In How to Train Your Dragon, a 3-D animated feature based on Cressida Cowell's book, a misfit Viking lad befriends a dragon, overturns centuries of prejudice, and proves to his hard-to-please dad that it takes more than muscle to save a village. Hiccup is not much of a name for a fearsome and fearless Viking. But Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is not very fearsome or fearless. He longs to be a brave and fierce dragon slayer, like his father, and his father's father, and every other father (and more than a few mothers) in the village of Berk, a tiny burg perched atop rugged cliffs, and regularly besieged by dragons.
As an apprentice blacksmith in Berk, Hiccup is strictly a supporting player. The big, brawny, hairy Vikings, like his father Stoick (Gerard Butler), do all the dragon slaying while scrawny Hiccup stays in his workshop, working on brainy inventions that he hopes will make up for the brawn he lacks.
Truth is, though, Hiccup doesn't have it in him to kill a dragon, something he discovers when one of his contraptions injures one. The Night Fury is not just any dragon, however. In the annals of Berk, there are many dangerous dragons, but the Night Fury is the most mysterious and the most feared. It's so fast and dark that it's a mere inky shadow in the night sky -- and all the more terrifying because it is never seen.
Oh, but it is so darn cute, that Night Fury, like a big, sleek, jet-black kitten with huge green eyes. The dragon Hiccup shoots down is wounded and scared, and can't fly. Hiccup names the adorable beast Toothless, and fashions a contraption -- a prosthetic tail -- to help it fly again. (Turns out dragon fighting is a dangerous profession, and prosthetic limbs are a common sight, and a badge of honor, in Berk.) As the iconoclastic Hiccup comes to understand Toothless, and other species of dragons too, he realizes that his people had, for generations, been wrong about dragons. But try explaining that to Dad. As Hiccup observes, his Viking people "have stubbornness issues."
How to Train Your Dragon begins and ends with intense scenes of combat that will likely scare the more sensitive youngsters in the audience. But in between, the film, directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, is sweet and funny, and often evokes other quietly moving stories of human-animal bonding (particularly *The Black Stallion*) with its nearly wordless but endlessly expressive scenes of the developing, tentative trust and friendship between Toothless and Hiccup. There's also the usual crew of funny sidekicks -- a trio of wiscracking Viking adolescents, and a spunky love interest (America Ferrera) -- and a colorful collection of dragons who vary in shape, size, and firepower.
High quality computer animation is the rule rather than the exception these days, but How to Train Your Dragon has an exceptionally lovely and lush quality, thanks in part to visual consultant Roger Deakins, an acclaimed cinematographer. Where computer animation tends to be bright and crisp and sharply focused, How to Train Your Dragon has a softness and depth that often mimics the visual quality of live action film. How to Train Your Dragon is dark around the edges of the warmly bronzed, candlelit interiors of Hiccup's home; It's foggy and sun dappled in the forest, and the glen where Hiccup and Toothless become friends. At the same time, an animated film isn't earthbound or tethered to reality the way that a live action film is, and How to Train Your Dragon swoops and soars and takes flight on dragon wings, above the fluffy clouds and beyond. The story in How to Train Your Dragon contains the familiar tropes of family-friendly lit and movies, but it's well worth seeing how the animators mix earth, air, water and fire (and scales and hair) to invent a richly textured, almost touchably dimensional new world and new creatures in this charming fable of a boy and his dragon.