Having seen Despicable Me and Monsters vs. Aliens in the past couple of years, I was ready for another delightfully silly kid-flick adventure. And so, my being on the upswing out of the worst flu virus I’ve confronted in twenty-five years, we rented How to Train Your Dragon. Ready for silly! Ready for snotty! Ready for dumb!
Whoa. Not ready. Not. Not even close.
Now, how was I fooled? Consider the premise: Spindly young teen Viking kid named Hiccup assists Gobber the Blacksmith on Berk Island, which has dragons like some Viking islands have mice. The whole tribe considers Hiccup a pointless nuisance–especially the chief, who, alas, just happens to be his father. The other and only slightly older kids have all won their horned helmets and are already in dragon-fighting school. Killing your first dragon is the only way in, and Hiccup tries, not by main force but by building goofy hornpunk weapons like a crossbow that flings bolos. Wham! He downs a dragon with his first shot, but then gets a bad case of empathy and can’t bring himself to finish it off as would earn him the tribe’s respect–and perhaps a second look from long, leggy Viking girl Astrid.
Instead, filled with remorse for having shredded an aerodynamically necessary section of the dragon’s tail with his bolo artillery, Hiccup befriends it, feeds it, and (in his offtime at Gobber’s forge) builds a tail prosthetic to allow the dragon to fly again, teaching it to carry him in the bargain.
That’s how I understood the plot going in, training the dragon and all that. There was plenty of silliness to go around, and the plot twist from you-kill-it-you-eat-it to you-hurt-it-you-heal-it was predictable in a good way. That’s where the surprises began. The first thing that jumped up out of nowhere was the dazzling panoply of landscapes, seascapes, and cloudscapes, rendered with a gorgeously detailed hyperclarity that bordered on surrealism. Backing up these distant descendents of matte paintings was an electrifying score from John Powell (solo, Henry Gregson-Williams was not involved this time) that draws heavily on Celtic themes and gives you a white-knuckle sense for the exhilaration of flying over open water and between the impossible stone spires of Berk’s archipelago.
I was a little surprised that Hiccup was not played more for laughs than he was. Maybe nerd fortune is turning around: Hiccup is a geek and a maker and a sort of Dark Ages citizen scientist, who observes closely and takes good notes in his leather parchment chapbook, quick to challenge the conventional dragon-fighting wisdom of his people and capitalize on his new knowledge. (There is dragon catnip, for example, and Hiccup makes good use of it.) Ultimately, what he discovers is that everything he and his people thought they knew about dragons was wrong, including an extra-large economy-sized surprise that I confess I did not anticipate at all.
The dragon (which Hiccup names “Toothless” before he notices that its teeth are retractable) is a beautifully realized character itself, with a very expressive face that suggests a lot more intelligence than you’d expect in a cartoon animal. All the adult Vikings speak with Scots accents while the kids talk like Chicago north-siders, which seems to be a trope in fantasy film these days. I wonder how many kids understood the sly reference to Hiccup’s horned helmet being made from half of his late mother’s bra. Beyond that, well, no quibbles–basically, no quibbles at all. It’s a fantasy tailored to the peculiar daydreams of geeky 14-year-old boys, and it reminded me how full of daydreams 14 had been.
Daydreams? What’s missing? Nothing: You jump into the saddle of your dragon, the girl whose heart you just won climbs in behind you and wraps her arms around your chest (!!!) and with a roar you’re off into the sky to rescue your knucklehead grownups from their own stubbornness, and prove to your father that he was wrong about you. The neighborhood kids who used to give you wedgies are now your friends and followers and they fall in behind you, each on a dragon too. But you’re not on just any old dragon: Your dragon is the Corvette of dragons, the ink-black, blue-lightning-spitting Night Fury that no one–no one–has ever tamed before you did.
I won’t spoil the rest, assuming there’s anybody in the Western Hemisphere who hasn’t seen it yet. The crude humor is kept to a minimum (compared especially to Shrek and Robots) but I think preschoolers will find the dragons frightening. And while I admit that I’m peculiarly vulnerable to films about boys who win their fathers’ respect, I still insist it’s the best cartoon fantasy in years.
Very highly recommended.