Film Review: How to Train Your Dragon

Beautifully animated CGI adventure for youngsters has dragons and Vikings and characters with names like Snotlout. A decent little coming-of-age tale with parts more excellent than the whole.

There's amusing incongruity in this tale of Viking villagers regularly raided by fire-breathing dragons. Vikings, like pirates, have been romanticized and made cuddly, but the ones who went to sea and didn't stay home to mind the farm were bloodthirsty thugs who make biker gangs look like Mary Poppins. They didn't merely steal from peaceful villagers—they murdered wantonly, raped and kidnapped women, and burned whole settlements to the ground, including abbeys and churches. Also, they didn't really wear horned helmets.

Nor for that matter, did they ride dragons. So, How to Train Your Dragon, based on the 2003 children's novel that launched a series by British author Cressida Cowell, is clearly ensconced in cartoon-Viking land, and as such creates a colorful little self-contained world that might not always make logical sense but should delight pre-teens with its admirable imagination.

The movie serves as a not-quite prequel to the book, in which dragons are already domesticated. On the stony Isle of Berk, the smallish young Viking Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), who's 11 in the novel, is desperate to be a big, bad dragonslayer like his dad, chieftain Stoick (Gerard Butler). Dad defends the village with fellow Vikings like the blacksmith Gobbler (Craig Ferguson) and the more athletically inclined kids, including Snotlout (Jonah Hill), twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (T.J. Miller), feisty warrior-girl Astrid (America Ferrera), and the big though not fearsome Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

Stoick loves his son, but is sorely disappointed in him, as is everyone else on the island. When one of Hiccup's inventions takes down a Night Fury, one of several disparate varieties of dragon, no one believes him. And when he finally finds the downed and injured dragon, Hiccup can't bring himself to kill the cat-like creature. But he gradually learns to ride the beast—he's a regular dragon whisperer—and create inventions to help him do so. Hiccup wants to domesticate the creatures, not kill them. That doesn't go over well with the raid-weary Vikings, setting up an exceptionally well-staged and inventive final battle between beast and man.

Aimed at a younger crowd than, say, The Lion King, the film is nonetheless a masterpiece of art direction and design, with some of the most beautiful landscapes ever animated and state-of-the-art rendering of things like strands of Hiccup's hair during flight. Details are dizzying, right down to the barnacles on the longboats. And one particularly harrowing flight that caps a training montage is breathtakingly graceful and kinetic. The 3D in the press preview’s screening room was disappointing, however, except in an occasional shot.

Despite some genuinely moving father-son moments toward the end, and a remarkable, perhaps historic, final twist, the whole isn't quite the sum of its parts. Baruchel's voice seems too adult and sardonic for his put-upon character, whose innovative mechanical genius comes a bit out of nowhere. The coming-of-age story is lovely but overly familiar, and by and large, the supporting-character kids are given characteristics but not personalities.

It's also disconcerting to hear Vikings with heavy Scottish accents; Scotsmen Butler and Ferguson couldn't do comic Scandinavian? (The kids all speak generic mall-rat.) The bagpipes and what sound like Northumbrian pipes on the suitably stirring soundtrack indicate this was a deliberate choice. But as Vikings raided and killed all over the British Isles, it's a curious choice.

Oh, and watch the DreamWorks logo carefully at the start. If you don't blink, you may just see a Night Fury.