On DVD: How to Train Your Dragon

Watching “How to Train Your Dragon” on DVD, I had my first (and what could well be my last) case of 3-D regret. Watching the young viking Hiccup soaring on the back of his new pal Toothless the dragon made me seriously wish I’d seen the film in theaters and yes, in 3D, a medium that I’ve stood soundly against with exception of “Avatar.” Its absence, however, is evident in DreamWorks’ breathtaking “Avatar”-similar story of dragons and vikings misunderstanding each other.

Much like “Avatar,” “Dragon” tells a classic story of rivals only between man and beast in this case, which hearkens to our mistreatment of animals, but that’s a lesson for another day. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is a sarcastic young viking who wants to be “cool” and demonstrate the strong and fearless viking traits, but he’s scrawny and as a result isn’t anything like his his dad, tribe leader Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler). When Hiccup captures the most elusive of al dragon breeds, he thinks his days as a loser viking are over, but when he finds his prey, he can’t bring himself to slay the beast and ends up befriending it instead.

“Dragon” highlights how the misunderstood protagonist tends to be the most effective in animated/family films. As a “black sheep,” we sympathize with the character and over the course of the film that grows to empathy, which strengthens when the character has a reversal of fortune. In this case, Hiccup’s friendship with his dragon-friend Toothless, leads him to learn things about dragons that can tame them and uses these techniques during dragon training to appear to have outsmarted the beasts. Then comes the accidental event that causes Stoick to more or less disown his son and after that, you’re fully invested in the story.

The humor in “Dragon” is much more minimal than say, “Kung Fu Panda” and certainly “Shrek,” but what it lacks in laughs it makes up for in truthful storytelling, terrific visuals and overall cuteness. Among writers/directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders’ best decisions ranks the one to make the dragons a lot like dogs in their expressions and behavior (when they’re not shooting flames at people). Toothless’ concept design gives him the versatility of scary and super friendly and ultimately we learn to like him quickly.

Conventions in storytelling only go so far, but when they’re adorned in great visuals and given a unique context such as the viking world (as historically awkward as that is if you know anything about vikings), they seem fresh and more importantly, serve as effective entertainment. Although the heart of the story will be gone for the upcoming sequel just on the basis of how the movie ends, this creative team will no doubt find a way to get the job done.

4/5 Stars

How to Train Your Dragon
Directed by Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders
Written by Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders and William Davies, Cressida Cowell (novel)
Starring: (voices) Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera, Craig Ferguson

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