Movie Review: “How To Train Your Dragon” (2010)

Title: How To Train Your Dragon (2010) (IMDb)
Company: DreamWorks Animation
Director: Dean Deblois and Chris Sanders
Voice Actors: Jay Baruchel (Hiccup), Gerard Butler (Stoick), Craig Ferguson (Gobber), America Ferrera (Astrid), Jonah Hill (Snotlout), David Tennant (Spitelout)
Score Composer: John Powell
Length: 98 minutes
Rating (US): “Rated PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language.”
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “A hapless young Viking who aspires to hunt dragons becomes the unlikely friend of a young dragon himself, and learns there may be more to the creatures than he assumed.” (IMDb)
Reason for Watching: It’s about dragons and I had heard some trusted people call it one of the best animated movies in recent years.
Movie Re-watchability: Sure I could watch it again, perhaps with kids who like it or with someone who hasn’t seen it before, but I wouldn’t seek it out.
Director Re-watchability: Deblois and Sanders, aside from being frequent writers for Disney, together directed 2002’s Lilo & Stitch. As I remember, that was a really fun and inventive little film with a lively artistic style and some believable and touching characters. While How To Train Your Dragon isn’t quite so inventive, it still has many of those positive traits. These two men might not be masters at the Pixar level, but they do have a nice storytelling touch, and I’d be interested to see what future projects they work on.
Recommendation: This is a fun movie. Not spectacular or exceptionally moving, but lively and kind of sweet. Those interested in kids’ movies and animation are most likely to enjoy it.

Key Thoughts

Wheeee!

My favorite aspect of How To Train Your Dragon—and the only thing to keep my interest for repeated viewings—is the main dragon himself, ignominiously named Toothless by our young Viking hero (himself ignominiously named Hiccup). While most of the other dragons are designed to be fairly goofy and stylized, Toothless looks slightly more real and moves with something approaching actual weight. He still is overly rounded and cartoonish, but the animators have envisioned him as an actual character, not just a mere monster, pet, or animal comic-relief as every other dragon is. He does provide the movie’s funniest and most touching moments, but is also allowed a considerable degree of pathos. He is also, I was pleased to see, allowed to be genuinely dangerous and wild. The flight scenes are exciting and also seem to play by the rules of gravity and physics, with some understandable adjustments to allow for more action and less falling-to-one’s-death.

Epic dust!

The landscapes are quite beautiful, having an element of realism not present in the design of the humans. My favorite is the Scandinavian forest where Hiccup finds and trains Toothless. Mist is used to give depth to the layers of trees, and the colors are only slightly exaggerated. There is some very good composition going on with the colors and lighting, and a few scenes even manage a genuinely epic look.

The music by John Powell is also excellent. It hits the right emotional notes and is not overly bombastic (a lá Hans Zimmer) or too pandering to pop culture. Listen to samples here and here.

Legs = twigs.

The designs of the human characters are not my favorite, but the voice acting is generally excellent, the standouts being Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson. Ferguson should really do more voice acting in kids’ films like this, because it’s so nice to see his comedic talent applied to something family friendly. Unfortunately, the only voice I did not like was that of Jay Baruchel as Hiccup himself, our hero. It was just too whiny and nasally, and seemed a bit too old for the teenage character (Baruchel was about 27 when he did the voice). Every time Hiccup opened his mouth, which was frequently, I winced. In Baruchel’s defense, he does a good job bringing sardonic wit and a basic level of emotional depth to the character; I just think he was miscast.

The story itself was blander and more straightforward than I had hoped. Overly-choreographed action sequences are sprinkled throughout in a way that makes me question the place of such extended, stylized violence in kids’ movies (Kung Fu Panda, a movie I really like, also provokes this question). And the other teenage characters, while competently voiced, are also the usual procession of high school movie clichés that I am tired of. It’s nothing horrible, but for me it robs the movie of much interest. The only character I care about is Toothless. And maybe Gobber, because Ferguson manages to hint at some depth and maturity for the hilarious Viking blacksmith. I will give one high compliment to the story, though: the decision to let Hiccup lose his leg at the end is a very good one. It gives a little weight to the proceedings because, though he is victorious, he does not come out unscathed. This was the only story point that impressed me.

In a time when dreck like Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Alvin and the Chipmunks get sequels, we should be glad for a movie like How To Train Your Dragon. I wouldn’t call it a classic, but it’s a fun, solid kids’ adventure movie with several elements that are a cut above average.

Flying. Flying is what works.
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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

7 thoughts on “Movie Review: “How To Train Your Dragon” (2010)”

  1. Interesting post, David. I just watched this movie a few weeks ago. I had no desire to see it in the theatres, but the video store didn’t have much I was interested in so I “settled” for it. It turned out to be cute and entertaining – the main dragon is the best one, most life like as you said. For me though, I liked the Vikings the best and just imagining what Viking life would have been like, as far fetched as it was. Would I watch it again? No, but I watch very few movies more than once and they usually have King Arthur in them. But was I entertained. Yes.

    1. The Vikings were a lot of fun, yes, and not annoying like I feared they might be. And I think I’m still waiting to see a really good King Arthur movie (other than Monty Python and the Holy Grail!) that I love as much as the legends themselves. Haven’t found one yet. Have you a favorite Arthur movie?

  2. David, we just watched this two or three days ago, and we enjoyed it for what it was. As a kids movie, it’s going to be filled with silly jokes that kids will like. The same is true for most of the family films out there, but some are much worse than others. For instance, you said what I believe, and that is that no one is equal to Pixar when it comes to quality animated films. They are great because they’re well written and created with both adults and kids in mind. I often wonder if young ones watching films like _WALL-E_ ever really see the message contained in that marvelous piece of cinema!

    The dragon was very interesting, and I also thought the loss of the leg was nice. He and Toothless had something in common, something that made them both “freaks,” but it no longer mattered. I did like that the film reinforced the importance of being true to oneself, even when it goes against accepted conventions. That’s always good for children to hear.

  3. I loved it, probably a good deal more than you did. The supporting cast was a glut of cliches, as you mention, but I think the verve and style of the film did a lot to elevate it. I also didn’t mind Baruchel’s voice; maybe he was miscast, but it didn’t detract from the movie in my case. I loved the flight scenes, and I thought the film did a very credible job of dramatizing the bonding process of Toothless and Hiccup — who knew that dragons are the perfect blend of dog and cat characteristics?

    The one thing that felt like a cheat to me was the ending. Right up until the end, the film cultivated a nice, strong undertone of a world with consequences. The loss of Hiccup’s leg is a part of that, but it sort of rankles me when a story ends with a message of “We could all just get along if we tried to get along!” I’m not against this message in theory, but the way it’s deployed usually feels too easy. In the case of this film, there’s a single villain whose destruction means that all the other dragons are now free to be nice to the Vikings and be their friends.

    To me, this utterly ignores reality in favor of fantasy — even in the context of a fantasy story aimed at young’uns, this just doesn’t seem to be in keeping with the world the film set up. I would perhaps buy an ending that showed another curious dragon or two making inroads with an open-minded Viking or two, but the transition from mortal enemies to Let’s Go Flying! made me gag a bit. It made it this yet another children’s story that lacked real consequences.

    That’s basically the one thing that keeps me from total adoration of this film. Pretty much everything in it worked for me, partly because it caters so much to my sense of humor and drama, as well as the use of animation. But that ending… I know I sound churlish, but it’s a pet peeve of mine.

    1. Valid point about the ending. It didn’t bother me too much, as I expected that kind of “happily ever after” epilogue for a kids’ movie, but you’re right that it is too utopian, too suddenly. The whole reasoning that the dragons are all very kindhearted misunderstood creatures who only attack Vikings because the Vikings first attacked them doesn’t hold up, since that wouldn’t explain the frequency, harshness, or deliberateness of the coordinated attacks against the town. The way I see it, the Vikings were pretty well justified in hunting dragons, because even though the dragons lived far across the water, they would still fly out specifically to attack the town. The ending might have been better had it showed, as you said, a few more dragon-human friendships being made, while still making clear that most dragons remain wild and dangerous, but just not specifically antagonistic any more.

      Thanks for the comment. The film did increase my already considerable desire to have a dragon of my own to ride.

  4. We liked this movie, mostly because the Nightwing reminded us of our dog, Penny. You know, if she were really dangerous instead of a big tongue-lashing love monster. I also agree that having Hiccup lose his leg was a very non-kid movie thing to do that elevated it a little — Pixar should have thought of that when making WALL-E.

    1. The canine aspects of the Nightwing’s personality were definitely key to making the fearsome creature lovable. Normally I’d be wary of such an attempt to reinterpret a wild, dangerous dragon into something pet-like, but in this instance it worked.

      The great thing about Pixar is that every film of theirs is a fresh, new experience. They are always challenging themselves, using different tones and storytelling methods. Can’t wait to see what they do with Brave, a medieval Scottish fantasy! (Plus, like in How To Train Your Dragon, they’re using Craig Ferguson!)

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