This is a wonderful motion picture. Perhaps DreamWorks, in their frantic need to push the movie to every demographic, has lost sight of the film itself. Abysmal marketing efforts aside, "How to Train Your Dragon" is a rousing success; a soaring, endearing adventure feature that plays smart and fierce.
On the island of Berk, a community of Vikings spend their days training for war against waves of aggressive dragons. For pipsqueak Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), life as the son of stern leader Stoick (Gerard Butler) demands that he join the dragon-killing squad, but he just doesn't have the heart for it. Discovering a fallen dragon that's missing part of its tail, Hiccup befriends the rare creature, using his artisan skills to help the sleek black beast off the ground. Nicknaming the dragon "Toothless," Hiccup realizes he has a way with the so-called enemy, taking to the air with his new friend. Unfortunately, his gift exposes a secret nest of dragons to Stoick, who leads the people of Berk into war, leaving Hiccup and Toothless racing to prevent a needless catastrophe.
Loosely based on author Cressida Cowell's 2003 book, "How to Train Your Dragon" reworks the core elements of the story to fit a majestic feature-film playing field, with colorful, bushy Viking characters and a sky filled with fire-breathing dragons. That's not to suggest the producers have dumbed down the material; on the contrary, the film is filled with images that maintain the promise of threat, turns of fate that actually have a bodily effect on the characters, and eye-popping skylines of combat. Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders ("Lilo & Stitch") serve up a substantial escapade that should excite viewers of all ages.
"How to Train" is persuasively sharp in the action department, but it possesses a generous heart as well. The core of the film spotlights the relationship between Toothless and Hiccup, and how they develop a lasting bond that teaches the value of curiosity. Admittedly, the picture is a formulaic hero's journey typical of any animated feature, but the emotive voice work from Baruchel and the playful rendering of Toothless help to lift the crushing weight of familiarity, bypassing various kiss of death clichés that slip into view. Butler also stuns with his work as Stoick, at last allowed to brandish his natural Scottish accent to bellow mightily as the king of Berk. It's a magnificent vocal expression of leadership and, frankly, some of the best acting Butler has ever done.
There's a smattering of young comedians (Jonah Hill, Kristin Wiig, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) here to thwack the film's funny bone, which feels like an unnecessary distraction considering how fluidly the film pulls off the central relationships. America Ferrera nabs a satisfying supporting turn as Hiccup's warrior queen crush, and Craig Ferguson stretches his acting muscles a touch playing a wisecracking Scotsman who's in charge of training the kids of Berk in all matters of dragon warfare.
The voice work elevates the material, but the animation grabs hold of the senses. Working with steady elements of fire and flight, "How to Train" looks stupendous at times as the camera follows Toothless and Hiccup into the air, soaring erratically amongst the clouds (the chills are encouraged by John Powell's majestic score). Character and dragon designs winningly straddle the line between exaggeration and storybook, highlighting marvelous facial detail on Hiccup as he runs through the gamut of emotions while astride his winged pal.
The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) is quite extraordinary, offering a presentation that sustains the storybook realm of the movie while delivering the boldness of the animation without any troubling tumbles. Detail is fabulous, sustaining a clean, crisp look while digging into the textures of the faces (beards supply alluring fluff) and costumes, along with an exhaustive read of dragon particulars. Landscapes are also tremendously cared for, with grasslands and huts blessed with visual energy. Colors pop without fail, maintaining the cartoon nature of the picture with sturdy hues, coming across dynamically during battle scenes that highlight fire. Those who've only seen the film during its 3D theatrical engagement might be shocked to find how lovely the feature looks here.
The 5.1 TrueHD sound mix is a stunner, sure to test most home theater arrangements. It's a forceful track, making sure the listener feels every last dragon swoop and metallic clang as the action heats up, yet retains a soft, emotional mood when the moment calls for the intensity to take a breather. Dialogue is generously divided, sent around the surrounds at times to provide an impression of community and conflict. Atmospherics are evocative, filling the surround channels with an inviting feel of weather demands and island life, while stepping up the charge when the dragons enter the frame. The breathing and flapping of the beasts has a special presence here, awakening the fantasy elements in a thrilling fashion. Low-end activity is alive, but never overwhelming, while scoring cues sound triumphant, hoisting this wonderful film up high. DVS, French, Spanish, and Portuguese tracks are also available.
English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with directors/co-writers Chris Sanders & Dean Deblois and producer Bonnie Arnold is a technical track befitting a challenging production. The participants are engaged and prepared with information, most centered on storytelling challenges and the intricate lighting of the film, which required the guidance of noted cinematographer Roger Deakins. It's appealing to hear how the film was ultimately shaped, with the trio discussing casting nuances and storytelling changes that came about as the picture slowly developed. It's an interesting listen. For added entertainment, "The Animators' Corner" provides a PIP look at storyboards, interviews, and BTS footage that truly underlines the work of the professionals.
If a commentary is too much work, there's a simplistic Trivia Track offered here.
"Legend of the BoneKnapper Dragon" (16:33) is a sequel short, where Gobber (Craig Ferguson) sets off the find an elusive dragon that threatened his life years earlier. Taking to the seas with Hiccup and the gang, the crusty blacksmith recalls his experiences with the fierce creature. A mix of CG and 2D animation with the original voice cast, it's a charming diversion.
"Viking-sized Cast" (11:44) spotlights the work of the voice cast, interviewing cast and crew on performance inspirations and the studious animation process. Of special interest is footage captured inside the studio, watching the ensemble act out their lines behind the microphone.
"The Technical Artistry of 'Dragon'" (10:12) brings the camera into the DreamWorks animation factory, sitting down with key crewmembers who try to explain the complexity of the project (it seems fire was a real bugaboo to render) and how personality informed the final product.
"Deleted Scenes" (7:29) is a trio of storyboarded moments providing alternate expositional approaches and an amusing moment of communication between Stoic and Hiccup.
"The Story Behind the Story" (7:40) talks up the source material from author Cressida Cowell, who sits down to chat about her book, joined by the cast and crew, who offer effusive commentary.
"Racing for the Gold" are a series of commercials used to promote the film during the 2010 Winter Olympics.
"How to Draw a Dragon" (10:52) meets up with supervising animator Gabe Hordos, who walks the viewer through easy steps required to draw Toothless at home.
"Your Viking Profile" is a personality quiz that provides players with a chance to define their inner brute.
"DreamWorks Animation Video Jukebox" is a collection of musical moments from "Shrek," "Over the Hedge," "Kung Fu Panda," and "Madagascar."
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
"How to Train Your Dragon" doesn't reinvent the wheel, but the movie achieves a sustained note of integrity and charm that's all too rare in the family film gene. Absent the Pixar syrup and, for the most part, the DreamWorks slapstick, the picture breaks through as a distinctive triumph that respects the potential of CG-animation, encouraging genuine awe and plenty of smiles as it fills the screen with high-flying splendor.