How to Train Your Dragon, the latest digital morality tale from DreamWorks Animation, is a middling adventure both creatively and visually that doesn’t quite take flight.
With an unnecessarily diverse swarm of dragons zipping around and hordes of Viking warriors attacking them with primitive weaponry, there’s plenty going on in its breezy 98 minutes, just none of it particularly engaging. It might occupy young children and it won’t bore the adults, but as far as kid flicks go it’s simply average.
Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is a scrawny blacksmith’s assistant and misfit Viking without the strength or the stomach to become a fearless dragon killer. The boy’s clumsiness, disinterest, and frail frame make him an all around disappointment to his dad, Stoick, a brutish Viking champion and chief of the village given the growling voice of Gerard Butler. But the forced scenes between father and son don’t carry much weight, leaving only a weak protagonist and his Viking cliché counterpart, nor does the stock love story with Astrid (America Ferrera) feel real or fleshed out.
A fluke launch of Hiccup’s catapult slingshot somehow injures a jet-black Night Fury, a mysterious fire-breathing species never before killed by a Viking. Hiccup goes in search of the downed dragon and finds it nursing a broken wing in a cratered forest clearing and eventually gains its trust with his considerate, peaceful demeanor.
Since production was directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, the creature design looks an awful lot like the wild alien in their last cartoon creation, Lilo & Stitch, with the playful mannerisms of a dog. Renamed Toothless, it’s wide eyes, graceful movements, and bendable wings allow a range of pantomimed emotion — more than the expressionless human characters — and its detailed, unique aesthetic sets it apart from the other dragons and especially the generic, often interchangeable Vikings.
The film works best when it’s just a boy and his pet dragon, soaring over the landscape with the aid of a prosthetic flap and a steering saddle mechanism. Set against the setting sun or amidst puffy clouds, their thrill rides present a dazzling spectacle of wonder and whimsy, as well as an endearing bond at the story’s heart.
Luckily, the period setting avoids the typical pop culture references, but is light on the laughs, childish or otherwise. This may be in part due to an underutilized supporting cast of humorous people like Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, and Kristen Wiig. They blend into the background and are entirely forgettable as his Viking peers surviving dragon training under the experienced wing of their tough teacher, Gobber (Craig Ferguson).
As a whole, How to Train Your Dragon draws on familiar lessons and hangs somewhere between a rousing Viking quest and a tender tale about a loner who finds companionship in a friendly dragon.
2.5 out of 5.