“Vikings versus dragons” is definitely one of the cooler premises for a computer-animated tale to come along in a while. Differentiate the dragons into half a dozen distinct species, each with unique traits, from the roly-poly Gronkle to the two-headed Hideous Zippleback and the stealthy, jet-black Night Fury, and it’s even cooler — especially if the dragons are ordinary beasties rather than anthropomorphized talking monsters.
Now make the young protagonist a teenaged misfit with more brains than brawn, a scrawny Viking who prefers looking before leaping and would rather study dragons than slay them. Have him manage to befriend one of the island’s most feared predators, ultimately becoming its partner in flight. Okay, the coolness factor is off the charts.
This — and more — is what the writing/directing team of Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, last seen together on Disney’s delightful Lilo & Stitch, have done in How to Train Your Dragon, loosely inspired by the children’s book by Cressida Cowell, which opens this Friday.
How to Train Your Dragon blends the mythic-culture awesome of DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda, the geek chic of Sony’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and the dragon-riding euphoria of Avatar into an uneven but rollicking adventure that manages to be touching, funny, exhilarating and ultimately about as thrilling as a climactic battle with Vikings and dragons can possibly be.
As they did in Lilo & Stitch with Hawaii, DeBlois and Sanders create a gorgeously realized island world with a specific geographical and cultural feel. The story takes us to the bleak, rugged island of Berk, where a stubborn clan of Vikings ekes out a difficult living battling the indigenous pests, which happen to be dragons.
From the craggy landscape to the rude Scandinavian architecture of the Viking village, from the lush valley lake where the hero befriends his dragon to the mist-shrouded, treacherous approach to the dragons’ nest, Berk is the kind of place that Bear Grylls would so have to add to his travelogue, if only it existed.
How to Train doesn’t match the soulfulness of Lilo & Stitch, and characters are sketched too one-dimensionally. Protagonist Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III’s wounded irony, caustically delivered by Jay Baruchel (Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian), gets old quickly. His chieftain father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler in full-on Beowulf/Attila mode), is an unreconstructed exemplar of that tiredest of negative parental stereotypes: the overbearing patriarch who doesn’t understand his offspring and regards him with nothing but disappointment. I admit the inevitable third-act rapprochement had me misty-eyed, but can’t the father be a little humanized before the very end?
Happily, Stoick is somewhat offset by Gobber the Belch (Craig Ferguson), the peg-legged, one-handed old tough who trains young Vikings in the ways of dragon slaying. Hiccup’s peers are mostly loutish Viking jocks, and Hiccup’s misadventures in dragon training may take some adult viewers back to dark hours in high school gym class — but Gobber himself is far from the gym teacher-drillmaster-sadist stereotype.
Gobber may not quite understand Hiccup either, but he looks out for him and tries to mediate between Stoick and Hiccup. In a flick like this, it’s nice to have a sympathetic adult figure, especially an old-school man’s man like Gobber, just to be clear that brawn isn’t bad. (Butler and Ferguson, both Scots, give their lumbering roughnecks burrs echoing DreamWorks’ poster boy Shrek — which seems appropriate here, since author Cowell is also a Scot and the island of Berk was inspired by Cowell’s childhood memories of a remote, uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland. On the other hand, the kids all have American accents.)
Then there’s Astrid (America Ferrera), teenage ice maiden in training and Berk’s reigning It Girl. Éowyn by way of Hermione, Astrid is all business when it comes to dragon slaying. Naturally, Hiccup is smitten, though the title of voice actor Baruchel’s other movie this month, She’s Out of My League, about sums up the situation here as well.
Or does it? Like the nerdy hero of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Hiccup tends to make a bad first impression (or 500th impression, for that matter), but anyone paying attention is eventually going to notice that he’s paying attention too, thinking and working outside the box in ways that eventually start paying dividends. Astrid may be an ice maiden, but she’s paying attention.
Nor is Hiccup the first Viking to use his eyes and his wits. His peers might complain about studying books of dragon lore: “What’s the point of reading books if you can just kill the things the books tell you about?” But earlier generations of Vikings made those books with their anatomical illustrations and behavioral observations. Hiccup stands on their shoulders and sees farther than they did.
Then he stands on the dragon’s shoulders, and forget about it. Like Avatar, How to Train is at its best in the air, especially in 3-D, where the full range of depth really comes into its own. People say if God meant us to fly, he would have given us wings. I don’t believe it. If God hadn’t meant us to fly, he wouldn’t have given us dreams — or imagination.
Although we eventually learn that the dragons of Berk have been somewhat misunderstood, How to Train isn’t another Pocahontas tale or war-on-terror allegory, politically minded critics to the contrary notwithstanding. The moral here is not, as some critics have proposed, “dragons are people too.” (Clearly they’re animals — and potential pets.) The misunderstood-dragon thing is more like those myth-busting nature documentaries about animals with bad reputations, like bats or snakes. Understanding nature, not our neighbors, is the thematic hook (though hooks can be used for hanging all kinds of things).
It’s also worth noting that not all dragons are our friends. The draconine hierarchy of Berk is a bit more complicated that it initially appears. When all misunderstandings have been cleared up and all needless conflicts resolved, there is still a predatory malevolence that cannot be soothed by all Hiccup’s dragon-whispering techniques: a kill-or-be-killed reckoning with a monstrous and implacable enemy.
Hiccup may even have Providence on his side. Wandering the countryside after a recent humiliation, Hiccup bursts out, “The gods hate me!” — whereupon the universe just about slaps him in the face, but in a salutary way, to open his eyes to what’s in front of him. How often does that happen in an animated film?
Content advisory: Much intense animated fantasy violence; some scary images; brief mildly risqué humor; a few Norse polytheistic references. Too much for sensitive youngsters.