This summer, I watched Toy Story 3 and called it "an all-but-assured lock for Best Animated Picture of the Year." At the time, I hadn't watched How to Train Your Dragon on account that the previews made it look like an uninteresting, stupid, early-year animated kid's film (the horrible Olympics advertisements didn't help, either). Having finally watched the DreamWorks Animation hit, however, I recant my statement about Toy Story 3. It isn't a lock. It may be the frontrunner, but How to Train Your Dragon is a rare, viable competitor to Pixar's well-reviewed film. How to Train Your Dragon is an entertaining, exciting and imaginative movie that, dare I say it, is more fun to watch than Toy Story 3.
How to Train Your Dragon is about a young Viking lad named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, who's having the biggest year of his career). Hiccup is seen as a disaster by everyone else in his village, including his father the chief. The village is under constant threat by legions of dragons, but Hiccup tends to get in the way more often than not. But when he manages to injure a never-before-seen Night Fury dragon, he realizes the creatures aren't nearly as menacing as everyone thinks. As he trains to be able to kill dragons, he discovers that there may be a better way to protect the village.
The movie fires on all cylinders. The story is simple yet alluring, not untold countless times before (an awkward kid growing into his own/a kid befriends a frightening animal) but unique in its deliver. Based on the novel by Cressida Cowell and written by William Davies and co-directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, How to Train Your Dragon succeeds largely on the characters and how they interact, as well as the nuances embedded throughout by the directorial team. The scene where Hiccup attempts to make friends with his injured dragon is classic, even though it involves little if any dialogue.
Beyond the little moments that make How to Train Your Dragon worth it, however, are much bigger "set pieces" that drive home the picture's value. The movie looks and feels great. The visual effects might not be as good as what Pixar generates, but they are still top notch. More importantly, DeBlois and Sanders deliver some great action sequences, highlighted by an intense third act full of explosions, dragon on dragon violence and fast-paced chase sequences.
The movie is also funny. Baruchel, who broke out in a big way this year with She's Out of My League and The Sorcerer's Apprentice (both bad movies, but big releases nonetheless), is a good fit for Hiccup. The rest of the voice talent supports the screenplay well, which delivers a fine balance of witty and a goofy humor.
How to Train Your Dragon is one of the best animated movies of 2010, if not the best. It doesn't garner the same emotional impact as Toy Story 3, but it is immensely entertaining from start to finish.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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