DreamWorks could be said to be on a roll these days. While far from the powerhouse that is Pixar, a 3-for-3 streak isn’t too bad. While Pixar has scored an amazing 10-for-10 with no signs of slowing down as Toy Story 3 heads to theaters this summer, we get stuck with a fourth Shrek film merely months after such a great film pops out of their gates with this weekend’s How to Train Your Dragon.
For every Dragon, Monsters vs Aliens and Kung Fu Panda we also get the likes of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Shrek the Third and Shark Tale. Admittedly, there have been some great films from DreamWorks in between though or we wouldn’t have been so lucky to get Wallace & Gromit in the Case of the Were-Rabbit, Over the Hedge, Chicken Run, Flushed Away and even to a slightly lesser degree Bee Movie. Hopefully MegaMind can keep their streak alive this fall so we can forgive them if another trip to the Shrek well comes up drier than the third.
DreamWorks should consider themselves slightly lucky for bringing in co-directors Sanders and DeBlois (directors of one of Disney’s most underrated animated features, the hilarious Lilo & Stitch) after the original creative team was scrapped. Sanders and DeBlois along with their co-writers (Adam F. Goldberg and Peter Tolan) and animators, have seamlessly blended outstanding computer animation with a ton of heart and simulated a third dimension that seriously gives Avatar a run for its money.
The island of Berk has a pest control problem. If you thought everyday insects and rodents were bad, try living every day as a Viking fending off your poor sheep and fellow islanders against dragons. Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is not your typical Viking with his scrawny stature and nasally voice, but his father Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler) definitely makes up for whatever shortcomings the village may find in Hiccup.
After a spectacular opening fight sequence, Hiccup has managed to take down the most feared dragon they know, but of course, no one believes him. Hiccup secretly sets out into the forest to see if he really did capture a dragon and finds it injured and trapped in a valley. Hiccup quickly dubs this dragon Toothless and over the sharing of raw fish, the two become friends as only a pet owner can know.
Meanwhile, Stoick leads a group of fellow Vikings out onto the high seas to find the dragon’s nest to try to put an end to the island’s attacks and Gobber (voiced by Craig Ferguson) throws Hiccup into dragon fighting training camp against his will. After Hiccup fastens a homemade tail to Toothless and takes to the air for a few high flying adventures Hiccup learns a thing or two outside the ring about what makes these dragons tick. He uses his newfound knowledge to become a celebrity, surprising the entire village and especially Stoick.
After Hiccup accidentally stumbles upon the dragon nest and sees that even the dragons have their own mortal enemy (in the form of a flying version of 1998’s Godzilla) he realizes that the nest is literal and that the dragons are only worker bees of sorts delivering food to a much bigger threat stuck inside a cave. Now it’s up to Hiccup and his friends from training to either teach their fellow Vikings that the dragons are the least of their worries and that they are not as dangerous as they seem.
Directors Sanders and DeBlois thankfully give just as much personality to each of the dragons as they do the characters. While most of the traits are attributed to man’s best friend, there’s a reason. Dogs probably have more heart and personality than any other pet on the planet. Toothless may come across as a canine version of Lilo but it’s to great detriment.
The voice cast is having a blast with the script too. With America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller and Kristen Wiig, we get stellar vocal work. While most of these may have a Judd Apatow connection, they work extremely well in PG territory thanks to the wordplay of the writers.
However, everything really comes together thanks to how much heart has been pumped into the production. Even when it’s just Hiccup riding the back of Toothless through a patch of clouds you can tell from the animation that these characters, along with the rest of the villagers have camaraderie. That’s something that sometimes even the most live action films can’t distinguish.
There was one scene that seemed to be poking some fun at James Cameron’s opus and you’re just waiting for Hiccup to say, “I see you,” and while the moment never comes it shows that DreamWorks finally knows when to keep the easy joke on the backburner and keep their own material in the forefront.