I don’t tend to bother with new year resolutions but I’ve kind of made one for 2011 – to go to the cinema more often. I bought this film on DVD with Christmas vouchers having spent months hearing about how awesome it is and no sooner have I watched it than I find myself really regretting not seeing it on the big screen in dazzling 3D because it’s great.
How to Train Your Dragon, based on a series of books by Cressida Cowell tells the story of Hiccup a weedy teenage Viking whose island village is frequently beset by vicious dragons. After downing an especially fearsome Night Fury with a catapult of his own design, Hiccup tries to track it down to prove his achievement but when faced with the task of dispatching the fearsome beast finds himself unable to go through with it and frees it instead. With his training to battle the fire-breathing menaces getting under way he secretly befriends the grounded creature whom he names Toothless and the two slowly bond.
DreamWorks Animation have really hit the spot this time. They’ve always worked in Pixar’s shadow pumping out film after film about comedy talking animals (Madagascar, Over the Hedge, Shark Tale, Kung Fu Panda, Bee Movie) and never even approaching the level of originality or heart the makers of Toy Story find with every project. The only real exception to this rule was Shrek, a shining beacon of quality in the studio’s back catalogue but now Shrek finally has a companion that can just about stand shoulder to shoulder with it. How to Train Your Dragon recalls every great film that sees a put-upon youngsters become best friends with a non-human (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, The Iron Giant), focusing its story on a convincing, hugely charming central relationship. Hiccup’s befriending of Toothless is among the most touching work they’ve ever created, the scenes in which the two tentatively become acquainted are the undoubted highlight, not least because both are vulnerable and in need and terrified of each other. Some images the film throws up are nigh-on iconic, Toothless spots Hiccup watching him from a high ledge and crouching in a cat-like way eyes him silently, his eyes suspicious and cautious, Hiccup later reaches out to touch the dragon’s snout, scrunching up his eyes and turning his head away. It’s the kind of relationship we’ve seen before but DreamWorks have injected it with real soul.
For all its good relationship-weaving the film could have been undone by a number of other factors that have marred other DreamWorks animations but thankfully this hasn’t happened. The jokes fit the setting, are free of anachronisms and the kind of annoying hipness aimed at American youngsters and compliment the story. The voice cast is not overstuffed with big names doing absolutely nothing, Gerard Butler is the only superstar and he lends appropriate toughness to Stoick, Hiccup’s father while finding ample comedy in the role. The art direction too isn’t overly stylised. It’s a world that’s easy to settle into and believe in. The visual quality is top notch with highly detailed environments making the flying sequences and action dazzling and the soundtrack is stirring.
But the main reason why it’s so easy to lose yourself in How to Train Your Dragon is Jay Baruchel, the voice of Hiccup whose confident performance and quirkily sarcastic voice brilliantly create an immediately likeable character. Neither whiny or annoying he makes Hiccup extremely easy to root for. He’s supported by a very likeable bunch of performances, the aforementioned Butler’s manly voice juxtaposing with his nicely, Craig Ferguson is delightfully chirpy as Gobber and America Ferrera gives moody teen Astrid the right kind of feminine toughness.
Evidently DreamWorks get their best results when adapting material rather than inventing their own or perhaps it’s the period setting that works for them but whatever the magic ingredient How to Train Your Dragon is their best film since Shrek. It doesn’t quite have enough variety in its story to really achieve the status of an endless rewatchable classic but this is the first time in years that they’ve been able to rival Pixar.
With dazzling visuals a great set of characters, thrills, laughs and some genuinely touching moments How to Train Your Dragon is a superlative family film that all ages can enjoy. With two sequals in the pipeline this may be the start of a golden age for DreamWorks. More please.