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FILM REVIEW: HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON
By Michael Phillips
Tribune Newspapers Critic
The swoops and dives of the exuberant 3-D DreamWorks Animation feature "How to Train Your Dragon," in which the teenage hero breaks all the Viking rules and befriends the winged enemy, should prove as addicting to its target audience as similar scenes have in a little something called "Avatar."
Freely adapted from the books by Cressida Cowell, "How to Train Your Dragon" exists to support its flying sequences, just as last year's animated DreamWorks offering, "Monsters Vs. Aliens," existed to support ... scenes in which ... lots of stuff got stepped on by ... uh ... well, that noisy mediocrity never did have much artistic reason for being.
This one, however, is more than a runway for its aerial bits. Like DreamWorks' own " Kung Fu Panda," "How to Train Your Dragon" creates a world and revels in the details and wraps it all in a rich, lush storybook ambience. The superb cinematographer Roger Deakins served as a visual consultant, pushing the palette to an unusually burnished and sophisticated level. Kids may not notice the visual texture consciously, but adults will. Or should.
The film begins in full-attack mode. On the Island of Berk, just off the coast of Scotland judging from the dialects, the Vikings, ruled by Stoick the Vast (booming voice by Gerard Butler), have been putting up with dragon attacks for 300 years. Stoick's un-Viking-like son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) narrates like crazy in the prologue, explaining what's what and who's who while we're being clobbered with burning buildings and dragon lore and frenetic cutting. Not a promising start.
Then the film starts getting good, then very good, calming down enough to focus on what's important: Boy meets dragon.
The dreaded, stealthy beast known as Night Wing turns out to be a misunderstood emblem of a misjudged species. Hiccup's aversion to dragon-slaying puts him at odds with his status-conscious father and the rest of the village. Directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, both of whom worked on the script, indulge in some familiar wisecracks ("We're Vikings. We have stubbornness issues"). Yet even when the gags recall "Madagascar," and the dramatic setups echo pictures as diverse as "The Black Stallion" and, yes, "The Vikings," the story is served cleanly and well. Hiccup's fellow warriors-in-training, voiced by America Ferrera, Jonah Hill and others, could've used a stronger personalities and a sharper idiosyncrasy or two. But the movie has something no less helpful than vivid secondary characters: lovely, lovely flying. Seeing "Dragon" in 3-D really is a must. Its formidable realm of Vikings and dragons and nerds (oh my!) should be enjoyed to the fullest extent theaters allow.
MPAA rating: PG (for language and sexual content).
Running time: 1:38.
Voice cast: Jay Baruchel (Hiccup); Gerard Butler (Stoick the Vast); America Ferrera (Astrid); Jonah Hill (Snotlout); Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Fishlegs); Kristen Wiig (Ruffnut); T.J. Miller (Tuffnut); Craig Ferguson (Gobber).
Credits: Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois; written by Will Davies, Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, based on the books by Cressida Cowell; produced by Bonnie Arnold. A Paramount Pictures/DreamWorks Animation release.
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