Monday, May 17, 2021

How to Train Your Dragon

Note: This review contains spoilers for How to Train Your Dragon.

I will admit that when the original How to Train Your Dragon film, based on the 2003 Cressida Cowell book of the same name, first came out, it didn’t really appeal to me at the time for whatever reason, so I didn’t end up watching it, its two sequels or its spinoff Cartoon Network/Netflix series, DreamWorks Dragons. After the third film, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, came out, I had been hearing a lot of positive word-of-mouth about the trilogy, and so decided to check it out due to pandemic boredom, via a 3-in-1 Blu-ray collection of the films. Watching the first film on what happened to be shortly after its 11th anniversary, I found it to be a lot better than I expected, even going so far as to compare it to Kung Fu Panda in terms of quality.

On a remote island, the village of Clan Berk is regularly attacked by dragons, with the village’s Viking residents staying and fighting back due to sheer stubbornness. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) longs to join the fighting rather than continue working at the local forge, leaving his post to try and prove himself. He successfully manages to shoot down a Night Fury with a bolas, only to get scolded for what was perceived as a lie due to a lack of witnesses. Once he tracks down the Night Fury, he decides to let it go rather than kill it. Hiccup starts to feel conflicted, however, when his father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) is convinced to enroll him into training to kill dragons.

Hiccup (Jay Barunchel, right) can't bring himself to
kill the Night Fury (left).

Having not read the original book, I felt that How to Train Your Dragon still had a strong and compelling story in its own right that takes full advantage of its Viking setting, even while hitting some familiar story beats. The variety in the different dragon types makes it feel like a fully fleshed-out world and brings out some interesting ideas, such as a two-headed dragon that breaths and ignites gas. It’s also interesting that, though he survives to the end of the movie, Hiccup does not make it out unscathed, which seemed like a fairly realistic outcome amidst the Viking premise. One thing I will say, however, is that most of the other Viking trainees, except maybe Astrid (America Ferrera), felt a bit one-dimensional due to only having so much screen time, though I would not be surprised if this was addressed in the aforementioned DreamWorks Dragons animated series.

Most of the other trainees don't have much personality to speak of.
From left: Hiccup, Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Tuffnut (T.J. Miller),
Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), Astrid (America Ferrera),
Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse)

Though computer animation has improved in the 11 years since this film’s release, the animation still holds up pretty nicely. There is a distinct visual style that brings out the grittiness of the setting, plus some visual effects such as fire, smoke and water are rendered in a realistic fashion. Since a good amount of the movie involves flight, I found the wind physics to be realistic as well, in addition to the mechanics of the prosthetic tail wing that Hiccup fashions for the Night Fury, whom he names Toothless.

The voice acting is well-cast with a lot of believable chemistry between the characters. Among these performances, Jay Baruchel captures Hiccup’s awkward personality well, selling his character arc and budding friendship with Toothless and the other dragons. Gerard Butler also shows great range as Stoick the Vast, a particularly stubborn Viking who also has trouble communicating with his son most of the time, and America Ferrera brings a lot out of Astrid due to having more screen time than most of the other side characters.

How to Train Your Dragon is one of those animated films where, upon watching it for the first time, I wonder why I avoided it for so long. It’s easily one of the better movies in DreamWorks Animation’s body of work along with others such as Kung Fu Panda and Megamind, due to its stronger emphasis on character writing and storytelling as opposed to an over-reliance on pop culture references. This is an easy recommendation for fans of the studio’s stronger output, though those fascinated by Viking culture or dragon mythology may find something to like here as well.

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