No story is truly original. That is a fact when it comes to writing. Each film you watch, every novel you read, every song you hear, all can be likened to similar tales from any medium. Of course, some stories are more common than others. None of this is an issue, once the execution is done right. It is rarely you see a film that tells an age old tale in such an inspired way, that it feels new again.
This is the case with How to Train Your Dragon. Based *loosely* on the book of the same name, the CGI adventure is directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBois (Lilo & Stitch), and tells the story of a Viking teen named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). Hiccup is weedy and nerdy, which ostracizes him from his peers and his father, Stoic (Gerard Butler), who happens to be the chief of their village. Berk, the aforementioned village, has been plagued for years by dragons, who steal livestock and burn down buildings. In order to gain the respect from the village, especially his father, Hiccup invents a machine to take down the most feared and rarest of all dragons – the Night Fury.
Naturally, Hiccup manages to capture a Night Fury, but finds that he cannot kill him. Instead, he sets him free, and decides to study him. Meanwhile, Stoic tries to help his son mingle with his peers and gain confidence by enrolling him in dragon training. Hiccup meets the dragon in secret, and slowly befriends him, naming him Toothless due to his retractable teeth. The pair soon develops a strong bond, with Toothless even allowing Hiccup to ride him, with the help of a new tail fin that Hiccup makes. It is due to his friendship with Toothless that Hiccup realizes that everything Vikings believe about dragons is wrong. He now faces uncertainty when he becomes top of his class due to his sudden surge of dragon knowledge, and has to kill a dragon in front of the village, including his father, who knows nothing of his new friend. The story soon lies on a precipice; will Hiccup be able to forge a new era of peace, or is the life of his best friend in grave danger? What we have here, is two very common stories; the boy and his dog story, and the underdog tale. Such stories are so well worn, that not only are they staples in family entertainment (see Old Yeller, My Dog Skip, Teen Wolf, and many more), but they have been done so much that they can form a predictable narrative, and several clichés. However, the crew behind How to Train Your Dragon handle the story in such a way, that it feels like a new, crisp bed sheet. The characters are well rounded and wholly enjoyable, even Hiccup, with his nasally voice may poise an irritation for some. The other kids in the village are all voiced by massive talents, from T.J. Miller to Oscar nominated Jonah Hill, each who add so much character and life to such small roles. Gerard Butler is in fine, Scottish form as Stoic, and you can understand his plight with the dragons, and with his son; he lives in a culture where stature and strength is a major factor, he is the head of a village that is being bombarded by fire breathing beasts. The strained relationship he shares with Hiccup is one of respect and longing, and the time that is spent on them is just enough to show how much care and love is hidden.
However, the most poignant relationship is between Hiccup and Toothless; the time and passion dedicated to nurturing their relationship is a wonder to behold. Their bond is obvious, and needs very few words to describe; the majority is done through the masterful animation, character interactions, John Powell's powerful score, and the perfect amount of pacing. It is clear to the viewer that boy and dragon have forged an unbreakable bond, and that is one of the film's most lasting and endearing points.
A marvel on his own is the dragon himself. Toothless is the star of the film, with his Stitch like features and expressive eyes, and qualities that fall in tandem with mostly cats and a handful of dog, Toothless is a wonder of character and animation. With his little purrs and rumbling growls, and unique little mannerisms and movements, Toothless is a fine example of how one needs not a witty script to be one of the most memorable characters of recent memory. In fact, Toothless is rather funny in his own way, which is all done through his character animations and vocalizations.
The animation still looks astounding today, six years after the film's release. The fire effects, flying scenes, the way Toothless spreads his wings, still amaze me. The only film that trumps it is the sequel, which eats this film's dust. But that's a review for another time; let's just say that both films are things of beauty, and represent how much animation has evolved. The music is stirring and emotionally breathtaking. Each dragon has its own personality, that even with short screen time, each feel like a real character. It is clear that much thought went into the overall feel and look of this film.
How to Train Your Dragon is a fine example of how, when in the right hands, age old stories can be told anew. With a clever script, and emotionally resonant relationships and relatable circumstances, DreamWorks managed to produce what is easily a near masterpiece. This dragon doesn't just fly high, it soars.