2010, US, Directed by Dean DeBlois/Chris Sanders
Animation, Running Time: 98 minutes
Review Source: IMAX screening; Image: 1.44:1, Digital 3D
The pesky Vikings invaded our land; they slaughtered, brutally raped, and thieved their genetically violent way to our crops, bloodying every English and Scottish native in their Odin-loving path (but am I demanding a Danish political apology…?). Or at least they kindly bludgeoned the dumb Brits that weren’t worth keeping alive anyway. One of them (or two probably) also produced a clumsy outcast son called Hiccup, and it’s primarily Hiccup that the story concerns. His reasonably sized settlement has attracted the unfortunate side effect of having its livestock periodically stolen or burnt to death by marauding dragons and like the beefier warriors of the tribe, Hiccup would be honoured to dismember and wipe out a dragon on his way to becoming a true Viking. If it wasn’t for the fact that he can barely lift up a medium sized broadsword, let alone hit anything with it. Recognising the fact that he’s more of a hindrance than an aid he’s relegated by his oversized adult superiors to assisting blacksmiths and the like, at least until his father - leader of the tribe - can figure out what the hell else to do with him. Not only that but Hiccup fancies one of the teenage Viking girls who herself is enviably training to slay dragons, but she thinks he’s a dork too. So, the solution is to knock off a large reptile - the village will respect him, his dad with about-turn on his way to disowning the little tyke, and he’ll get the sexy chick too.
In the midst of a huge dragon attack, and the ensuing chaos that this brings with it, Hiccup is determined not just to kill any randomly selected one of the creatures, but to nail the one nasty-ass big boy that nobody has ever slain before - Night Fury, a mysterious monster than mercilessly projects rocket-like fireballs with frightening accuracy, but itself is so fast nobody can quite catch it. Hiccup charges out into the battling crowd and uses a machine launched slingshot aimed at one of these so-called Night Fury beasts, or in the approximate direction at least… and hits! The dragon goes down but amidst the frantic battle nobody actually sees the victory. What they do see, however, is the resulting trouble that Hiccup’s attempts to prove himself have caused, and once again he is demonstrated as a complete imbecile. It’s by serendipitous accident that Hiccup later discovers the Night Fury he brought down, now trapped by the slingshot and injured in the forest. Finally he has his chance to kill a dragon and prove it… but holding a knife over the helpless creature he finds that he’s unable - not only does he let the dragon go but he subsequently finds that the intuitively docile creature responds well to the boy’s benevolent supply of fish food. Thus begins Hiccup’s quest to help ‘Toothless’, as he calls it, over its injuries, the two of them becoming amiable companions in the process.
From renowned studio Dreamworks, How To Train Your Dragon has been released in conventional 2D and the now very popular 3D formats, the latter also rendered at very high resolution for IMAX cinemas. Quickly apparent is the smartly realised nature of lead character Hiccup - brought to life by lovely characterisation that makes the teen tyke quite easy to identify with for the majority of us geeks out here. He is similarly supported by hordes of well crafted Viking characters, from his narrow-minded father Stoick to the consistently amusing gang of wannabe dragon-slayer teens that laugh at Hiccup before coming to think he’s the coolest kid in town just because he tricks them into believing he has mastery over the reptiles. The screenplay is also littered with verbal and visual gags that are well thought through and frequently witty - as with many great animated films, there are so many excellent ideas in this film it’s impossible to pick it all up in one sitting. The story itself is formed on the basis of core concepts that are almost simply family movie staples, and therefore it could have been a generic offering by the end of production, but the crew’s clearly abundant talent and intelligence brought this project to unexpected life. The artists must also have had plenty of fun with putting together ideas for the many different species of dragon, after which the animators have given these species differing personalities seemingly by associating their behavioural patterns with that of domestic animals (and therefore acquiring our sympathy). Continuing the Dreamworks tendency for popularising the Scottish accent, many of the villagers seem inclined to speak in such a manner (despite originating from Scandinavia, but that would probably have resulted in a less endearing effect - a debate for another day perhaps…). Vocal dubbing, thankfully missing the huge horde of big celebrity names most CGI animated films tend to come burdened with nowadays, is generally highly fitting and energetic enough for the lively nature of their digital representations.
The visual design of this film is striking, and this is 100% embellished by the IMAX digital projection. So vivid are the colours and sharp are the details, it’s almost more refined than looking at something in reality (though a good seating position is paramount here). The addition of a third dimension is highly effective and enhances the many action and flight sequences, as well as everything else. In fact it was this that early on prevented me from thinking much about the plot or people within it - so incredible are the three dimensional visuals they’re initially a distraction. It certainly absorbs your attention. Aside from this significant presentational bonus (albeit a bonus that one has to pay for!), I’d like to think that HTTYD is genuinely a thoroughly exciting, amusing and intelligent film, despite some underlying fundamental elements that are a bit too common these days, and its makes for a robust movie experience.