Rating: 3 and a half stars (out of 4)
There are times when I forget why I love movies so much. Reading movies closely can be a chore. An enjoyable chore that I have a passion for, but a chore nonetheless.
And then there are times when I walk out of a theater with a grin across my face as wide as the silver screen. A movie can be far from perfect, yet be so overflowing with the unquantifiable — things like adventure and joy and energy — that I remember why it is I love this medium in the first place. How To Train Your Dragon, my favorite non-Pixar animated film since at least 2001’s Shrek, is one such movie. It has enough flaws and formulaic elements for me to (begrudgingly) knock off a half star. But know that this movie has my unconditional recommendation, not because it’s perfect, but because it’s something better than perfect: It’s magical.
Dragon is at its strongest when it’s not rushing the plot ahead and when it’s focusing on the bond between main character Hiccup and his dragon, Toothless. These scenes unfolds like the greatest human-pet stories: Hiccup and Toothless come to understand each other more and more, until they — and the audience — realize the relationship is less between beast and master, and more between two equals. There’s also a great comic timing to Toothless — who channels a dog, a cat, a bird, and a chipmunk all at once — that seems inspired in part by the vibrant visual comedy of WALL-E.
Visually, the most inspired moments — and the ones that really mandate this movie be seen on the biggest screen possible in 3D — are the flying sequences. They give a true sensation of flying through the air, almost like you’re on a roller coaster. There’s a stunning depth and and smoothness that really transmits a wide-open world. The clouds, mountains, oceans, vistas, beaches: they’re all lifelike and beautiful. I’m getting chills right now just thinking of the romantic flight that separates the second and third act of the film.
There’s also a surprisingly good script at the heart of Dragon. It makes extensive (and effective) use of recurring conversation structures throughout the film. “That’s for everything else” — a “Here’s looking at you, kid”-type line — works in particularly cute and funny ways.
Jay Baruchel’s Hiccup would’ve come across as annoying or unlikeable with any other voice actor. (Thank God they didn’t go for biggest-name-possible casting with the main characters the way DreamWorks has a tendency to.) With Baruchel, though, the voice matches the personality in the same way Ellen Page matched Juno; it just works and wouldn’t with anybody else.
The dramatization in the script is pretty well-realized, particularly between Hiccup and his father Stoick. It’s not anything too complex, but it’s effective. Stoick is stern but exudes strength and caring, courtesy voice actor Gerard Butler. I thought Baruchel and Astrid’s America Farrera also had pretty good chemistry, even though I think Farrera wasn’t the best pick for the romantic role; someone spunkier would’ve fit the character more.
The special sauce of the whole experience is the movie’s phenomenal score. I’ve had the soundtrack on loop for most of the week. It’s not quite into classic Williams or Zimmer territory, but its darn close. There are two or three recurring themes that are just sensational. To me, the score is a major part of the feeling of adventure and magic that this film has. If it had gone with snarky pop tunes a la the Shreks, I think the film wouldn’t have been so entrancing or felt so instantly classic.
The movie does have its flaws. First is the pacing of the film. The end of the second act and the beginning of the third act rush furiously. There’s two hours of story here packed into ninety minutes in order to fit into the “kids movie” mold when a Pixar-esque expansion for the sake of storytelling would’ve behooved the movie.
In particular, Astrid’s transformation is rushed. It’s a shame, because an added level of poignancy would’ve elevated this film up with the all-time great animated adventures: Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pinocchio, etc. I also think the tension in the father-son conflict should’ve been a little bit more balanced by making it even easier to empathize with Stoick and the community with elaboration on why the Vikings hate dragons.
Next, I’m not sure I like where the film settles thematically. It’s hard to tell since we only get a few seconds of seeing the town post-climax, but the solution seems to be that the dragons become pets whereas partners would’ve fit better. With this ending, it seems like the lesson is “that which you don’t understand, domesticate” when I think a deeper respect for the uncontrollable nature of the dragons would’ve worked. A lesson that emphasized our ability to symbiotically cooperate with nature would’ve been a little bit more effective. This simplistic, easily digestible solution works, but would’ve benefited another layer of quality and complexity (Pixar-style).
Furthermore, no consideration is given to whether destroying the queen-hive relationship might in fact put the dragons in a worse-off situation. It felt a little bit short-sighted in a movie whose overriding theme is about opening your horizons and tolerating “the other” for their home to be blindly destroyed and abandoned.
Two more minor complaints, then I’m done: Compared to the dynamic, crisp writing that pervades the rest of the film, the writing for the other teens — Jonah Hill and co. — is forgettable. Lastly, I think the character designs could’ve used a little bit more flair. Hiccup himself is extremely plain and even the most interesting designs, Stoick and Toothless, aren’t as iconic as other great computer-animated characters like Wall-E or Shrek.
I want to stress, though, that these complaints are peripheral to the entire experience. This movie is about making the formula exciting, which Dragon does extraordinarily well. It has that rare type of magic where I actively want to forgive the movie for the times it’s simplistic and imperfect. Truly, How to Train Your Dragon soars with the highest animated films of the past decade. It will take a darn good slate of movies for it not to receive a prominent placement in my end-of-year top ten.