We’ve come to expect certain themes in our animated features, and “How to Train Your Dragon” has most of them: single-parent family, kid who’s weird or different, cute animal for a sidekick, message of individualism and follow your dreams and just be yourself, yada yada. But a heady, richly entertaining adventure has been created from within those familiar confines, with the kind of substance you rarely see in movies at all, let alone animated ones. It’s a flick full of adrenaline, and it rushes straight for the heart.
Based on a series of children’s books by Cressida Cowell, “How to Train Your Dragon” features the dweeby, Canadian voice of Jay Baruchel as Hiccup, a young Viking whose village is continually pestered by dragons. Every citizen’s primary concern is learning how to kill the beasts, which regularly raid the place for food. Why don’t the people move someplace where there aren’t dragons? “We’re Vikings,” Hiccup explains. “We have stubbornness issues.”
Hiccup is a disappointment to his father, the mighty Stoick (Gerard Butler), because he lacks the brawn and temperament necessary to hunt dragons. While dad is off on an expedition to find the dragons’ nest — which Vikings have sought for centuries and never found — Hiccup takes training courses from an eager old veteran named Gobber (Craig Ferguson). His classmates are a handful of other kids his age, who tease him for his weakness while bragging about their own dragon-killing prowess. (That prowess is all hypothetical at this point — only the adults have any real experience.)
But in a meadow outside the village, Hiccup comes across a smallish dragon, black and sleek and unable to fly because of a tail injury. Given the opportunity to kill the beast — his first! How proud his father will be! — Hiccup finds he cannot do it. The poor thing is as scared as he is. A bond develops. Hiccup and the dragon, dubbed Toothless, become friends.
What sounds like a sappy, Disneyfied boy-and-his-dragon story turns out to be much, much more than that, though I acknowledge a certain amount of well-executed sap, too. For what Hiccup discovers is that most of the Vikings’ information on dragons is wrong. Until now, no one has ever spent enough time with one to learn anything other than how to kill it. Perhaps there is a way for Vikings and dragons to co-exist peacefully? Perhaps this has all just been a big misunderstanding?
Oh, it’s warm and fuzzy all right, but it sure is exciting first, almost epic. Where most DreamWorks animated offerings have been glib and ironic, “Dragon” isn’t afraid to be serious when it needs to be. The stakes feel perilously high, the conflicts — between Hiccup and Stoick, between the Vikings and the dragons — human and relatable. The movie feels not like a mindless confection (not that there’s anything wrong with those) but like a meaningful, emotionally honest story. The story just happens to be about a goofy kid and his dragon, that’s all.
The film was written and directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders — the duo behind “Lilo & Stitch,” which is probably why Toothless looks so much like that destructive little rascal. There are plenty of laughs with Hiccup’s fellow dragon-slayers-in-training (voiced by the likes of Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, T.J. Miller, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and some witty mockery of the kill-’em-all-let-Thor-sort-’em-out mentality that has thus far pervaded Viking culture. (When handed a book about dragons, one of the kids says, “Why read words when you can just kill the stuff the words are telling you stuff about?”) Hiccup’s rivalry-turned-friendship with a tough girl named Astrid (America Ferrera) is also well handled.
The raw materials are here for an amusing but inconsequential lark, which is exactly what most animated films are. But DeBlois and Sanders take it further, treating the story with gravity, like an honest-to-goodness piece of literature, something with warmth and heart as well as humor and thrills. As a result, “Dragon” feels timeless, artful, and noteworthy. Entertaining? Absolutely — but so are a lot of things that you forget all about a week later. This one will stick. This one’s special.
A- (1 hr., 38 min.; )