From the producers of Shrek and Kung Fu Panda comes the best adventure yet. “How to Train your Dragon,” based on the book by Cressida Cowell, takes a unique story and makes a unique movie. Unlike other animated films such as Shrek, which are filled with inoffensive humor that nevertheless only adults will understand, “How to Train your Dragon” is much more direct, sincere, and far less subtle. While the usual lessons about teamwork, never giving up on your dreams, and the value of seeing things through new eyes are present, they aren’t what make this film one of the best animated films of this generation. In essence, when it comes to training your dragon, what you see is what you get. And what you get is a delightfully simple, straightforward, and heartwarming childrens movie.
The basic premise revolves around a young Viking named Hiccup who lives on an island in the North Atlantic. “We have fishing, hunting, and a charming view of the sunsets,” he says. “The only problems are the pests.” Dragons of varying shapes and sizes raid the island, steal the sheep and torch the houses. Though the Vikings have lived there for 300 years, all of the houses are new. And though every male Viking lives to kill dragons, poor Hiccup can barely lift a hammer in the blacksmith shop. To make matters worse, Hiccup’s father is the leader of the village, a man who can kill dragons with his bare hands.
Hiccup longs to prove himself, so he uses his un-Vikinglike intellect to create new ways of fighting dragons. No one is more astonished than Hiccup when he actually takes down a Night Fury, the most elusive of all dragons. However, no one is more surprised than Hiccup when he discovers that everything they know about dragons is wrong. When the smoke fades, the fire breathing, sheep-snatching dragons are actually rather cute in their scaliness. They enjoy being scratched behind the ears and are afraid of dead eels.
What follows is a charming adventure, not only in animation, but in story and plot development.
Adding to the realism of the movie is the comically awkward relationship between the Viking father and his adolescent son who is nothing like him, the rather brutish courtship between Hiccup and Astrid, the girl he has a crush on who is devoted to fighting dragons, and the conclusion in which Hiccup faces the hard consequences of having lived up to his Viking heritage, engaged in battle, and emerged victorious at the cost of dismemberment. While the relationship aspect of the movie is more concrete and realistic than, say, the friendship between Shrek and Donkey, the outcome of the final battle actually carries more weight than the happily glowing almost-epilogue at the end of the film. And that realism is perhaps the most heartening aspect of the movie. “How to Train Your Dragon” isn’t critiquing society by creating a fairy kingdom with Starbucks on every corner, it’s not promoting a neo-hippie agenda on an alien planet, its not suggesting that we are burying ourselves in useless piles of junk. Instead, “How to Train your Dragon” is a good movie, as real as a completely fictional premise can get, and its rather innovative and charming in the process.
While some (older children) might say that the film is meant for children ages 6-10, other reviewers have noted that scenes of animated violence and battles between Vikings and dragons may scare young children. The three year old sitting behind me seemed relatively unperturbed by the events on screen and spent most of the film trying to crawl into my row and say “hi” to me. However, for adults, the movie is just as appealing, cute, and heartwarming.
“How to Train Your Dragon” has already been called “the best animated film of 2010” among a host of other lavish praises. Do yourself a favor and see this movie, enjoy the animation (though spending the extra money for 3D isn’t as necessary as in films like Avatar), enjoy the dialogue, and most of all, enjoy the cute dragon who steals the scene without ever saying a word. It’s the best $8 or $10 you’ll spend all year.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.