If we learned anything from "Avatar," it's that giant flying beasts make lousy pets. We also learned that the public's appetite for 3-D is downright ravenous, especially when it comes to watching people ride giant flying beasts.
In "How to Train Your Dragon," we're given another reluctant hero tasked with saddling an oversized lizard for our sensory enjoyment. The result is, as Jake Sully would say, "outstanding." James Cameron's "Avatar" supposedly set the bar for 3-D. But a mere three months later, DreamWorks' latest animated offering contains enough dazzling imagery and bold action to make even Cameron swoon. And it only cost $180 million. (Hee-hee.)
While not exactly Pandora, the medieval world of "How to Train Your Dragon" is filled with lush landscapes and steep ocean cliffs. But the coastal Viking village of Berk is often scorched, as the locals wage war against fire-breathing dragons. As the village dweeb, Hiccup is a mop-topped, skinny teenager with a face full of freckles. Narrating, Hiccup admits he lacks "raw Vikingness."
His life story could be called "The Diary of a Wimpy Viking." Hiccup, voiced by geek maestro Jay Baruchel (of this month's "She's Out of My League"), isn't living up to the expectations of his father, the Viking chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler, channeling the warrior king he played in "300"). "Superbad" alums Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse voice Hiccup's teenage antagonizers, while America Ferrera plays his love interest, Astrid.
During the movie's opening battle sequence, Hiccup misfires a cannon, which hits one of the dragons, sending it crashing into the nearby woodlands. While no one believes Hiccup's claim that he nailed a dragon, he sets out the next morning to find his trophy. When he discovers the injured dragon, Hiccup realizes -- like some sort of dragon whisperer -- that these creatures are in fact timid, friendly and even playful. But convincing his fellow Vikings of this is harder than he thought. Most view death-by-dragon as "an occupational hazard."
What we have here is an exhilarating epic that mixes comedic and touching moments with some of the best action sequences ever created with CGI animation. The sweeping widescreen aesthetic is elevated by a dramatic score that could have accompanied "Gladiator" or "The Lord of the Rings." Allusions to those films don't stop there. While the Vikings' blood lust in "How to Train Your Dragon" is comedic in tone, there is an underlying critique of warmongering. Hiccup's dad is consumed with smoking out the dragons' nest, with orders to "kill on sight." And he's indoctrinated the kids with his hate: "Our parents' war is about to be ours," Astrid tells Hiccup.
But let's leave the war politics alone and talk about what young viewers will find most amazing: the dragons. While some are two-headed, razor-toothed or even short and plump, Hiccup's dragon (nicknamed Toothless), is sleek like an oversized gecko but stalks his prey like a cat. In other words: He's cuter than Puss in Boots.
In between the dragon training and the dragon battles, the film pauses to tend to the rocky relationship between Hiccup and his dad. It's comparable to a brutish father trying to get his geeky son invested in combat sports. Stoick says Hiccup is different. "Vikings crush forests, tame seas," he says. Hiccup asks his dad if there are any "breadmaking Vikings."
"How to Train Your Dragon" is the second 3-D film to hit theaters post-"Avatar." So how does the 3-D stack up? It's stunning. Like the Navi and their flying lizards, Hiccup and Toothless often soar through the skies, whipping around rock faces and skimming the ocean's surface. In 3-D, your stomach feels as if it might drop out, a sensation that "Avatar" couldn't quite muster.
There is no denying that 3-D technology, no matter how advanced, is still a gimmick. But even 3-D naysayers might be prone to repeating what Astrid said after taking a ride on Hiccup's dragon: "OK, I admit it. This is pretty cool."
Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909