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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

How to Train Your Dragon (review)

by MaryAnn Johanson

Dragon Whisperer

It’s been a long time since I had to stifle the urge to shout, “No no NO!” at a movie screen in order to ensure that everything turned out okay in the end. Because not only did I find myself so fully engaged in this intensely delightful movie and its intriguing and endearing characters that I wished nothing but the best for them, I also honestly wasn’t sure that I could trust that the movie would stick to its apparent intention of being as fully Hollywood-happy-ending as possible. I mean, it wouldn’t kill off its charming and unlikely hero and/or his unexpectedly enchanting monster-dragon pet?

Would it?

Re Hollywoodization: Know that lovers of Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon kids’ chapter books [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] may well be grumped to discover that coscreenwriters and codirectors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (who previously gave us the exquisite and outrageous Lilo & Stitch) have taken liberties with her story. I have no emotional investment in the books, so I was nothing but totally thrilled with what ended up on the screen: a rousing tale beautifully animated to take full advantage of the current technology to create an invented world that is as touchably real as anything James Cameron showed us in Avatar.

It is nominally our world that teenage Viking Hiccup (the voice of Jay Baruchel: She’s Out of My League, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian) lives in, except here be dragons. An enormous variety of the monsters — big and bigger, snakelike or bloated like puffer fish, flame-throwing or smog-breathing or with other deadly talents — regularly attack his remote village, burning the houses and stealing the sheep. And so everything about life here is given over to beating the crap out of the wicked, destructive beasts. Hiccup wishes fervently for the time when he’ll be able to join the fray, but he’s a skinny, brainy guy, much to the mortification of his brawny brute of a father (the voice of Gerard Butler: The Bounty Hunter, Law Abiding Citizen), who happens to be the village leader, too.

You can see the pieces of the standard setup falling into place: Hiccup will find some way to please his father, and probably save the village along the way. Which is exactly what happens. It’s how How to Train Your Dragon gets there that is so deeply pleasurable, embracing gentleness and smarts and empathy over aggression and force, yet never forgetting to be so cinematically exciting about it that it actually succeeds in rendering the scientific rationalism and the compassion that sits well together in Hiccup as something truly bracing.

I cannot spoil the startling tenderness of Hiccup’s newfound relationship with the dragon he cannot kill when he has the opportunity to do so — and when the kill would earn him a respected place among his people. Suffice to say that it is hard-won, which underscores its resonance, and it is heartfelt: as fantastical as the dragon is, Toothless (as Hiccup dubs the creature) is real in behavior, personality, and physicality. (Toothless may resemble the blue alien Stitch about the face but is more recognizably terrestrial in most aspects.) And the science geek as hero — Hiccup basically invents aeronautics centuries before Da Vinci — is rare enough that it just about made me want to stand up and cheer.

When I wasn’t wanting to cry, “No no no!” that is. There are breathtaking sequences here in which Hiccup and Toothless experiment as rider and mount in exhilarating — and dangerous! — flight that are far more emotionally and visually satisfying than similar scenes in Avatar. But even finding myself thoroughly gripped by those in no way prepared me for the spectacular finale, which operates on a scale the likes of which feel absolutely enormous, and not because I saw the film in 3D IMAX. (Which I do recommend: the textures alone, of wood and water and fire and scales and moss and leaves and rocks, are simply gorgeous without being distracting about it.) There’s a lot that’s daring and delicious here, but the fact that it is able to constantly up its own ante while staying genuine about it may be my favorite thing of all about it.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
US/Canada release date: Mar 26 2010 | UK release date: Mar 31 2010

MPAA: rated PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language
BBFC: rated PG (contains frequent mild threat)

viewed in 3D IMAX
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • kathleen

    I had the audio books since david tennant narrated them… it saddens me that they aren’t the same. I am glad david did get a part in the movie tho. He will always be my Hiccup

  • Keith

    Was thinking about seeing this movie tomorrow, but your review has definitely sold me on the idea now.

  • Isobel

    I so want to see this! Am a sucker for anything dragon anyway (why why why can’t they be really real?) but the film sounds rather wonderful.

  • JoshDM

    Spoiler alert.

  • Isobel: If you’re a dragon-lover and haven’t seen it, I highly recommend The Flight of Dragons, a full-length animated Rankin Bass TV movie from the ’80s. I measure all dragon movies against this one.


    (It’s available on DVD from Amazon, or directly from the Warner Archives website.)

    And yes, I’m looking forward to seeing How to Train Your Dragon as well. :-)

  • Lisa

    tis looks really good – does David Tennant still voice one of the characters in the US?

  • iakobos

    Wow, high marks on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s all about dragons and MaryAnn likes it. What’s not to love? I and the wife and kids will have to see it.

  • MaryAnn

    David Tennant fans should not see this movie for David Tennant. I’ve sat through it and I had no idea he was in it, and I still can’t tell you which character’s voice he did.

    Spoiler alert.


  • CB

    Well, I can see that the hardest thing for me is going to be continuing to act like I’m doing my girlfriend a favor by going to see this movie with her, cus I’m actually rather excited now.

  • Keith

    Dragons it as 95% on Rottentomatoes ATM. I also read an article elsewhere that says movie ticket prices are expected to increase this weekend, especially for 3-D. The article said the average increase in 3-D ticket cost should be about 8%, also 4% for 2-D and 2% to childrens prices.

    I’d check ahead of time to see if you are affected, but be prepared for a cost increase.

  • Isobel

    Thanks for the link Bluejay, I shall investigate when I’m not at work and can access YouTube.

  • Lisa

    i think Davi d has a couple of lines at the end … sold!

  • markyd

    Wow. I am totally taking my kid to see this now. I am normally extremely skeptical of Dreamworks CG movies. They just don’t operate on the same level as Pixar. They’ve always seemed to focus more on celebrity voice actors and pop culture references. Plus, their animation has never been as good as Pixars.
    Glad to see Dreamworks is getting their acting together and actually good MOVIES, as opposed to fluff that becomes almost unwatchable within a few years(let alone from the get go).

  • Ryan H

    I just saw it and can report it as delightful. An absolute treat to watch and experience. Solidly told simple story, meant in the best possible sense. Almost perfect comedic timing and character beats.

    Just beautiful and fun from start to finish. As a 20-something guy I would recommend that anyone of any age and in any company looking for a happy lift to the day go see it. I would happily see this again with my 8 year old cousin or my 80 year old grandmother.

  • Drave

    Absolutely fantastic! Only one thing about it disappointed me; the fact that the dragon is fictional, and thus I can’t have one as a pet.

  • Mathias

    This movie was breathtaking.
    Gorgeous animation, touching story and adrenaline-fueled third act.

    I think it’s the best film of 2010 so far.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Such a beautiful movie.

    Toothless may be the coolest cinematic dragon ever.

    Also, he has Stitch’s head, mouth, and feet. :)

  • Rykker

    What a wonderful film.
    Totally worth the IMAX-3D ticket price, and I’ll be returning to see it again before my vacation ends.

  • iakobos

    I took the family to see HTTYD today and it was everything I expected it to be. It’s a great family movie and certainly one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t know if the 3D was a big deal to the kids and it made my motion sick prone wife a little queasy at times, but the aerial shots were fantastic. One of the ways I judge the quality of a movie is did I look at my watch during the show? This movie kept me glued the whole time and I never once thought about when it would be over.

  • markyd

    I concur with everyone. I took my son on Saturday and we both loved it. Easily the best movie so far this year. Great story. Great visuals. Great lessons to be learned.
    Too bad Dreamworks probably won’t stay on this course. We’ll see.

  • Dan Fabulous <3

    Ohhh my goodness, I loved this one!
    But I’m still waiting for something that compares to the greatness that was Wall-e.

    “Up” was almost there.

    I guess only a Wall-e sequel would do the trick. :/

  • Add this post to the chorus of praise for this movie. Outstanding.

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