Back in the lazy, balmy summer days of 1999, Warner Bros. unceremoniously dumped an unassuming little Cold War-era animated tale into theatres to glowing notices and zero audience interest. The picture, called Iron Giant, was a heartstring-tugging take on the “Friendly Visitor from Another World” genre, which beautifully depicted the touching friendship between a colossal, scrap-metal-munching robot and a lonely young schoolboy. The film ultimately found its legs on video, where it has since transformed many-a-viewer - including my unabashedly sentimental self - into a pathetic blubbering mess of tears and stifled sobs. A decade later, it’s gifted director, Brad Bird, has seen his career sky-rocket into the stratosphere on the strength of his classic Pixar efforts Ratatouille and The Incredibles, while Giant itself has become regarded as one of the more important family entertainments of its time.
The reason I bring up Iron Giant is because it’s honest, magical spirit can be strongly felt throughout Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon, an enchanting, and very welcome, departure from the studio’s usual brand of disposable pop-culture-riddled cartoon star-vehicles (Shark Tale, Anyone? How about Over the Hedge? Wait, come back!). Weaving a timeless yarn, not light-years removed from the enduring Warner Bros. favourite, the charming Dragon hangs itself squarely on the scrawny shoulders of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a nerdy teenage Viking living on the winged-reptile-plagued island of Berk, who dreams of one day becoming a courageous dragon-slayer in line with his proud father Stoick (Gerard Butler, more charismatic here than in his recent live-action ventures).
One disorderly starlit evening, during a chaotic dragon attack, Hiccup, using one of his unwieldy hunting contraptions, clumsily shoots an elusive Night Fury (A powerful breed famed for having never been gazed upon by a mere mortal) out of the sky. Eager to score his first kill, the wannabe warrior takes to the forest in search of his fallen quarry, anticipating a confrontation with a ferocious, spiteful foe. Instead, he finds a trapped and crippled animal, barely conscious, staring out at him through wide, wounded feline-like orbs. Unable to finish off the frightened creature – whom he dubs Toothless – Hiccup instead releases it from bondage, thus beginning a rousing bond built upon mutual trust, affection and the odd shared bite of slimy raw fish. However, the strain of carrying on this secret rapport begins to wear on the awkward hero when he is enrolled in dragon-fighting school and his father sets out to locate, and destroy, the beasts’ undiscovered subterranean nest. Torn between his allegiance to upholding the ancient traditions of his people, and ending their violent prejudice against Toothless’ species, Hiccup embarks on an epic adventure that could change Viking – and dragon - life forever.
As overseen by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, who previously helmed Disney’s energetic Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon is a frequently breathtaking feast for the eyeballs. There are a number of sweeping, gorgeous flight sequences (which occasionally recall Aladdin’s iconic magic-carpet ride), wherein Toothless and Hiccup glide above his tiny rocky homeland and sail out over the expansive surrounding seas, sometimes ascending above the soft overhanging clouds, which will send waves of incredulous chills up your spine and leave you grinning ear-to-ear. Using 3D to its fullest capabilities, the filmmakers have created a wholly immersive movie-going experience that, for my money, is more moving, grand and awe-inspiring than anything in Avatar.
The picture’s smashing success in that particular arena can largely be attributed to its directors’ refusal to allow their character to be swallowed by the behemoth spectacle around them. Great attention has been paid towards ensuring that the relationship beats are as potent as the dramatic action set-pieces. We genuinely care about Hiccup and Stoick’s discouraging inability to connect with one-another just as much as we’re enraptured by the sweetly playful dynamic between our protagonist and Toothless. The sincere warmth of their camaraderie – which will enthral devoted pet owners everywhere – never crosses into cloying or manipulative terrain, and culminates in a pair of crucial closing moments that pack some serious emotional firepower. Even the side players, like one-armed, one-legged weapons master Gobber (Craig Ferguson – a canny casting choice) and plucky love-interest Astrid (America Ferrera), register as appealing, fully-developed individuals whose critical decisions feel guided by their own nature, not the demands of the screenplay.
When it comes right down to it, How to Train Your Dragon is the epitome of what a winning family film should be; it’s a simple, endearing story, told well and with gusto, populated by compelling characters and exhilarating sights, capable of stirring a sense of pure delight and wonder in movie-goers of all ages. It’s becoming increasingly all-too-rare nowadays to be transported and uplifted by the joy of viewing the unhindered human imagination painted across a cinematic canvas. This film accomplishes that feat, for this Dragon appreciates what it really means to soar.
4 out of 5
*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: April 5th, 2010.