(2010)3.5Perry SeibertVisually speaking, most family films -- especially animated family films -- are as bright as polished marble. Fortunately, How to Train Your Dragon directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois have devised a world often lit by just fire, and by staying remarkably true to that fact they've fashioned a unique visual experience.
The story follows the basic hero's journey: Young Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) wants to help his Viking community battle the dragons that terrorize their village, but he just doesn't have it in him to harm the fire-breathing creatures. His father, the town's fearless warrior leader Stoick (Gerard Butler), has difficulty communicating with his awkward son, not even wanting Hiccup to go through the dragon-fighting training classes that many kids his age attend. Just as Stoick's friend Gobber (Craig Ferguson) convinces Stoick to let his son train, Hiccup befriends an injured dragon he names Toothless, and soon his relationship with the creature -- which has a very boy-and-his-dog vibe -- gives him insight on how to make the monsters allies to the Vikings and bring peace to all.
While the plot itself offers no surprises, it is solidly constructed; there is a reason these storytelling tropes endure. But the visuals make How to Train Your Dragon stand out from the pack. The directors hired gifted cinematographer Roger Deakins to consult with them on the movie's look, a job he also performed to perfection for the makers of WALL-E. The award-winning DP brings a level of realism to the images that's nonchalantly perfect. The flames and the water are tactile, and never once are the directors showy about these showstopping effects -- they're just there giving the film an authentic sense of place.
If there is a serious flaw in the movie, it's the casting of Jay Baruchel. He's a talented young comic actor (few people could have so skillfully played straight man to the cast of crazies in Tropic Thunder), but here he sounds thoroughly modern, which is a distraction when the movie's visuals -- as well as the thick Scottish accents used by Butler and Ferguson -- drive home the sense that the film takes place in an authentic past. Sure, the 21st century voice and speech rhythms accentuate how much of a misfit Hiccup is, but the juxtaposition is too jarring.
On sheer visual terms, though, How to Train Your Dragon more than delivers; it's the kind of movie that will stick in the memory of kids who might want to make movies when they grow up.