How To Train Your Dragon is essentially a "boy and his dog" movie, but placed in Viking times and with a dragon instead of a dog. We begin the story as the Viking village is being attacked. The voice over on screen goes through the list of dragon types as we see the village slowly destroyed as the Vikings try to mount a defensive attack. Amidst this chaos, we are introduced to Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the young apprentice of the local blacksmith (Gobber, voiced by Craig Ferguson). He is a small and scrawny boy who feels left out of the action due to his small stature. He has secretly built a contraption that can take out any dragon and during the confusion of the attack, is able to sneak away in an attempt to prove his device works. Naturally on his first try, he hits and takes down a mythical Night Fury dragon (we are told it is so fast, no one has ever seen one), said to be the most dangerous dragon of all.
Of course the dragon falls from the sky far away from the village and no one else is around to see Hiccup make the hit. During his victory rush, he mistakenly causes more trouble, forcing most of the dragons to successfully leave with the village's food supply. It's at this point that we realize Hiccup is actually the son of the lead Viking (Stoick, voiced by Gerard Butler). The next day, as Hiccup is finally allowed to attend Dragon Slaying Training (much to the chagrin of the other kids in the village, who view him as a loser), he tracks down the dragon he captured and finds him tied up in the ropes he shot at him. He can't bring himself to kill the dragon however and unties him instead. This slowly leads to a bonding experience between Hiccup and the dragon as Hiccup discovers that the dragon's tail was wounded in the attack and he can no longer fly for long distances. Hiccup then takes it upon himself to use his experience as a blacksmith to create a contraption that will allow the dragon to fly again. In doing so, he begins to learn more about the nature of dragons, thus helping him become his village's greatest dragon master.
One of my big problems with the movie was the decision to cast young American actors in the roles of the kids. It seems all the adult characters have a nice thick Scottish accent (which in itself is a questionable decision as I am not 100% sure that is historically accurate), yet all the kids simply sound like the celebrities voicing the parts (Jack Black, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, etc...). I guess in between Dragon Slaying lessons, they have a voice coach teach these kids to lose their parent's accents. I understand this is a pointless thing to complain about because from a business standpoint, you need known actors to sell an original kid's movie and you can't then hide the actor's voices behind fake accents. But it did take me out of the movie a few times as I spent more time trying to place the familiar voice with the actor behind it instead of focusing on the story at hand. My only other note regarding the voice acting is that I typically found Jay's performance of Hiccup to be too dry and sarcastic, especially in moments of danger. The character had a very monotone reaction to certain scary situations that left me rolling my eyes instead of being on the edge of my seat.
What the movie lacks in voice performances it makes up for in visuals and tone. The movie has some really beautiful scenes, specifically when Hiccup is flying on the back of his dragon. There were many times where in addition to being swept up in the action on screen, I was also thinking of how amazing a theme park ride based on this movie could be. Again, I'm sure these scenes were even more spectacular in 3D but luckily the sheer beauty of them still transfered well to a viewing at home. The movie also has a surprisingly dark tone and goes places I really did not expect it to. I'm thinking of one part in particular near the end of the movie that while a little too convenient of a way to mirror two characters stories, was still a very adult way to handle a kid's movie. It was very refreshing to see another quality kid's movie not rely on stale pop culture gags as a way to get kids interested in the story. Instead, it simply focused on a very mature story in a way that is easily accessible to a younger audience while not alienating the older ones. This is typically Pixar's golden formula so it was good to see Dreamworks continue to follow in their footsteps (after the very enjoyable Kung Fu Panda) and make an animated movie that is truly timeless.
I would have liked to see more of Hiccup's transformation from outcast to hero, specifically how the views of his peers changed over time. I had a hard time grasping how much time took place between the beginning and end of the movie as everything seemed to happen really fast. I get that animated movies are typically made for viewers with understandably smaller attention spans so the focus is always on having it be around 90 min, but I feel How To Train Your Dragon would have really benefited from a few more scenes here and there to give the story a better sense of time passing. Despite these minor issues, I still greatly enjoyed How To Train Your Dragon and am very glad it found a large audience this year. I hope the audience continues to grow and maybe we will even eventually get a re-release in theaters before the inevitable sequel so people like me can enjoy it the way it was meant to be seen, on a giant screen in glorious 3D.