If ever a film was crying out for Brian Blessed, then surely How To Train Your Dragon was it. DreamWorks’ new animated opus is packed with beefy, hairy Vikings, and when the key character of Stoick first took to the screen, I was dying to hear Blessed’s booming tones. Instead, DreamWorks went with Gerard Butler, who did a decent job, but simply isn’t in the same league.
To be fair to the studio, it’s been less star-struck than usual in filling out the voice roles in the film, and that’s generally to the film’s benefit. But then this is also DreamWorks’ most confident and bold animated feature in some time, too, one that occasionally trips over with the odd pander to the family audience, but otherwise treads quite a dark and action-packed path.
It’s based on the story of the same name (which I confess to not having read), and the film version finds young Hiccup, son of Stoick, as the boy least likely to become a dragon slayer. This is a problem, given that dragon slaying forms much of the day to day of a Viking’s life, with attacks coming from the broad variety of fire-breathing monsters on a regular basis.
All of this is put across in a breathless, action-packed first act, with – and I’ve not said this very often at all – some really quite impressive 3D work. The film throws plenty at the screen, but it actually fits the context of what’s going on, rather than coming across as an unsubtle attempt to board a 3D bandwagon (I’m looking at you, Monsters Vs Aliens).
The film also uses its first act to get across the range of dragons that inhabit this world, including the one nobody has ever seen, the sinister Night Fury. It’s a character that has ‘end of game boss’ tattooed across it from the moment it’s first mentioned.
After the opening action and exposition, though, the film really finds its core particularly well in act two, where Hiccup finds and begins to befriend – and train – a dragon. Credit where credit’s due here, too: DreamWorks is happy to make its dragons look far from the cute and cuddly creatures that’d make easy toys to sell. And the dragon that Hiccup discovers, in particular, is a dark, brooding beast at times, and not instantly one to warm to.
Yet the relationship between the pair develops surprisingly well, with the emphasis on gesture rather than dialogue. It’s carefully done, well built up, and you actually buy the fact that the pair are bonding. Thus, when the film does head off down what becomes a fairly obvious narrative path, there are a couple of characters here that are actually worth rooting for.
Where the film is at its weakest is when it digs into the familiar potourri of clichés. So, there’s a father who doesn’t believe in his son, a boy who doesn’t fit in with everyone else, an unconvincing young heroine who starts off as a quite spiteful rival to Hiccup but begins to turn, and the necessary implementation of the moral at the end of the story. Being ultra-critical too, the humour is a bit hit and miss here, with the darker elements of the story working a lot better on the whole than the gags.
Yet DreamWorks has still delivered here, and with some verve. For this is as close to a flat-out summer action blockbuster in animated form as you’re likely to find. The set piece sequences are often really quite brilliant, and the final act has the frenetic feel of the end of the back end of a (good) Star Wars movie.
Furthermore, the dragons themselves are genuinely quite frightening beasts for a younger audience, with no attempt made to soften them. When they suddenly start spewing out bolts of fire at the young characters, there’s a real sense that these are aggressive, dangerous beasts.
It’s great to see DreamWorks following this path, too. I’ve criticised it in the past for playing too safe with some of its projects, relying too heavily on middling sequels, big name voice talent and an eye on the toy market at the end. Here, though, you get a sense of just what it can do when it cuts loose, and it’s great to see.
For let’s not beat about the bush: DreamWorks Animation on form is capable of brilliant work. And under the stewardship of directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (the pair who made Disney’s Lilo And Stitch), this film has firmly demonstrated that not only do its films look stunning (and this one really, really does), but they really can deliver very good family entertainment.
The bottom line with How To Train Your Dragon is that it’s served up a coherent, exciting and engaging three-act blockbuster, whose missteps are easily papered over by some wonderful action sequences.
More like this, please.
How To Train Your Dragon is released on 26th March in the US, and 31st March in the UK (albeit with preview screenings this coming weekend).