Directors: Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders
Cast: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Do you remember that moment when you first bonded with a dragon as a kid? That awe-inspiring second of fear before everything goes cute and fuzzy? If not, you soon will. Because Dreamworks' latest animation is a heartfelt, moving piece that will warm up your ventricles like a fiery killer whale. Yes, it's just like Free Willy. And the only way to improve Free Willy? Turn Willy into a frickin' dragon.
You've got to feel sorry for ickle Viking Hiccup (Baruchel). Not only does he have trouble with his people's way with dragons (i.e. kill them all), but when he does shoot down a winged beast - none other than the mythical kick-ass dragon Nightfury - no-one believes him. Especially his brute of a father, the heavily bearded Stoick (Butler). He's more interested in hunting for the Dragon's Nest than what his son gets up to.
With the expectations of the village upon him, Hiccup is a reject, mocked by the other kids. Even Astrid (Ferrera), the feisty, feral female of the group. Several dragon fighting lessons later and he's still a pathetic wimp. But one day he stumbles across the wounded Nightfury. Nursing him back to full flight, Hiccup names him Toothless, learning how to train, communicate and become friends with the dragon. Think it sounds a little cheesy? Think again: this is classic kid's cinema 101. And boy do they pull it off.
Everything about How to Train Your Dragon is judged brilliantly. With special effects that rival Avatar's rousing sights, directors Sanders and DeBlois push all the right buttons. Yes, it's in 3-D, but that doesn't make a difference - the first time Hiccup and Toothless take to the skies, the sequence is undeniably thrilling, however you watch it. Here, the extra depth doesn't come from the impressive visuals; it comes from the emotion you invest in the characters.
As you often find with Dreamworks, the voice cast has some big names on the list, but don't let that fool you: they're not there just to spout pop culture references and do stand-up routines. Instead, the jokes come out of situations, never forcing innuendoes or film nods into your face. It's a clever screenplay, one with a message and some actual substance. It works with the standard animal-friendly trope and crafts a breathtaking experience out of it.
And the cast lap it all up, working their larynxes off to good effect. But perhaps most crucially, Toothless never talks - we're relied upon to translate his many gurgles and roars by ourselves. It's a great touch, which engages the audience and brings us one of the most wonderful animated creatures in recent years. Forget the Na'vi. This Nightfury would torch their arses.
Full of exciting action, flame-throwing monsters and winning imagination, How to Train Your Dragon is one of the best 3-D films to be released so far. And that's not because it's in 3-D. Whereas Avatar was an average film, designed for (and improved by) its 3-D punch, How to Train Your Dragon is a well-written film, which is good enough without the novelty of an extra dimension. Some films swoop to box office victory. This one soars.
Winging its way to dizzying heights, How to Train Your Dragon outgrows its familiar tale of friendship. Yes, it's Free Willy with a dragon and you know what? It's frickin' awesome.