The new animated movie How to Train Your Dragon takes its title and the names of its characters from a successful series of novels by Cressida Cowell, but otherwise you’d have a hard time recognizing the books as the source of the film. The books are made up of whimsical, satirical, and occasionally gross vignettes about a boy in a community of Vikings living in relative harmony with dragons. The movie has been turned into something slick, grown-up, and far less interesting.
The main character is Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), a studious boy who designs weapons in his spare time while working as a blacksmith’s apprentice. His village is often raided by dragons, and he dreams of fighting them like the cool kids get to do, but he’s too skinny and uncoordinated to be much good. This endlessly frustrates his manlier-than-thou Viking chief dad Stoick the Vast (voiced by Gerard Butler), whom Hiccup badly wants to please. All that changes one night when Hiccup tests out a new weapon and takes down a black dragon of a species that the villagers fear particularly. Tracking down the wounded animal the next day, he finds he can’t kill it and secretly nurses the creature — which he names Toothless because he initially thinks it has no teeth — back to health. He subsequently learns that the dragons are temperamentally like big, scaly, fire-breathing housecats. “Everything we know about you guys is wrong,” Hiccup muses.
The movie is well-paced, with a shadowed look that distinguishes it from other animated films made for families. Fans of Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series will probably be cursing their bad luck that the filmmakers here didn’t make their movie instead. The voice talent is impressive, especially America Ferrera cast counterintuitively as a buff, badass Nordic girl named Astrid, whom Hiccup has a crush on. It’s a shame that these characters are all stock and the comic material isn’t there, which means that voice actors like Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse go to waste.
Hiccup winds up having to stop his dad from going to war with the dragons, and the movie turns into a none-too-subtle allegory about Iraq. Stoick goes to war based on bad intelligence, without an exit strategy, and motivated by fear of the unknown. This is all well and good, but the unfortunate side effect is that the dragons are turned into tame, easily domesticated beings that are even more passive than the Na’vi in Avatar (with the exception of one bit where Toothless takes a disliking to Astrid and takes her for a wild ride). We never get the sense that these are wild animals, and this takes much of the unpredictability and danger out of the story. That’s why How to Train Your Dragon, visually superb as it often is, comes up short. l