Fitting in is hard to do, especially when you’re from a clan of dragon-slaying Vikings but have zero hunger for the kill.
In How to Train Your Dragon, the new 3-D adventure film from Dreamworks, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is the laughingstock of his dragon-hunting class, failing at every turn to take the reptiles down. Even his own father (voiced by Gerard Butler) is disappointed, fearing that his son will tarnish his legacy as the most bad-ass slayer in town. Hiccup’s fortunes -- and, ultimately, those of his society -- change when he secretly befriends a rare type of dragon, exchanging fish for a little inter-species trust.
In many respects, How to Train Your Dragon is like Avatar for kids, minus the guns and loincloths. Hiccup doesn’t start with an anti-dragon stance per se, but his diplomatic efforts pit him against his community and endanger his new scaly friends. His unpopular politics also up the tension between him and his Dad, who suffers from an overabundance of testosterone, hubris and high-calorie Viking roasts.
Dragon’s essential story arc is familiar, but the original characters and unusual aesthetics give it a freshness and feel-good vibe. Sure, there are some requisite adult jokes (one memorable bit makes fun of Viking breastplates), but not enough to become a smarmy sub-text that might undermine the movie’s kid-centric style. Hiccup himself is adorably earnest but not too cute, and the cast of schoolmates and dragons that round out his crew are each drawn -- literally and figuratively -- with a gentle sense of humor and smart sensibility.
Some of Dragon’s endearing details are evident in its range of characters. Apart from Hiccup and Stoick, his dad, there’s Astrid (voiced by America Ferrera), the ambitious and rambunctious classmate who’s determined to finish first in her class -- and becomes the first to discover Hiccup’s secret. With her thick braid and feisty little animated face, she evolves from being a thorn in Hiccup’s side to, predictably, his adoring side-kick. Snotlout (voiced by Jonah Hill) is another student in the rag-tag Viking posse, with aggression to burn and a chip on his shoulder about Astrid’s fading affection.
While the Vikings are an inspired and rowdy lot, it’s really the dragons that make the movie the gem that it is. Toothless is Hiccup’s special dragon friend, and the unwitting star alongside his human trainer. With a flat, snout-shaped face and big eyes, the black creature is both cute and imposing. Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders exploit every trick in the book to cull the “oohs” and “ahhs” for Toothless, and it works. He becomes for Hiccup what Neytiri was for Jake Sully, becoming the surprising hero who saves the human, battles be damned.
Unlike Avatar, Dragon is accessible for humans of any age. Toothless and Hiccup are platonic partners in flight (never mind the straddling and leather) whose union has significant political consequences. Despite these tacit lessons in diplomacy and heroism Dragon is, at heart, nothing but joyful entertainment that deserves praise for bringing a little fun back to politics and growing pains, even if it’s all pretend.