The unlikely hero is well-worn material as we all know, but more than that, it is practically a set in stone requirement of young adult fiction. Young adults, to put it right out there, want to be heroes… but, they are clever enough to find it unlikely. Much like the unlikely hero, dragons are also widely popular, some people even wonder what it would be like to be the cutest dragon in a onesie, or even the dragonslayer. So what happens when Hollywood decides to put the two ideas together for the audience.
How to Train Your Dragon is the story of Hiccup, a young Viking lad, who has little Viking about him. He lives in a village that is a little crag of nothing, and the horrible conditions would be enough, but there are also dragons. A heaping variety of them, and they attack the village with some regularity. The entire culture of his village revolves around dragons, and the killing of same, and burly Vikings who love the idea abound.
Meanwhile, Hiccup is a scrawny, clumsy misfit of a Viking, who happens to be the son of none other than the clan leader. Largely in the way, and often causing as much destruction as the dragons themselves, Hiccup finds himself in a village that is not quite filled with awe at the idea of the dragonslayer he will become.
But, like many an unlikely hero, Hiccup has a good head on his shoulders, and in an effort to aid his clan in ways better suited to his meager frame, he builds a weapon for hunting down the foul creatures that plague his home.
He manages to bring down not just any old dragon, but the most feared variety of all – the dreaded Night Fury, the dragon that no Viking has even seen before, much less killed. Of course, he can’t bring himself to finish the job, and he soon finds that dragon hunting just isn’t going to work out as a career path.
Just when it seemed that life couldn’t get any worse, Hiccup now has to balance his new, inadvertent friendship, and the dragon-killing class he finds himself enrolled in. To make things just that much worse, the lovely Astrid is among the other students in warrior lessons, and she’s getting very suspicious of how well Hiccup is suddenly progressing. All together, it becomes a wild balancing act, and soon the future of the village will rest on Hiccup’s decisions.
I recall reviewing Astro Boy, and saying that it included something lacking from many an animated film of recent times… a true sense of wonder. HTTYD has taken that note and run with it. There are funny gags, balls of flame, and Toothless the dragon is cute and ferocious as the scene dictates (he’s a hell of an actor actually), but what there is mostly is simply a wonderment that defies you to keep from saying the word, “Awesome.” Frankly, it’s hard to avoid an expletive in front of that as well. I should note here that the 3-D is among the best I’ve seen, and I say that because you soon forget you’re watching in 3-D.
Like few other films aimed at kids (Up, for example, is kid-friendly, but not really for them), HTTYD carefully builds its characters. Though in many ways a simplistic, and straight-forward story, it goes beyond most players in the genre by doing that character building, like the greatest of works, through motivation. Hiccup, his father, and even Toothless, are, in the quick summary, worn out entities, but they are made unique, because they are delivered as reactions to their precise circumstance.
Let’s face it, sufficiently advanced young adult fiction wouldn’t be young adult fiction anymore, and it has to be judged accordingly. Here is a work with its eye on that boundary though, and I suspect the source material of great things. There is perhaps no better recommendation than to say that it is the first movie in at least five years that I have wished were longer. It is a crisp, well-constructed 98 minutes, but I imagine there are a few more scenes from the book that could have made it in to good effect, and I would welcome them.
Sure, it’s “action-packed,” and a variety of other surefire quotes that get bandied about, but that only makes it good. What makes it great is the storytelling, and moreover the careful and unusually respectful way it treats its main target audience. It solidifies and stabilizes its world, and sucks you in. It throws you into the mix, and will have young and old alike cheering Hiccup on in a way that will by now feel very unfamiliar (well, to you). It gives the age-appropriate their, “Ahh… so that’s why…,” moments, without stooping to the decision that it has to beat the audience with a stick when it comes to those whys. By doing so, it puts the crowd at Hiccup’s side when, for example, confronting his father, and the whispers advising Hiccup of his next move will not be rarities. That is storytelling, and that’s how you deliver wonder.
Riding on dragons doesn’t hurt either. In the end, that is only the sort of thing that makes the day that much more exciting, but as you make your way to the exit, it is rare that your kids want a toy of the roller-coaster. Dragons are cool, fact! Kids think so, especially. There’s a certain age where they want everything in their room to be dragon-themed and bedding sheets should not be overlooked – find the bedding here to really excite your little dragon superfan.
I will go on record now as saying that even with Toy Story 3, another Shrek installment, the curiously interesting-looking Despicable Me, and more coming out, I will be very surprised to find an animated film impressing me more this year.
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