I went in to “How to Train Your Dragon” expecting yet another big, busy 3-D feature more interested in making my eyes pop and my stomach flop than engaging my heart or making me smile. I came away smiling. This movie was a pleasant surprise.
The story’s nothing new or original – this boy-meets-dog-and-saves-world all over again. Scrawny young Viking Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is a big disappointment to his dragon-fighting father (Gerard Butler) the town chief, or kahuna, or honcho, or whatever Vikings call their leaders. He is inept at the most Most Important Thing About Being A Viking – killing dragons. Until he accidentally manages to wing one of the most dangerous dragons, then befriends it, or at least learns how to ride it. (Where I come from, you don’t ride your friends. Not much, anyway.) This is the part that feels familiar – the scenes of Hiccup and Toothless (the dragon) playing, learning, and flying together reminded me of both “Free Willy” and the forgotten classic “The Black Stallion.” Reminded me in a good way; “How to Train Your Dragon” is proof that you don’t necessarily need an original story; you just need to make sure the story is told well.
The 3-D visuals in “How to Train Your Dragon” are refreshingly sharp, making me think that maybe animation is where 3-D should stay. And, believe it or not, the action sequences here are as good as – even better than – anything in Avatar. Yes, I know; people rode beasts who looked a lot like dragons in “Avatar.” “Dragon” shows what James Cameron didn’t do – he didn’t capture that feel of soaring, gliding, riding the air — the giddiness, the joy. And New York Times critic A.O. Scott points out, ever since we’ve been making movies, we’ve been making movies about that feeling of flying. “How to Train Your Dragon,” this warm, well-told kid’s movie, is the first 3-D movie to really add to that elusive quest. As a 3-D film, it soars above the rest.