On the isle of Berk, every night brings mayhem. This hardly bothers the Vikings who live there. As described by young Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), these folks are all about combat and chaos, thrilled to take on the many creatures who come at them, whacking happily at trolls, giants, boars, and — especially — dragons.
As How to Train Your Dragon begins, Hiccup means to get into the fray too. A nerdly apprentice to the blacksmith Gobber (Craig Ferguson, who is pretty delightful), he’s devised contraptions for killing dragons, who come, he instructs, in all shapes and sizes, some fire-breathing and some flying, some large and some smallish. By killing a dragon — it’s what Vikings do — Hiccup hopes to settle a couple of urgent issues. First, he hopes at last to win the approval of his father, the brutish tribal chief aptly named Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler, less charming). He also hopes to catch the eye of his peer, Astrid (America Ferrara). While Hiccup understands the importance of following in dad’s mighty footsteps, he is particularly moved by Astrid, whom he envisions in slow motion from a low impressive angle, blond hair blowing and sword utterly massive.
Hiccup’s interest in dragons takes a turn — from killing to knowing — when he meets one. Specifically, he meets a Night Fury, the most mysterious, most feared, and least documented type of dragon in the Vikings’ vaunted catalogue of dragons (literally, the Night Furies page is blank). Hiccup brings one down with a catapulty sort of machine during one night of mayhem, then discovers it downed in the forest. With its tail damaged, the dragon is also grounded, and so Hiccup begins to tend to it: feeding it, repairing its tail, teaching it to follow basic commands, and, most importantly, learning from it.
Even as Hiccup is supposed to be enrolled in Dragon Training (i.e., lessons in how to kill them), he sneaks off regularly to hang out with is new pet (whom je names Toothless). Not only does Hiccup discover that this dragon like play and purr, but Hiccup also that the broader community of dragons the Vikings fight so relentlessly only fights back to survive. All the dragons, really, only want to be friends.
Based on Cressida Cowell’s children’s book, How to Train Your Dragon streamlines that plot a bit and adds lots of rambunctious action. (Some flying scenes may remind viewers of similar scenes in Avatar, and indeed, this film sometimes seems that one’s less self-important, exponentially less expensive younger sibling). Predictably, Hiccup’s education leads to some useful (if familiar) moral lessons (Kids! Embrace difference!), and along the way it offers up the usual roadblocks: misunderstandings, deceptions, fears of dad’s wrath. Even as Hiccup recognizes the potential for friendship and cooperation between the species, he has to convince not only his dad, but also his trainer, Gobber — who’s missing a leg and an arm following his encounters with dragons — and his ambitious classmates, including the fiery, very competitive Astrid.
Still, that business is never so charming as the boy-and-his-dragon saga. Open to Toothless’ training, Hiccup becomes a kind of Dragon Whisperer, able to suss out his supposed adversaries’ needs and desires, and so able to get through Dragon Training without killing any dragons. His classmates (who are decidedly dull, including cardboardy voice performances by geek Christopher Mintz-Plasse, loutish Jonah Hill, and snippety twins, Kristin Wiig and T.J. Miller) marvel at Hiccup’s wisdom (dragons are scared of eels, they like to be tickled). After a period of taunting and petty jealousy, they come around to appreciate Hiccup’s calm and assertive energy, thus making clear the film’s premise that a generational shift in attitudes will produce a better world.
If this sounds simple, it’s something of a shift as well for writer-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, who made the absolutely wonderful Lilo & Stitch. The new movie also has a misfit child learning lessons from an unusual creature (Stitch was a dog-like alien from outer space, completely adorable but with a fierce streak too), but here the story structure is more conventional. Hiccup comes of age with help from Toothless, gaining a girlfriend, community respect, and his father’s endorsement too.
Happily, Toothless, like Stitch, combines affects of cats, dogs, bats, lizards, and other independent-minded creatures, known and unknown. Even as his limbs and gestures are vaguely familiar, though, his face is brilliantly expressive, sometimes in disarray and sometimes scheming, other times straight-up puzzled by these odd bird humans.