Gobber (Craig Ferguson), Stoick (Gerard Butler) in Dean DeBois and Chris Sanders' How to Train Your Dragon (top); Gerard Butler providing Stoick's voice (bottom)
Apart from Jay Baruchel's voice work, my reservations are few, though they deserve mentioning. For one, I think How to Train Your Dragon tries too hard to convey a deeper message that is not quite there. The relationship between Hiccup and his father never felt convincing, most likely because it was so generic. Father thinks son is a disappointment; son is different than father would want him to be; son eventually gains father's love through unconventional means. Although this kind of father/son dynamic works on a basic level, the screenplay by William Davies, and directors Dean DeBois and Chris Sanders (from Cressida Cowell's novel), lacks insight. The trio seem content to depict the conflict/resolution in the blandest manner.
Take one exchange in which Hiccup is trying to convince his father not to slaughter the dragons.
Stoick: They killed hundreds of us!
Hiccup: And we killed thousands of them!
It's a hyper-simplistic message. Children may get something profound out of this; I, on the other hand, was actually annoyed by it. Then there had to be a "love story" between Hiccup and a Viking girl, Astrid (America Ferrera), which is just as conventionally portrayed as the father/son relationship. It's as if both DreamWorks and the screenwriters forgot the movie's central focus should be on human characters, not dragons.
Now let me take a moment to explain an important point. Some people may believe that How to Train Your Dragon doesn't need to have a better script or a less predictable storyline. That's true, it doesn't need to. However, the movie exudes an air of self-importance that well exceeds what it has to offer. Had the filmmakers presented the story in a more fanciful manner, none of the aforementioned issues would have mattered much. Kung Fu Panda is a perfect example of that approach: that movie works because it's not trying to be anything except mindless fun.
At the end, I was left scratching my head about what could have been so incredible about How to Train Your Dragon that some were hailing it as a masterpiece. Maybe it was just hype-fatigue on my part, but story-wise I mostly took away a polished CGI hybrid of Avatar (or Pocahontas, if you prefer, with the Native Americans replaced by dragons) and Dragonheart; worse than the former, better than the latter, but all-around nothing groundbreaking.
Having said that, I must admit that overall I enjoyed much of How to Train Your Dragon despite my qualms about certain plot elements and the lack of character development. If unoriginality, in and of itself, ruined a movie for me, I would enjoy very few movies. For despite the screenwriters' bland approach, the movie's basic tale is fairly intriguing. And as mediocre as some of the human characterizations are, they're not completely inept.
Beautiful visuals, a wonderful score, some above-average voice acting and a delightful Toothless make How to Train Your Dragon one of DreamWorks most successful outings — even if hardly a complete success.
© Nathan Donarum
Photos: DreamWorks / Paramount
2 Academy Award Nominations
Best Animated Feature: Chris Sanders, Dean DeBois
Best Original Score: John Powell