While not quite up to the bar set with Kung Fu Panda, DreamWorks Animation again proves that Pixar no longer stands alone at the top of CG animated storytelling.
As the least Viking-like young man in a Viking settlement, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) dreams of the day when he can help defend his village against the local predators: dragons. Unfortunately, he is neither strong nor burly and must rely on cleverness, something that gets him (and the village) into trouble fairly often. When luck presents Hiccup with the opportunity to be a real dragon slayer, he discovers his heart isn’t in it and that the dragons aren’t the mindless killing machine the Vikings believe they are. But how can one lad end the needless bloodshed between man and beast when no one will listen?
Ah, misunderstanding, the catalyst of drama. When everyone takes their slights personally, anger often flares up, and once it gets going, it’s even harder to stop. While the surface plot seems to deal with a young man and his dragon, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface, likely in no small part to Lilo & Stitch directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. It may be animated entertainment, but there’s a lot of emotion going on here that doesn’t pull any punches.
The vocal cast features a good blend of actors and comedians who, if this wasn’t an animated feature, might be cast in the same roles for a live action film. Gerard Butler as village chief Stoick roars when he talks; he had plenty of practice leading the charge in 300. Craig Ferguson lends his late night banter to Gobber, a Viking missing a few limbs but none of his pride (and a penchant for stating exactly what’s on his mind.) Hiccup’s fellow dragon slayers in training include voice work from America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Kristen Wiig, so there’s no shortage of one-liners being spewed while enduring on-the-job survival training.
The production design is also amazing. By focusing on a tiny portion of their world, more detail in how the village is set up to fight off the dragons can be featured. The dragons themselves are made up of varied species that each have their quirks and dangers, from tiny nipping dragons that act like teething puppies to black night furies that spit fireballs and act like over-sized felines. With all the diversity and ingenuity packed into the film, the tiny island feels like a part of a huge world.
In addition to the breathtaking spectacle of soaring over rocky villages and repelling dragon attacks (the 3D version really enhances these bits), the story also touches on an often taboo subject for these kinds of films: the consequences of battle. Kids are too often shown that warriors come away from war unscathed, but a character like Gobber, missing both an arm and lower leg, not only calls attention to the fact head on but presents the character as having overcome the loss and continuing to contribute. It’s as positive a message as any other in this film, and is handled with the same care as all the rest of it. But make no mistake; the real reason to see this in theaters is for the ride.
(a three and half skull recommendation out of four)