How to Train Your Dragon

Teenaged Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel, "She's Out of My League") may be the son of tribe chief Stoick the Vast (voice of Gerard Butler, "The Bounty Hunter"), but he's an unlikely Viking. The thin and brainy Hiccup dreams of becoming a dragon slayer, but he's kept as apprentice to the Island of Berk's blacksmith, Gobber (voice of Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson). There he creates an invention to take down the one dragon no one has succeeded in slaying, the nigh invisible Night Fury, but in the chaos of a nighttime dragon attack, no one sees him accomplish it. Hiccup travels into the forest in the direction he saw the dragon go down and finds the injured beast, but also finds that he cannot kill it. Instead he creates a rudder-like device to fix the tail injury keeping Toothless from flying, then tries to figure out how to convince the rest of his tribe that instead of teaching to kill, they should be learning "How to Train Your Dragon."

Laura's Review: B+

Cowriter/directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders are the team behind one of Disney's best - and hippest - animations, "Lilo & Stitch," and while their latest, creatively adapted from the Cressida Cowell book, may not be as unique, it's a heck of a lot more fun than "Avatar." A groovy voice cast, funky CGI characters and a cold, Northern sense of place illuminate this 'boy meets dog' tale, and while the 3D shoot adds depth to the many flying and training sequences, the film looks mighty fine in plain old 2D as well.

Stoick is always keeping tabs on his boy, afraid that his only child will be an easy kill, and who better to help than the chief's best friend Gobber. Gobber, who has lost two limbs in dragon battle, also happens to be Berk's dragon slaying instructor, though, and he sees Hiccup's passionate need to belong. Unfortunately, Gobber convinces Stoick to let Hiccup join his class just when Hiccup's discovered that dragons aren't really their enemies. But something interesting happens - Hiccup learns a lot about dragons from having befriended his Night Fury Toothless and he uses this knowledge to get the dragons in the training ring to back down without slaying them - and earns the respect of all in Berk while Stoic is sailing the seas hunting for the dragons' nest. Hiccup isn't out of the woods, yet, though, as he is required to kill a dragon in the ring as his final graduation from slaying school.

"How to Train Your Dragon" isn't the most original of stories. The flying sequences will remind anyone whose seen Cameron's blockbuster of "Avatar," the training sequences resemble "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire's" Triwizard tournament where Harry faced a Hungarian Horntail and the brainy underdog who teaches his tribe a new way is a screenwriting staple. But the film is full of charm, its characters, particularly its six different types of dragons, so wittily animated they almost seem like they've come from Pixar's studios. It also delivers a good lesson for kids with lots of humor, from Toothless's impish behavior when first faced with Astrid to Stoick's explanation for the origin of the Viking helmet he bestows on his son (it's half your mom's breastplate!).

The adult characters speak with strong Scottish accents, as befit the Scottish actors who voice them (there was a large Viking population in northern and western Scotland). They're massive, like large red and blond oaks, but huggably so. The teens, on the other hand, are voiced and designed like a group of present day skateboard punks, a device that works both comically and as a generational divide. Of those Hiccup is given a potential love interest in Astrid (voice of "Ugly Betty's" America Ferrera), the prettiest and most effective of the younger dragon slayers. Snotlout (voice of "Superbad's" Jonah Hill) is Hiccup's boorish foe, Fishlegs (voice of "Superbad's" Christopher Mintz-Plasse) the class's dimwitted clown and Tuffnut (voice of T.J. Miller, "Cloverfield") and Ruffnut (voice of SNL's Kristen Wiig) a pair of pugnacious identical twins.

It's the dragons where the animators really shine, though. Toothless, so named because his retractable teeth fool Hiccup at first, doesn't look like your 'typical' dragon - he's black, elegant and graceful, but also capable of 'pet-like' behavior. Thankfully the filmmakers do not stray too far from the bestial qualities of their beasties though, always keeping an edge of untamed danger, except for maybe the Terrible Terrors, small dragons who become quite docile if hand fed. The two-headed Hideous Zippleback is a neat invention, a dragon whose one head provides the spark to its other head's gas while the Deadly Nadder is birdlike in appearance with a blind spot that can be exploited. The Gronckle is the most comical, a hippo-shaped cannonball of a dragon with small wings out of proportion to its bulk.

The landscape is harsh, rocky coastline carpeted with lush, sheep grazing grass with misty forests farther inland and some of this is so beautifully rendered it looks real (the directors engaged the great cinematographer Roger Deakins), as does the sea seen from the perspective of Stoick's Viking vessels. John Powell's ("Green Zone") score, with its Celtic flourishes, seems born of this majestic place.

"How to Train Your Dragon" looks great on IMAX 3D, but it is not essential to the enjoyment of the experience. This one deserves to be a huge hit.

Robin's Review: A-

Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is a big disappointment to his Viking chieftain dad, Stoick (Gerard Butler). Ina world of dragon-slayers, the slight, weak Hiccup does not have the right stuff to be able to kill the marauding, flying, fire-breathing reptiles, at least in his father’s eyes. He sets out to prove his worthiness and take down a dragon of his own but this leads to an adventure and the chance to change the Viking world in “How to Train Your Dragon.”

The latest in the 3D anime craze, HTTYD is a rousing adventure about a boy and his dog, uh, dragon, and their quest to unite their respective races. Hiccup may be small and skinny but he is smart beyond his years, has a heart as big as all outdoors and is very inventive. He works for the village smithy, Gobber (Craig Ferguson), helping forge the weapons to kill the dragons when they come to loot the warriors’ homeland. Every time, the Vikings hold their own against the invaders but are tired of always being on the defensive. Stoick decides to take his men and their boats and hunt for the dragons’ lair.

Meanwhile, Gobber is also the teacher of future dragon slayers and he convinced Stoick to allow Hiccup to join his latest class. His classmates are a fervent group of fire-breathing reptile haters led by tough and smart Astrid (America Ferrera). Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and the twins, Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), are as dedicated, but not as smart, as Astrid and they work hard at their chosen craft. Hiccup is the odd man out in this group, plus he has to deal with his earlier misdeed – shooting down the mythical Night Fury, a dragon that no one has ever seen.

This is the meat of HTTYD as Hiccup, having injured the fire-breather he names Toothless, strives to correct his error. In the process, he comes to understand why the dragons attack his village and, with the help of Astrid and the other dragon-slayers-in-training, Hiccup has to change his father’s and his clan’s old ways of thinking. It is a tall order for a little guy but he and his courageous team are up for the task.

The vocal talents involved are all spot on. I have heard complains of using American and Scottish accents as Viking voices but this is nitpicking. I even enjoyed Craig Ferguson’s voicing of Gobber and I cannot stand Craig Ferguson. There are “names” in the cast, such as Gerard Butler and America Ferrera, but all the voices blend well together and it is the characters, not who voice them, that are important to the film.

HTTYD is the kind of rip roarin’ animated 3D adventure that that does not need the latest craze in cinema to be appreciated and enjoyed by all ages. The first rate story by Cressida Cowell is solidly scripted by directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders and writers Adam F. Goldberg and Peter Tolan. The helmers exhibit a deft hand in storytelling and the animation is excellent in its superb use of CGI.

The film is being released in both 3D and 2D but HTTYD does not have to be seen in the high tech theater-going experience. It is the story and characters that is the draw to me, not the 3D. If this is the harbinger of things to come this year in the animation world then we are in for one hell of a good time at the movies.