AS WITH last year's Monsters Vs Aliens, How to Train Your Dragon once again shows that DreamWorks Animation have absorbed some valuable lessons from chief rivals Pixar. No longer content to coast by on lazy pop-culture gags and any-celeb-will-do voice casting, this hugely entertaining and gorgeously designed film shows the studio stepping up their storytelling game considerably with lovingly crafted and appealing characters, simple but deft plotting, and nifty visual gags and soaring action sequences.
It also boasts a fairly high concentration of genuine Scottish accents, a rarity in Hollywood, which would rather have non-Scots mangle the accent while giving our stars the chance to routinely butcher the American brogue. As it happens, Gerard Butler, one of the most persistent perpetrators of crimes against American accents, gets a rare chance to bellow his Paisley vowels here as the voice of Stoic, the fearsome, burly, red-bearded, hard-to-please Viking father of the film's timid teen hero, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). But it's expat US television chat-show king Craig Ferguson who provides the lion's share of the comedy as Butler's right hand man Gobber, a likeable blacksmith with missing limbs and multidirectional teeth who is responsible for fostering new dragon-slaying talent among the youth of Berk, the craggy, mist-shrouded island on which the film is set.
With Berk beset by fearsome fire-breathers – and Viking stubbornness ensuring moving is not an option – the kids on the island are primed to emulate their elders' instinctive desire to knock these beasts out of the sky. None is more determined than Hiccup; his eagerness to prove himself to his chieftain father ensures his exuberance frequently gets the better of him. In short, he's a screw-up, a bit of a wimp and a loner too, someone who hasn't yet worked out what he's good at – but knows he's good for something.
That starts to change after he accidentally wounds a rare, never-before-seen species of dragon during one of their regular feeding-frenzy-oriented attacks (the dragons are big fans of the island's sheep – and of burning down houses). Finding the creature hurt and defenceless the next day, all tangled up in a catapulted snare, he knows he'll easily win his father's respect if he kills it. And yet, despite all his previous bluster, he can't bring himself to do so. Instead, he makes friends with it.
At first this is tentatively done as he brings food to the wounded beast, which he names Toothless on account of his ability to contract his teeth into his gums. But gradually they begin to trust each other more, especially after Hiccup – whose time spent assisting Gobber in his workshop has made him pretty handy with an iron smelter – fashions an elaborate replacement tail fin that enables Toothless to fly again (with piloting assistance from Hiccup, of course).
Inevitably, the film uses this plot development to indulge in some flying set-pieces. Rather than these feeling egregious, however, the kind of thing shoehorned in to justify a 3D ticket-price hike, they are genuinely wondrous and flow beautifully with the rest of story. Indeed, I watched the film in 2D and found these scenes to be thoroughly absorbing without the added dimension; they were certainly more satisfying than similar sequences in any of the 3D animated features I've seen over the past year (including Up).
It helps that the film looks so good. This can probably be attributed to visual consultant Roger Deakins, the genius cinematographer who shoots most of the Coen Brothers films, created the haunting colour palette of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and provided pointers for the eye-popping dystopian decay of Pixar's WALL-E. Eschewing brightness for rain-lashed gloominess, the film has an off-kilter, almost spooky quality to it.
There's a magnificent scene where Hiccup, riding on Toothless's back, is suddenly ensconced in mist and finds himself riding among a pack of dragons to the heart of a volcano, where he will soon learn the truth about these much-misunderstood creatures. Lit in a way that's genuinely strange and beguiling, it's like one of the darker scenes from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it gives the film a genuine air of mystique.
But there's plenty of fun to be had as well. In addition to Ferguson and Butler (whose presence I like to think of as being a nod to his early performance in guilty-pleasure dragon movie Reign of Fire), Canadian comic actor Baruchel's endearingly sincere turn is complemented by SuperBad's Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as proto teen dragonslayers, and Ugly Betty's America Ferrara as the initially dragon-hating tomboy destined to win his heart.
The dragons, too, come in a vast array of weird and wonderful shapes and sizes and, as Hiccup is befriending Toothless, he becomes something of a dragon whisperer. Reluctantly enrolled in dragon-slaying classes, he gets plenty of opportunity to put his newfound skills into practice disarming the dragons with tricks learned from his interactions with Toothless that enable him to render these flying lizards as harmless as puppy dogs.
The big realisation, of course, is that everything the Vikings know about dragons turns out to be wrong and directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (who made Lilo & Stitch, the last good traditionally animated Disney film) use this to weave in unobtrusive, but heartening life lessons about the need for empathy and understanding. Beautifully crafted and effortlessly entertaining, this is an unexpected triumph.