For three hundred years the island of Berk has been plagued by attacks from dragons that burn homes and steal livestock. Which is why the tough, strong Viking inhabitants pride themselves on being able to capture and kill the fearsome, fire-breathing monsters. Unfortunately, scrawny teenager Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is unable to accomplish this task, much to the embarrassment of his gargantuan father, the Viking chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler). His ongoing ineptitude also renders him invisible to the girl he secretly adores, redoubtable warrior-maiden Astrid (America Ferrara). As a rite of passage, he and Astrid attend dragonslaying classes led by hook-handed, iron-legged Gobber the Belch (Craig Ferguson), alongside other youngsters like nerdy obsessive Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), mouthy Snotlout (Jonah Hill), and squabbling twins Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) and Ruffnut (Kirsten Wiig), but hapless Hiccup fails at everything he tries.
Until one day, he miraculously manages to down a Night Fury, the most elusive and feared dragon of them all. Hiccup follows the dragon into the woods, but the oddly humane look in its eyes leaves him unable to slay the creature. Instead, Hiccup nurtures it back to health and strikes up a firm friendship with the dragon he dubs Toothless. His newfound mastery of dragon lore enables Hiccup to triumph in dragonslaying practice, which irks Astrid at first until she eventually becomes his closest confidante. Together they discover dragons aren’t nasty at all, but there is something altogether more terrifying hidden on the island.
Since when did Vikings sound Scottish? Aside from this slightly culturally-confused voice casting, How to Train Your Dragon is a resounding triumph, an eye-popping fantasy spectacle that packs a surprisingly potent dramatic punch. Based on the series of books by British author Cressida Cowell, the plot differs considerably from its source what with the addition of gutsy love interest Astrid and the inflated size of the dragon Toothless, but the alterations prove wholly beneficial. Co-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois previously made the offbeat Disney animation Lilo and Stitch (2002) which was notable, among many things, for their inclusion of a young heroine with serious emotional problems. Their knack for psychologically complex characters laced with goofy good humour is equally apparent here. Scenes between Hiccup and the conflicted Stoick, torn between an obvious love for his son and the bullheaded bluster of his position, are beautifully observed and performed by an energetic cast, even if it takes a while to get used to hearing Jay Baruchel’s croaky sarcasm coming from such a young looking boy.
The screenplay, co-authored by DeBlois, argues the importance of ingenuity and compassion over brute force and misguidedly gung-ho heroism, as the young characters discover that Viking tradition may be part of the problem since the dragons are similarly defending their right to exist. Both sides are locked in fight for survival that can only be resolved by a hero that applies the values of civilization, reason and decency and a will to live harmoniously with nature. Genius cinematographer Roger Deakins is listed as visual consultant and brings a vibrant realism to the often astounding images, especially the aerial sequences that give Hayao Miyazaki films a run for their money. Equally impressive are the dragon designs that encompass not only the endearingly expressive Toothless but an array of goggle-eyed eccentric beasties and, perhaps most spectacularly of all, the climactic behemoth that erupts out of the earth to terrorize the Viking warriors. It is a spill-your-popcorn-and-gasp moment.