While it might be less clever, less involving and certainly less moving than the previous film from Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, Lilo & Stitch (2002), their latest, How to Train Your Dragon, is still very, very good. It’s brightly colored, beautifully directed, exciting, entertaining and charming—with little hint of postmodern smugness. It’s also amusing and boasts a worthy lesson in tolerance. And it is moving—just not as moving as their first film.
I’d felt that was the case right after watching How to Train Your Dragon, so the morning after I saw it, I put my view to the test by re-watching Lilo & Stitch. Where Dragon moved me, I found myself wiping at my eyes during Stitch’s “This is my family” speech—just as I have every time I’ve seen the film. Even if I could dissect exactly what the difference is, I don’t think I would. I put it down to a certain kind of magic that Lilo & Stitch has that Dragon gets close to, but never quite attains. However, what it does do should not be dismissed lightly.
Dragon concerns a young Viking with the improbable but apt name of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), who lives in an uninviting land lorded over by hulky, bulky Scottish-accented Vikings. Why they have Scottish accents I don’t know anymore than I know why their offspring don’t have them. (Possibly a Norwegian dialect was outside Gerard Butler’s range.) Hiccup is the very antithesis of these large warriors, being small, thin and sensitive—and this despite the fact that his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), is the chief Viking and very keen on killing dragons. That’s not an incomprehensible desire considering the fire-breathing beasts tend to specialize in constantly destroying the village and making off with the inhabitants’ livestock. Actually, Hiccup would be glad to kill dragons—or so he thinks—but he isn’t exactly built for it.
Everything changes when a contraption of his manages to bring down no mere dragon, but a kind of dragon no one has ever seen—and which they dread more than any other because of that. But Hiccup hasn’t killed the animal, merely damaged it, leaving it unable to fly. When he attempts to finish it off, he finds he can’t bring himself to do it. So begins his friendship with the dragon, his attempts to repair the damage he caused, and his discovery that dragons aren’t anything like everyone thinks.
Once the film establishes this, it doesn’t do anything particularly surprising in terms of story—apart perhaps from the reasons behind the dragons’ destructive nature and their raids on the livestock. However, it traverses its unsurprising path with great skill. And it delivers its message—about the wrong-headedness of hating and fearing something or someone based on ignorance and merely because you’ve been told to—with clarity and without preachiness. That’s a reasonably significant accomplishment in itself. Add the beauty of its visuals, some pleasant comedy and a very good—often somewhat unusual—score by John Powell (who must like Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” a great deal), and you end up with a pretty darn good time at the movies. Rated PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language.