It is not enough to say that How to Train Your Dragon is the finest picture to roll out of Dreamworks Animation's studio, particularly given their nearly decade-long bath in the slop trough with a series of increasingly banal sequels and failed attempts at launching new franchises (who could forget Shark Tale, other than the people who saw it?). But the studio finally followed through on the initial promise of their early features -- Antz, the underrated Prince of Egypt, the first Shrek -- with 2008's Kung Fu Panda, and now they've put out a film that easily ranks among the finest achievements in contemporary animation, as well as one of the few delights of this young year.
One of those "the title says it all" flicks, How to Train Your Dragon is a high-concept family comedy executed nearly without flaws. It presents the small Viking village of Berk, situated on a craggy rock that barely yields enough tasteless crops to feed the populace and their sheep. Complicating matters is the routine invasion by dragons, who scorch the spare fields and seize livestock for their own gullets. Every Viking in the hamlet is raised to hate and kill dragons, and everyone excels at it.
Everyone, that is, except Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), son of the clan chief, Stoick (Gerard Butler). In a demimonde filled with bulky warriors, Hiccup is a scrawny geek, eager to please his peers and especially his father but unable to join in the fighting. So, he builds contraptions to compensate for his utter lack of muscle mass, and during one raid he uses one of his weapons to shoot down a Night Fury, an incredibly agile type of dragon so deadly that no one has ever managed to kill one. When he tracks down the wounded beast, however, he cannot bring himself to slay the poor thing, even though it would catapult him into fame.
Dreamworks, as the other major 3D animation studio of the last decade or so, always finds itself in competition with Pixar, which is like forcing the Police Academy films to compete with Dr. Strangelove. Where Dreamworks has a leg up, though, is in the company's more lenient attitude toward realism. Pixar movies occasionally hit a snag when the precise construction of their worlds come into conflict with the exaggerated character models, but Dreamworks is so inherently goofy that it gives itself a broader range. With Dragon, the studio finally takes advantage of this. The Night Fury, Toothless, looks strikingly different from the other types of dragons seen throughout the film, including a bulldog-like reptile and a two-headed beast, one of which emits inflammable gas that the other sparks. The equally outlandish Viking models, from Stoick's friend and Hiccup's watcher Gobber (a very game Craig Ferguson) to the sexy young brute Astrid (America Ferrara), who appears to have the same physique as Hiccup but can hurl axes and swing swords with the adults, stress the animators' attempt to detach us from the (often ridiculous) need for reality in the most surreal form of the most surreal medium of art.
They succeed wildly. Dragon's opening sequence is one of the most dynamic action pieces to grace a modern animated picture, so visceral that directors Chris Sanders and Dennis DeBois structure one shot in such a way that it appears as if a handheld camera was documenting the action. They also give enchantingly anthropomorphic traits to Toothless without losing his sleek, beautiful form (memorably, the animator turn his reptilian slits into heart-melting doe eyes). With this film, Dreamworks breaks wholly from the lame pop culture references and limp sight gags that propelled their limp, deflated mid-Aughts works: the humor comes from the situations and the characters, and these people feel so real that at some point you stop wondering why the Vikings speak with a smattering of Scottish and American accents led by a young'un with a nasally Canadian whine. Tedious as celebrity stunt casting is, these actors become these cartoons because they're allowed to speak lines that give themselves, and each other, depth and identity.
Most importantly, How to Train Your Dragon captures that feeling of uninhibited flight better than any other film that comes to mind. The montage of Hiccup and Toothless coming to trust each other and learning to fly together is nothing particularly original in construction, but in execution it becomes as spellbinding as the flying scenes in Avatar and magical as anything in Pixar's canon. By damaging Toothless' tail fin and rendering him incapable of flight on his own, the writers create a symbiosis between the dragon and Hiccup, who designs a replacement flap that he controls, thus giving their bond an extra dimension and their aerial acrobatics a mutually invigorating experience that is magnified on the audience. Whether gently soaring among the clouds or banking and careening in rapidly edited chases, the flight scenes are gripping, transporting and undeniable proof in the power of animation to transfix crowds of all ages -- I heard nary a peep from the engaged children in my theater, and the most enthusiastic response I heard leaving the auditorium came from an elderly couple behind me.
As with all the other movies currently slapped with a 3-D filter, one can easily enjoy the majesty of How to Train Your Dragon in two boring old dimensions. Yet I was struck that the most memorable and lasting image to take advantage of the 3-D, compared to its usual role in adding a cheap, hollow thrill to action scenes, involved Hiccup holding out his hand for the first time to pet Toothless. The directors used the gimmick to call attention to the emotional and thematic crux of the film: by showing how pre-conceived notions vastly differ from the truth and how they often lead to trumped-up fear and disgusting violence, How to Train Your Dragon suggests that the next generation might just be a little less violent and a little more willing to learn about someone or something before acting. What a fantastic message (and a fairly understated one, for a children's film), particularly in a time of increasingly extreme rhetoric being casually used in America based on fear and ignorance. Furthermore, Sanders and DeBois weave this theme into much of the film's other dynamics, preventing the contentious father-son relationship between Stoick and Hiccup from becoming too staid and adding a layer to the budding romance angle between Hiccup and Astrid. Funny, touching, insightful and as thrilling as the best of animated features, How to Train Your Dragon bypasses the hackneyed soundbite of "Fun for the whole family!" by reminding us that any animated film worth its salt should always fit that bill.