thrust into the Viking vs. Dragons world and before you know it, you're familiar (and most importantly comfortable) with the story and where it's going.
How To Train Your Dragon had a lot more hits in it than misses and leaves the audience not only wanting a dragon of their own, but feeling good about the time they spent learning about them. It's most definitely a stand out in the Dreamworks library.