Ever curious about how much of a difference that extra $4-5 dimension adds to the non-Avatar films of the cinema? Paramount threatened theaters that wouldn’t clear 3-D theater screens for its latest Dreamworks animated feature, “How to Train Your Dragon,” that it would not give it the 2-D version either. Excellent advertisement for your technology, guys. And yes, while the dimensional difference is only really worthwhile in “Dragon’s” high-octane fight and flying sequences, it doesn’t stop the film from being goofy fun, and the animated film to beat this year, at least until Pixar’s latest hits theaters.
The precarious mountain village of Berk houses a community of Vikings in their 500,000th day of fighting the native dragon population. In a town of bulbous muscles and bulbous-er hair, our hero is the unfortunately named Hiccup. More Asterix than Thor, Hiccup takes a more scientific approach to dragon capture, and actually manages to wing a beast during a particularly dramatic draconic raid on the town. Following the downed beast into the nearby woods, the young Viking pities the creature and frees it, bonding with the dragon (which is now branded “Toothless”) and using it as proof to his people that not all scalies are demon spawn. The tenuous alliance that forms between the villagers and other “good dragons” then combats the “bad dragons” that have been the culprits behind the raids.
The story is an intriguing mix of boy-meets-creature and underdog tropes, guided into new relevance by a refreshingly sardonic script, epitomized by a supremely entertaining voice cast. Jay Baruchel leads with a wry drawl as Hiccup (and the presence of Jonah Hill and Chris Mintz-Plasse proves that the Judd Apatow effect is even leaking into animation) and Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson give some of the best mega-Scottish accents ever in animation as a Viking-version of King Leodinas and Dragon-Master Cobber, respectively. The audio package extends the high quality in the sound design department as well, rendering dozens of amusing and believable creature sounds for an impressive variety of dragon breeds. The soundtrack is rousing and familiar, but most movie-goers will be surprised at just how much they are paying attention to the audio.
And that’s not to knock “Dragon’s” visuals. Even in 2-D, the film manages some magnificent landscape shots and suitably epic action. Flight sequences feel as exciting as real aerial warfare, with creatures dipping and diving amongst crags and wildness like Blue Angels piloted by the Thunderbirds Air Force unit. This allows for a swooping and dynamic camera that heightens the action’s high points with rollercoaster enthusiasm. “Dragon’s” rambunctious cartoon style occasionally feels cheap, but it ultimately embodies the energetic plotline well. Dragon-breath effects like fire and poison are especially vibrant, and the big beasties are as varied visually as they are in their audio cues.
Perhaps most impressive is the movement choreography and facial animation of Toothless, its scenes with Hiccup being the apex of the film’s charm. The dragon moves and acts with understandable fluidity, emoting and reacting with the same bestial intellect found in Disney’s best. Not all the film’s dragons were created equal, but all at least have an adorable or awesome moment to call their own. The humans, oddly, don’t fare as well, many showcasing interesting but odd facial expressions. Most of these can be chalked up to the film’s art style, but a couple ticks go beyond cartoony ticks.
“How to Train Your Dragon” is an enjoyable romp through loosely adapted Viking-dom, sporting some surprisingly dense flying sequences and an impressive sound design to match its cartoon-epic visuals. The voice cast is as close to perfect as you would want, and it’s difficult not to immediately fall in love with Toothless’s human side. The odd bit of animation aside, Dreamworks has continued its recent trend of surprisingly good family entertainment with this unlikely friendship. But as Paramount has indicated, 3-D is most definitely optional on this one.