While not as economically potent as last year’s Monsters vs. Aliens Dreamworks newest venture, How to Train Your Dragon, mops the floor with that film by beautifully telling the story of Hiccup, an undersized and overly pressured young Viking who lives in a small coastal town that suffers from never-ending dragon attacks. Even though Hiccup is built like the man who provides his voice (Jay Baruchel), his father (think Hulk Hogan only with a long red beard instead of an ugly yellow mustache) insists that he do his family proud and become a world famous dragon slayer. In his effort to do just that he ends up grounding one of the elusive, ultra dangerous Night Fury breed, but when he goes to claim his scalp he learns that he’s built to be a lover not a fighter and that his village sure could use a little dragging out of the violent dark ages.

The script reigns supreme here as it successfully caters to the kids, while also playing to their parents in a way that avoids the suddenly out of fashion pop-culture references. But one of many sad realities of today’s movie going audience is that they pay money to see the newest technology not to be told a spellbinding tale. The animation is good in a technically sound kind of way but there is nothing cutting edge about it, and has that corny Dreamworks feel about it. The Viking women, for instance, all look like bleached versions of Princess Fiona (aka: Shrek’s baby mama). There is also a gloomy, unwashed feel about it which should have worked better than it did considering where and when the movie was taking place. What is impressive, though, are the flying sequences in which Hiccup takes his new friend Toothless out for a spin around the neighborhood. Even without the 3D glasses the wizards who created the scenes managed to show up the loopy, self-important ones found in Avatar.

Everything plays out fairly predictably, pushing your buttons in the right order at all the appropriate intervals, but it all feels so good you hardly mind the manipulation. The most famous Scottish accents working today stop by to lend a hand. Craig Furguson, the hottest thing on late night right now, makes decent use of his voice as Gobber, even though the role is humorless and sort of a waste. Gerard Butler, also doing quite well these days though nobody really understands why, is also here as Hiccup’s father and the mere sight of the body that the animators have dreamed up to match his voice is worth a chuckle or two. Hiccup rises to the top of the slaying world though not through Neolithic might makes right thinking but rather with some unorthodoxed dragon whisperer tactics. This works out fine and dandy until it is revealed that he is harboring Toothless (the enemy) and the whole village, led by his backwards war mongering father, goes ape. Nothing new is said, but it wins points for having its heart in the right place and for placing a premium on loyalty and diplomacy.

While commenting on the untimely death of At the Movies Roger Ebert bemoaned the diminished role of the film critic and blamed it on theatrical distribution that is “now dominated by the big budget, heavily marketed 3D movie of the week.” Surely this film fits the bill and it does suffer from an acute case of risk aversion, so it is difficult to watch it without a tinge of guilt. But it is far more entertaining than your average studio monstrosity and is something that every right minded critic will praise despite the size of its budget. How to Train Your Dragon is an emotional ride that aggressively seeks out originality and then backs it up with dazzling animation that is sure to be a crowd pleaser. It may not be as advanced as Where the Wild Things Are, but since not all movies can be directed by Spike Jonze we’ll have to settle for this fresh little fairly tale that is special in a way all its own.

Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Furguson, America Ferrera
Director: Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Rated: PG
Runtime: 98 minutes
 

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