How to Train Your Dragon glossily repackages two of the most common themes echoed in animated family movies: embracing uniqueness and rebelling against conformity. These themes are almost always delivered in unison, frequently in the context of outsider characters who rub up against social norms but stay true to themselves. Shrek, Quasimodo, Flint Lockwood, Ponyo, Aladdin and a practically endless array of others challenged the preconceptions of people around them by physical and/or mental eccentricities or their place in the class divide.
Like most family film stories that focus on oddball characters, How to Train Your Dragon is in part a commentary on liberal versus conservative values. It is loaded with the ultimate message that society should consider radical change if it is to progress for the better.
In this instance the conservatives are a population of Vikings who train their young to hunt and kill dragons, though the generations-long war between the two species doesn’t seem to have heralded any progress. The radical progressive of the story is an unassuming and unintentional rabblerouser by the name of Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel) who finds unprecedented success not by killing dragons but by training them and recruiting them as allies.
Hiccup’s philosophical differences to his peers are accentuated by his appearance: he is small and wiry while others are burly and domineering, like his proudly traditional leader of the tribe father Stoick (Gerard Butler). In the tradition of E.T., The Iron Giant, Ponyo, Beauty and the Beast and again a seemingly endless array of others Hiccup establishes a secret friendship with a black dragon he dubs Toothless, who belongs to a breed considered the most dangerous of all. Lo and behold, Toothless ain’t that bad when you get to know him – he’s an ol’ softie and dragons are simply misunderstood. Who would have thunk it?
Scenes of Hiccup bonding with his new pal are mingled with a rigorous group training program for how to slay dragons and these dual tangents fill out the story, providing obvious pathways to the necessary dramatic conflict. Effulgent video game esque animation fills the frame with colour, activity and some very pretty pictures. Director Dean DeBlois (Lilo & Stitch) sustains a quick pace, at times too heavy on action and too light on character development, but at least the story keeps moving.
It’s hard not to like How To Train Your Dragon, a fun and sassy family flick up there with Chicken Run and Antz as the best Dreamworks Animation has so far produced. Despite the minimal interpersonal development, there is an admirable efficiency in the story’s emotional passages and the extremely familiar storytelling motifs at the heart of it are repackaged with aplomb – a slick, quick and glossy ride to a familiar location.
How To Train Your Dragon’s Australian theatrical release date: April 1, 2010