Saturday, April 10, 2010

When boy meets beast

I hadn't been planning on watching the clunkily-titled How to Train Your Dragon, but I was wheedled into it by a big kid, who also invited one of his (eligible bachelor) friends to join us. To my surprise, I ended up genuinely enjoying the movie... although not so much as my 2 super-awesome companions (who asked me to describe them as such). This supports my theory that grown men are children at heart (adorably and amusingly so), and also proves that How to Train Your Dragon is an animated feature that appeals to all ages.

The movie follows the tried-and-tested formula of an unlikely young hero's journey to self-actualization: Hiccup is a scrawny, clumsy teenage Viking, useless at combat but brilliant at engineering. His father Stoick (voiced by the very macho-- but not as macho as my viewing companions-- Gerard Butler) is the leader of the hardy Viking tribe that inhabits the island of Berk, which is plagued by dragons of every shape and size. Killing a dragon is a rite of passage for all Vikings, but due to his ineptitude on the battlefield, Hiccup is stuck playing apprentice to blacksmith Gobber (the very funny Craig Ferguson). However, when a lucky shot with one of his inventions hits an elusive Night Fury, Hiccup discovers he can't bring himself to kill off the injured beast. What ensues is the typical boy-meets-pet story, and as Hiccup learns more about his new friend (whom he dubs Toothless), he realizes that everything his people have known about dragons is wrong.

I guess what sets How to Train Your Dragon apart is the excellent pacing of the story. As one of my companions pointed out, there wasn't a "slow" moment, the movie moved right along. The development of the bond between Hiccup and Toothless is not too abrupt, and not dragging either. Hiccup's gradual progress in "dragon training" under Gobber is shown in a snappy montage, along with his transformation from village laughingstock to dragon-fighting bad-ass. And even his strained relationship with Stoick is handled well, not too heavy on the father-son drama, but with enough sentimentality to tug on the heartstrings. It helps too that the characters are drawn to be so cute and cuddly (even, and especially, Toothless), so it's easy to sympathize with and care about them. The script is also funny without trying too hard, contributing to the overall entertainment value.

My only beef with this film is the casting. Usually, the voice talents are what I like best about an animated feature, but in How To Train Your Dragon, I found some distracting. First and foremost, Jay Baruchel's voice-- which doesn't have a pleasant timbre to begin with-- seemed too "old" for Hiccup's youthful appearance. Second, Baruchel's voice lacked personality, depriving Hiccup of some personality as well. And third, while Stoick and Gobber had thick Scottish accents (courtesy of Butler and Ferguson), all the younger characters spoke in straightforward American accents, which just did not make sense to a nitpicker like me.

Considering the traumatic scars I still bear from the last dragon movie I saw (blast you, Eragon), How to Train Your Dragon was a refreshing and delightful reminder of better dragon films (anybody remember Dragonheart?), and how the mythological creatures make for good material... and kick-ass pets. I want my own Night Fury!


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