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?
Re Hollywoodization: Know that lovers of Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon kids’ chapter books 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.