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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Too bad they didn't have the Steve Miller Band sing "Fly Like a Dragon" for the soundtrack.
How to Train Your Dragon is the story of Hiccup (voiced by Tropic Thunder’s Jay Baruchel), a young Viking lad who lives in a small village that is constantly besieged by dragons. Despite his diminutive size, he dreams of someday becoming a fearsome dragon slayer, just like his burly father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler). Hiccup, using a homemade invention, manages to shoot a particularly hard-to-catch kind of dragon out of the sky. When he goes into the woods to finish it off, he’s unable to actually deliver the deathblow. The dragon, whom Hiccup eventually dubs Toothless, responds by not killing him either. Every day, Hiccup sneaks off to be with Toothless, treating the dragon’s injuries and eventually hopping on its back for rides.

This occurs just as Hiccup is beginning a training course run by Gobber (Craig Ferguson). Along with fellow slayer trainees Astrid (America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), he’s put through a grueling series of “lessons,” all of which bring them face-to-face with various varieties of fire-breathers. Hiccup refuses to use violence, instead figuring out ways to kindly tame the beasts. This tactic makes him the star pupil, if not necessarily the most popular. It eventually comes to light that his altruism is driven by his friendship with Toothless – an act that causes extreme fury among the village’s dragon-hating citizens. Hiccup must risk earning his father’s disapproval by stating his desire to not become a dragon slayer after all.

There’s a lot to like in How to Train Your Dragon, but I think I liked it as much for what it’s not as for what it is. What I mean is that this is a very story-oriented picture. It creates characters who we come to care about, and it places them into a plot that invests us emotionally. The humor springs from those characters and situations, rather than from forced in-jokes and lame pop culture references. So many animated features try to be “too hip for the room.” This one engages in good, old-fashioned storytelling. At times, I was reminded of The Black Stallion in the way we watch Hiccup bond with a wild creature. It’s got that kind of sweetness.

The film is also not marred by stunt casting. The actors were chosen because their voices lend credibility to the characters they’re playing. Sometimes I find myself getting into the game of “Name That Voice” when I watch an animated feature. I sit there trying to guess which big-name star is voicing each character. Honestly, that’s probably not a good thing, because it means I’m not fully involved in the story. In the case of How to Train Your Dragon, I didn’t even realize I was listening to famous voices until the end credits rolled. On a side note, the filmmakers have chosen not to have any of the dragons speak, which was a very smart idea; the story works better without that unnecessary device.

This is also not a cheesy or gimmicky 3-D movie. It doesn’t rely on stuff flying out at you every couple of minutes. Instead, the 3-D is used to convey two things: the massive size of the dragons, and height. When Hiccup hops onto the gigantic beast and they soar above the clouds, it’s magical because you get a sense of the liberation they feel. At times, especially during a sequence where Hiccup falls off his dragon and begins plummeting toward the ground, I was literally gripping the armrests of my seat because the sensation of height was so real. Flying is a big bonding activity for Hiccup and Toothless, so the fact that the 3-D is used to give us the sensation of flight adds to our understanding of how boy and dragon come together.

The message of understanding one’s enemies is nicely delivered without needless sentimentality, as is the message of father/son acceptance. Hiccup knows his father may be disappointed, yet he has also inherited Stoick’s belief in doing what is right. How to Train Your Dragon may not have the sublime grace of something like Up or Wall-E, but it’s an animated movie with the courage to take itself seriously and entertain you by being genuinely good, as opposed to tricking itself out with pointless “hipness.” I’ve never been particularly fond of dragon stories, but this one’s a winner.

( 1/2 out of four)

How to Train Your Dragon is rated PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.

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