HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON – two reviews, one by Steve Friedel, one by Gary Murray

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON – two reviews, one by Steve Friedel, one by Gary Murray

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Review by Steve Friedel

Fast, fiery, fun(ny), ferocious, and for-all-ages adventure about a teenager named Hiccup — voiced by Jay Baruchel, continuing his whole “nerdy guy” schtick (though more effective here) — who lives in a Viking island village, one that is under the occasional seige from fire-breathing dragons of all shapes and sizes. While his father Stoick (Gerard Butler, The Bounty Hunter) — who happens to be the village’s king — is a blustery, red-bearded hothead, not surprisingly his son isn’t exactly cut from the same mold. He’d rather be tinkering and gadgetry-inventing in the metal shop with his mentor Gobber (Craig Ferguson, best know for his “Late Late Show” hosting duties) than out chasing dragons with dear old Dad. But one fateful night, Hiccup’s able to bring down one of the most elusive creatures known to the Vikings… Night Fury. Later, upon an unconvincing rant to the adults that he was able to accomplish what no one else has (and with his own home-made net harpoon), he goes to slay the crash-landed beast, only to slowly realize his new acquaintance — what looks like the cross between an angus cow and a big black cat (if that were possible) — is just as scared of humans as humans are of dragons. Even better, the dragon — affectionately named Toothless (due to his retractable — is actually TRAINABLE, just like any domestic pet would be. Who knew? Well… definitely not anybody other than Hiccup (and you know that won’t bode well for either him or his newfound friend).

Around the same time, Stoick enrolls Hiccup in dragon-killing school (lead by Gobber), where he meets fellow future slayers know-it-all Snotlout (Jonah Hill, Funny People), nerdy Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Superbad), one-upper twins Tuffnut (T.J. Miller, Extract) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig, Whip It), and Hiccup’s instant-love interest Astrid (America Ferrera, Our Family Wedding). Abruptly introduced to an assortment of beasties, the teens make their way thru an arena filled with stonewalls, nets, weapons, and shields, not unlike a caged wrestling match or something outta Hogwarts. But, of course, Hiccup has a little inside information about the dragons; he disguises his taming abilities as slaying tactics, wows his peers, and becomes the village hero, much to the delight of his father (but to the chagrin of Astrid who suspects something’s up). Eventually, however, Hiccup’ll have to “pass” his final by doing what he’s being trained to do, so you can only imagine his unfortunate plight as his new best reptilian buddy could very well be the target. It’s either that or face the wrath of Stoick and the other village dwellers, and that’s not an attractive option.

I can’t often say (er… write) this, but DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon — under the superb direction of former Disney animators/writers Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (who, most notably, co-directed 2002’s Lilo & Stitch) — is a joy to watch from the very first moment to the very last. It’s one of the more original contemporary animated films — both in rendering and in storyline — I’ve seen in recent memory, it feels (and looks) fresh, the 3-D effect serves it extremely well (including boy-and-dragon flying scenes that could easily rival stuff from last year’s Avatar), the characters (both man and beast) express a high degree of emotional depth throughout (without ever taking itself too seriously or becoming to whimsical), and the soaring musical score (by Kung Fu Panda‘s John Powell) satisfactorily complements the on-screen action. Hiccup and his mates possess qualities — most of the time — that the kids in the audience will certainly relate to (and I’ll bet the Viking look may be a hot item come Halloween), and their parents will appreciate the tongue-in-cheeky humor and incredible artwork that’s just as good (and possibly better) than anything Disney animators are doing today. And while younger kids may have issues with the scary creatures and circumstances, older pups (7 and up) will most definitely love the thrill ride of flying monsters, axe- and sword-wielding Vikings, and empowered teenage angst. How To Train is a sumptuous feast of fantastic visuals and expert story-telling for young and old.

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Review by Gary Murray

Animation has grown in leaps and bounds in the last two decades. What was once done painstakingly slow with paints and pencils is now whipped up with computers doing the heaviest lifting. But no matter how important the techniques of the drawn form have evolved, the basic tenet is true – you have to have a great story to make it work. Dreamworks Animation has always struggled against Pixar studios because Pixar always delivers a better story. While Shrek and the sequel were rip-roaring hoots of mirth-filled folly, Up and Wall-E delivered stronger and more touching tales. Dreamworks leaps on a different level with How to Train Your Dragon, arguably the best film they have ever produced.

This is the story of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a young man who wants to prove himself to his Viking Village. He works in a weapons shop, creating swords and shields for the older and rougher people in the village. The little island community is all warrior class with Hiccup’s dad Stoick (Gerald Butler) leading the people. Dad sees little hope in his weakling son.

The homeland is constantly attacked by a menagerie of dragons, destroying buildings and taking sheep. Hiccup wants to take on these beasts with his new, fancy weapons while the warriors believe that battleaxes and shields are still the best way to fight. On the night of an attack, Hiccup lets go of a pulley trapping system that he believes has captured a nightmare, the worst of the dragon species. It is a beast so feared that no one has ever seen one, much less slayed one.

Hiccup goes exploring the grasslands and finds that his system has captured one of those feared dragons. He attempts to kill the beast but soon discovers he is not a killer. Instead he frees the beast. The dragon also doesn’t attempt to kill Hiccup. As Hiccup watches the beast, he notices that it cannot fly. So Hiccup devises a system to let the flying menace get back into the skies. Soon man and dragon are flying together above the land and sea.

On the other side of the plot, Dad wants to know the location of the dragon nest. He is determined to destroy all the evil that rains down from the clouds. As a last crazed effort to find the lair, the strongest go out into the dark foggy part of the ocean. Stoick also relents from his best judgements and lets Hiccup begin warrior training.

Now that Hiccup has his own dragon, he is able to learn all the secrets of the beasts and begins to excel in subduing and taming them. All the people left in the village instantly turn Hiccup into a celebrity. Only fellow student Astrid (America Ferrera) feels that something is the matter with both Hiccup and his instant knowledge of the enemy.

The magical film is filled with such an amazing array of beasts, all with different personalities and a unique demeanor. The flying scenes rival Avatar in scope and drama, besting the most successful film in the world. While the dragons do look like Terry Gilliam rejects from his Monty Python days, the beasts still are a wonder to behold. Each is just a joy to watch.

I loved the colors of Dragon, with deep green grasses and stunningly pure skies. The Dreamworks animation team should be the proudest folks in Hollywood, creating such a depth to their computer crafts. Just the moving oceans are a tantamount testimony to the skills and artistry that these films have become. One is amazed that a gaggle of 0’s and 1’s can make a moving story. Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders craft a magical world in How to Train Your Dragon that truly challenges every film that has been put on the screen in the last few years.

The entire film reminded me of Ratatouille in tone and temperament. Both have characters one can believe in and the bond between different creatures. That idea has always been a hallmark of animation, but it still works. Besides, the lead human character in both works look similar.

How to Train Your Dragon is my favorite film of 2010 (so far). I know we have a long way to go between now and the end of year Oscar push, but this little film should be nominated in the best Animated Film category. I simply loved it and want to see it again.

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Con and Sci-Fi Expo conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.