Welcome to a seaside Viking village in the land of Berk. Beset with marauding dragons, killing dragons is the only business of the day. Meet geeky Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel -“She’s Out Of My League“) the only non-dragon killing person in the whole village to the eternal shame of Stoick, his bellicose Viking chieftain father (Gerard Butler). When Stoick gets going he’s as fire breathing as the dragons he hunts.
Hiccup dreams of chasing dragons. During a raid, when the town’s mustered to fight dragons, Hiccup borrows a catapult and goes hunting, despite promises to his dad to stay home. He manages to shoot a Night Fury dragon out of the sky. Hoping to come home a hero, he searches but can’t find the downed reptile. When he finally finds him, unable to kill him, he sets the fearsome beast free. Ashamed to tell his father, Hiccup gives up on his dream.
Though Stoick despairs of Hiccup ever fighting a dragon, wise Gobber thinks the lad has promise and lobbies for him to join the Dragon Training classes. Reluctant Hiccup joins the class, bedazzled by Astrid (America Ferrera), the best warrior and town heartthrob. Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig and T.J. Miller voice the other would-be dragon slayers.
Hiccup’s speedy dragon is so rare, his picture doesn’t even appear in the Dragon Fighting Handbook, which brainy Hiccup pours over, to the scorn of the other warrior kids in his class.
Hiccup notices the dragon’s catastrophic flying skills. Realizing his catapult damaged the dragon’s tail; the pint -size Leonardo sketches a tail rudder correction. The contraption won’t work on its own and soon Hiccup is piloting him on a saddle that works like a five speed bike.
Toothless, whose big eyes remind you of your favorite pet and whose nasty jaws can break into an endearing grin was created by Chris Sander (Lilo and Stitch). It’s fun watching Hiccup and Toothless shyly cross the species divide to forge a relationship. The playful relationship between the pair recalls “My Dog Skip” or “ET.” A drawing in the sand scene will tear you up.
Riding the dragon (he’s the first Viking dragon-jockey) gives him skills. Soon the boy Dragon Whisperer is winning every challenge in the ring. Unbeknownst to Stoick and his sea bound Vikings, innovative Hiccup’s become the town hero. Mad at being bested, Astrid spies on him and Toothless. After a spin in the sky, Astrid and Hiccup bond.
Gerald Butler’s been giving annoying, one level performances as he tools up his all purpose American Macho accent (“The Ugly Truth“, “The Bounty Hunter”) but here he’s a howl, using his Scots accent to play a Yosemite Sam-ish protective warrior father. Listening to him bicker with pal Gobber
(voiced by that Scot comic imp Craig Ferguson) is hilarious. I wish there’d been more of their odd-couple comments.
Jay Baruchel’s career is breaking. After geeking it up in “Knocked Up” and “Tropic Thunder“, he plays “The Sorcerers Apprentice“, in the film of the same name, opposite Nicolas Cage.
Blissfully free of adult-courting pop culture references (remember when they littered every animated feature?) HTTYD stands on it’s own clever script, awesome action sequences and emotionally satisfying relationships. No mean feat. Its laid back, throwaway wit never feels forced. Character animators have created a fearsome collection of fabulous dragons, both frightening and ultimately heartwarming. John Powell’s Celtic feeling score is icing on the cake. Its ecological anti-war message makes it a sort of “Avatar” for kids. The thrilling flying sequences are as liberating as the Banshee sequences in the Avatar.
“How to Train Your Dragon” is DreamWorks’s finest animated feature, and already on my ten best list. Breathtaking flying and battle sequences, a beautifully rendered world, set in a deep focus, 3d enhanced historo-fairy tale setting and characters with heart. What more do you want?