Hall of Shame: How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

Before I begin, let me introduce you to the “Hall of Shame”. This is a new feature where once a week (there or thereabouts…) I’ll review a “classic” film that I’ve never seen before. Most of the time, as in this case, they’ll be films from IMDb’s Top 250 that I’ve let pass me by, though sometimes the choices will be a bit more adventurous than that. The first film – How to Train Your Dragon – has been chosen for two reasons; 

1. There’s a sequel due out this July.

2. It’s an animation that somehow snuck into IMDB’s Top 250, which means it’s bound to be amazing.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s my review of How to Train Your Dragon

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Directors: Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois
Screenwriters: Will Davies, Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois
Based on How to Train Your Dragon, a series of children’s books by Cressida Cowell
Voice Cast: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller & Kristen Whig
Runtime: 98 min // Certificate: PG

The 83rd Academy Awards will surely go down as one of the most disastrous on record. With the possible exception of Natalie Portman’s Best Actress win for her performance in Black Swan, I can’t think of a single victor in the major categories who truly deserved to win their award. The King’s Speech wasn’t a patch on Black Swan, The Fighter, The Kids Are All Right or even Inception (a film about which I am indifferent), while Darren Aronofsky, Javier Bardem and John Hawkes were all robbed in their respective categories. However, none of these mistakes is quite as unpardonable as the decision to give Toy Story 3 – without doubt the weakest entry in that trilogy – the prize for Best Animation. Blind nostalgia is the only explanation I can think of for anyone thinking Toy Story 3 deserved to win over the far superior How to Train Your Dragon, which I finally saw for the first time today.

Based on a series of children’s books, How to Train Your Dragon tells the tale of Hiccup (Baruchel), a small, skinny Viking living on Berk, an island village that is constantly under attack from seemingly ferocious dragons. Hiccup wants to be like his Father, Stoick the Vast (Butler), but is too weak, too sensitive and much too clumsy to be entrusted with the task of dragon slaying. However, when Stoick embarks on a mission to track down the dragon’s nest, Hiccup enters “dragon training”, only to discover that the dragons aren’t dangerous at all. He secretly befriends an injured “Night Fury” dragon – whom he names Toothless – and helps him to recover from his injuries so he can fly again. Meanwhile, his Father is preparing to go to all-out war with the dragons; a war which Hiccup and Toothless must try to prevent at all costs.

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The beauty of How to Train Your Dragon is how it utilises its simple story to tell a universe tale of the outsider. The plot beats are somewhat predictable, as they often are in films aimed – primarily – at children, but the characters are so relatable that it’s delightfully easy to invest in their situation. It helps that the jokes come thick and fast, that the plot is genuinely exciting – not to mention wonderfully wacky – and that the voice performances are all brilliant… though why a bunch of Scottish Vikings have North American children I’m just not sure. Nevertheless, it works, and Jay Baruchel is an infectiously endearing lead. Butler’s gruff Father figure is the perfect role for him, while the motley crew of friends that Hiccup makes are all highly amusing.

It’s in the animation that How to Train Your Dragon stands stall however. Directed by the two men responsible for Lilo & Stitch (a criminally underrated animation, in my view) How to Train Your Dragon boasts some majestic animation. Rich colours, gorgeous landscapes and intricately designed characters help to suck you in to this magical and sometimes terrifying World. Cowell’s books burst into life on the screen as each and every dragon is designed with the most astonishing attention to detail, while the village, the forest, the island and the ocean all look about as realistic – yet, at the same time, somehow mystical – as possible. Even when the plot enters its more problematic moments – which anyone who’s seen more than a few children’s films will most certainly see coming – the luscious animation is more than enough to keep you engaged in this marvellous little World.

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Of course, the film survives mostly on its “wish fulfilment” element. What child could possibly watch this film and not want a dragon all of their own? Heck, what adult could watch this film and not want a dragon all of their own!? The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is the main draw, as it’s just so ridiculously cute, but there’s more to it than that. The film manages to capture what it might be like to fly on a dragon’s back with its stark animation and ambitious design. I’ve not seen the film in 3D so I’m not sure how it works in that respect, but even in 2D I genuinely felt like I was falling through the air whenever Hiccup and Toothless were in flight. That is no small achievement.

Ultimately, How to Train Your Dragon is just – for lack of a better word – “lovely”. It is the very definition of a traditionally “family friendly” film that will appeal to children, teenagers and adults of all shapes and sizes without patronising anybody or resorting to cheap, lazy gags. It is one of the few films I’ve seen that lacks cynicism or unnecessary anguish, instead relying on little more than gorgeous animation, a heart-warming story and goofy but endearing comedy to keep its audience enthralled for just over 90 minutes. Children will marvel at it, adults will respect it and anyone who hasn’t had a cardiectomy should enjoy it a great deal. It harks back to classic family animations with its rich, warm tale of a boy who defies the odds to do something amazing and it boasts some terrific animation to boot. Sure, the plot might be a bit predictable at times but what does that matter when the film is this much fun?

If you still appreciate decent storytelling, no matter what the target audience, you’ll love How to Train Your Dragon. The fact it’s taken me this long to finally watch it is a disgrace, but I’m glad I finally did. If ever I have children (doubtful but hey, you never know…), this is one of those films I’ll show them over and over again until they’re sick to their back teeth of it. Not that that will ever happen of course… I doubt anyone could ever get sick of this wondrous little gem.

★★★½

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