Take one part generic story, another part uninspired characters and two parts beautiful scenery, and you’ve got a pretty good description of How to Train Your Dragon. Here is a film that gets a pass from me almost solely because of its imagery. On a narrative level, it’s mundane, and when looking at its action scenes, you can’t help but wonder why you’re supposed to care, especially because one of them occurs before we know who anyone is.
Said scene occurs while we’re listening to a random teenager explain the setting to us. His name is Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), a terrible name that he hates, but accepts it because his parents explained that it would help protect him from the evils of the world. He then tells us that he lives on the island of Berk, and that he lives among vikings. The island is nice, and the vikings are nice enough, but the island has one problem: Its pests. Dragons are constantly coming around to mess up the vikings’ days.
The action scene has vikings fighting against the dragons. It’s a well-crafted battle, although we’re more interested in this kid’s dialogue than we are in the action. See, this opening monologue is funny, and we’re focused so intently on him that we fail to notice a lot of what’s happening in regards to the dragons and the vikings. It does help establish a setting and reinforce the point (which doesn’t need reinforcing once the film reaches the mid-way point) that the vikings downright loathe the dragons.
This proves problematic when our lead doesn’t hate them. Or at least, he grows into not hating them — or maybe he never really did at all; it’s not quite clear. For the first half of the film, two things happen. The first involves Hiccup learning (alongside his fellow teenagers) how to kill dragons. They’re taught by a man voiced by Craig Ferguson, and everyone makes fun of Hiccup because he’s incompetent when it comes to combat. Being the shortest, weakest and most docile of the group makes him an easy target, I guess. Regardless, the teenagers fight a bunch of dragons over and over again. Craig Ferguson’s character doesn’t do much teaching.
The second story, which is where we get our title from, involves Hiccup attempting to befriend an injured dragon that he names Toothless. Yes, this dragon is cute, endearing, and all of those other words which means that we like it. We like it because of its appearance, but also because of how it interacts with our protagonist. It taunts him, it acts somewhat human, although it seems to do so for our benefit. Children will love this, but it was sometimes annoying to me, especially because the humans were said to be the smart ones. But that’s fine.
We spend a lot of our time in either the arena, watching Hiccup and his gang of vikings-to-be fighting against dragons, or Hiccup playing, riding on, or otherwise spending time with his new best friend. At this point in the film, I was having a great time. The writing was sharp, the parallels between the situations were great, and the dragon in question was adorable. Everyone is having a good time. Hiccup even used knowledge he learned while bonding with Toothless in the arena, and figured ways to peacefully incapacitate them.
But then the film decides that it needs a plot, and we get a cookie-cutter finale about the most unlikely of heroes becoming one, and a war happens. Then there’s the whole disapproving father (Gerard Butler), who doesn’t like his son at the beginning because he’s weak, but when he starts doing well in the arena, they become closer. Oh, there’s also the romantic angle in which the girl also doesn’t initially like him, but also eventually warms to him. I can’t even make the final half of this film sound interesting; it’s just so generic. It’s not bad, and since this is primarily a children’s film, it will fit for that audience, but the plot left me disappointed.
The final action scene, while somewhat thrilling, also left me disappointed. It goes on for too long, for starters, and I also didn’t care a whole lot about what happens. It’s initiated because of stupidity, and because one character makes a stupid decision, we get a 20 minute long scene where dragons fly around and breathe fire a whole bunch. Again, this is fun for the kids, who are the target audience, but I needed to care about the characters in order for them to matter.
There isn’t any character development that you won’t see coming or expect as soon as the basic plot is established. As a result, it almost seems to you that the characters have already reached that point, and then you don’t seem them grow at all. The plot doesn’t provide any insight into their characters, and most of the time, they just go along with the plot based on the personalities they’ve already established. If you want deep characters, look elsewhere.
“Looking” is something that you will probably be doing a lot of while watching this film. It’s gorgeous, and if there’s one thing that will hold your attention, it’s how the film looks. Animations, character animations, the environment — it all looks incredible. You’d got to hand it to Dreamworks here, as they’ve created a visual spectacle.
How to Train Your Dragon is a good film that will likely be great in the eyes of children. But it moves from special territory into generic in its second half, and by the end, I was tired of spending time with every person involved. I was sick of watching them progress exactly like I’d expect, and I was hoping for one surprise to make me remember that I had never seen this film before. But in the end, it still has a lot of action with outstanding visuals, so it’s not a waste of time ot watch it.