This is a bit late, I know, but seeings as it's managed to consistently earn a top-three spot and the box office each week despite being out for a month, I figured a tardy review would still be valid.
Loosely based on the children books by British author Cressida Cowell, How to Train Your Dragon tells the story of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a hapless viking who just wasn't cut out for practicing his clan's time-honoured tradition of slaying dragons. It sure makes it tough for him to fit in with his peers and impress his father (a standout performance from Gerard Butler), who happens to be clan leader. Even when Hiccup miraculously manages to ground a Nightfurry, one of the most elusive and feared breeds of dragon that plague his coastal village, he can't bring himself to do the poor creature in. Instead, he gradually starts to reach an understanding with the beast, discovering that dragons don't necessarily need to be considered a threat. Of course, convincing his community of that fact may not be so easy.
Not since the first Shrek movie has Dreamworks attempted to make a film that's more about heart than it is about snark and pop culture references (a la Kung-Fu Panda, Madagascar, and the subsequent Shrek films). I say “attempted”, because How to Train Your Dragon is only half successful at this. When it insists upon dialogue it is often unbecoming, and the narrative conforms all too closely to the standard tropes of B family entertainment; misplaced gags to break up any slower scenes, an awkward romantic interest, a band of abnoxious youngsters coming to the rescue of their clueless parents, the dead character fake-out... it's all there.
But what How to Train Your Dragon does get right, it really gets right. Directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, whose similarly themed Lilo & Stitch charmed audiences in 2002, see to it that the evolving relationship between Hiccup and his new pet (which he names Toothless) is done with tact, subtlety, and body language, which really is the most effective application of the animated medium. What truly sells the bond of this unlikely pair is the mutuality of it all, best expressed in the dazzling flying sequences; having lost half his tail necessary for flight, Toothless relies on Hiccup's homemade prosthetic and manual steering to take to the sky, and by virtue of not having wings, Hiccup relies on Toothless for the same thing. The partnership only works if both of them cooperate together, and it makes their friendship more believable and moving.
Technically, the film excels. The aforementioned aerial sequences are a hair-raising sight to behold in 3D. The character designers clearly had a ball cooking up several crazy dragon species. Heightening the effect of the visual panache is the sound, superbly designed and mixed by Randy Thom, who always brings his A-game to animated films.
If the year is a weak one for animation in general, this could sneak in for an Oscar nomination. True, the March release hurts, but How to Train Your Dragon has a charm and freshness that Shrek Forever After, Dreamworks' summer release, does not. Not to mention a slow-burn sleeper stamina that has allowed it to linger near the top of the box office for almost a whole month after its release. But competition from other studios could be stiff, and the film could be forgotten by year's end. We shall see.
*** out of ****