Dreamworks Animation is likely doomed to forever reside in the shadow of Pixar. From the beginning, Pixar has thrived on timeless storytelling, while Dreamworks opted for star-driven voice vehicles with a heavy dose of pop culture inspiration.
But Dreamworks shows that it has more than flash-in-the-pan immediacy with its best film to date, How to Train Your Dragon, a thrilling and heartwarming film that makes good use of the talents of Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, the team behind Disney’s delightful Lilo and Stitch. Here, they again tell a tale of an outsider who bonds with a seemingly dangerous (and similarly adorable) creature.
Jay Baruchel’s scrawny-sounding voice is a good fit for the character of Hiccup, a young Viking boy who doesn’t exactly live up to the physical ideal of his society, and especially that of his brawny father Stoick (Gerard Butler).
Their hillside village is constantly under threat of attack by dragons, and Hiccup is tired of waiting indoors for the storm to pass. As the film opens, he ventures out into the fray, creating havoc all the way, but in the process, shooting down a Night Fury, the rarest and most dangerous dragon.
Later, Hiccup goes to kill his capture, but when he finds the downed and injured dragon (which looks a cross between Stitch and a huge, cuddly cat), he doesn’t have the heart to kill it — and finds the dragon isn’t out to kill either.
Hiccup knows that his village needs a major paradigm shift to think of the dragons as anything other than enemies, but it’s difficult to convince anyone, especially when he’s in the midst of dragon-slaying training, led by the grizzled Gobber (Craig Ferguson). While the rest of his classmates (voiced by America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller and Kristen Wiig) take a more traditional approach to killing the beasts, Hiccup looks to hone his non-violent methods.
How to Train Your Dragon succeeds on the basis of fantastic character design (the varied dragon types each possess a distinct and humorous personality) and animation that is leaps and bounds above anything else Dreamworks has done — aerial flights that feature Hiccup riding his dragon mount are particularly well-rendered. The film is one of the few in this wave of 3-D to make decent use of the gimmick, but these scenes work equally well at home in good old-fashioned 2-D.
How to Train Your Dragon has all the makings of a perennial favorite, and it may just resonate several decades from now — something most Dreamworks Animation films can’t lay claim to.
The DVD doesn’t have much in the way of special features, although Sanders and Deblois do contribute a commentary track along with producer Bonnie Arnold. There are also short featurettes on the voice cast and the animation process. A section labeled “Keep Out!” is disappointingly, just a repository for lots of trailers. Should’ve listened.